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Report on Democracy in Bangladesh: An Overview

Bangladesh was under the British colonial rule for near about two hundred years and then under internal colonialism of Pakistan for twenty four years. Having been oppressed and discriminated by the West Pakistani ruler, the people of East Pakistan waged a long democratic movement initially aimed at achieving autonomy for the rights of the majority population of Pakistan and then started a liberation war aimed at establishing democratic order and attaining a target rate of economic growth for development. Bangladesh after having been independent introduced the parliamentary democracy as political system in the constitution following the Indian and British West Ministerial model of parliamentary democracy.
Since then Bangladesh like most of the third world countries, has been facing a twin challenge: institutionalization of a democratic order and at the same time attainment of target rate of economic growth for development. The extreme level of poverty, illiteracy, starvation, disease and malnutrition prevailing among nearly eighty percent of the population certainly does not make it easy for any country or government to undertake such a challenge. Despite these socio-economic problem facing the nation, democracy has been smoothly continuing but in less than two years after the first parliament was elected, the structure and character of the fundamental law of the land was changed and the country’s democratic political system was turned into a one-party monolithic structure through the Fourth Amendment to the constitution which proved true of Rupert Emerson’s thesis (1960) that new states starting with parliamentary democracy soon lost their way and settled back into authoritarian or dictatorial regimes.[1]All political parties were dissolved and all newspapers were band except four to be retained by the state; the fundamental rights were suspended and made non-enforceable and the judiciary was reduced into a subservient agency of the executive branch of the state. The crisis of democracy deepened further with successive army interventions when military leaders (Zia & Ershad) ruled the country. Our democratic system was held captive in the cantonment for many years.During all these years various social, economical and political forces have operated and influenced the course of democracy in Bangladesh. Not only did the leaders, both civil and military, create a crisis of democracy but they had aggravated it by trying to shape the laws and events to suit their own designs, disregarding the urgent need for development of democratic institutions and failing to provide the commitment required for accelerating the economic growth. During the long term (1976-1990) of military rule, the political institutions which are considered as the pivotal force for developing constitutionalism have been mostly damaged. Since the political activities were banned repeatedly, the strength and cohesion within the most famous parties was destroyed. On the one hand, mashroom growth political parties devoid of any ideology or program were created by money power just to give a democratic poster to the election of the military ruler. Finally, however, the Ershad regime was toppled by a popular mass movement in December 1990 when the military withdrew its support. Thus in 1990 the country was freed from the clutches of military rule and the peoples’ sustained struggle for democracy has at last triumphed with autocrat president Ershad and the time came to lead the nation on a new journey in search of constitutionalism and democracy. The second start of constitutionalism had its democratic and peaceful transit through the historic 5th parliamentary election under the Acting President Justice Sahabuddin Ahmed. 1991, by the 12th Amendment of the constitution government was reverted again to parliamentary form after 16 years. The starting of the second parliamentary democracy seemed fine and enthusiastic but lastly the celebrated 5th parliament also like every other previous parliament in the country could not complete its constitutional duration; it was to dissolve under the pressure of the opposition movements.The ruling party BNP has, in many ways failed to make a positive turn towards the development of constitutionalism and democracy.

The case of 5th parliament, the major opposition party Awami League (AL) was not given adequate time in parliamentary deliberation and as a result they boycotted the parliament. The ruling elite did not show much tolerance as was necessary for bringing the opposition into parliament and they forcefully run the parliament as long as two years without the opposition i.e. ignoring the opposition. Lastly the BNP government denied holding the 6th parliamentary election ignoring the opposition and it proceeded to contest the election with some sudden hand-picked parties as the military dictator Ershad frequently did. This was a flagrant wrong done by a democratically elected government and this showed the ruling elite’s lock of political foresight. This is why the 6th parliament had only 7 days life. This negative trend in parliamentary democracy i.e. the trend of political intolerance done by the BNP government has proved the crisis of constructive leadership in the development of constitutionalism in Bangladesh. Later, the 7th parliamentary election was held under the neutral Caretaker Government with some hopes and aspiration and the majority voted for the AL. The new government of Al (1996) also practiced like the before BNP govt. without opposition participation. For example: ordinance making power is being used in the same way, policies concerning national interests or economy e.g. making water treaty, making CHT agreement declaring two days public weekly holidays, declaring 30% quota in public services for freedom fighters’ families etc. have been declared in public gatherings and press avoiding the parliament; sessions of parliaments are being held for a very shorter period; the opposition BNP is boycotting the parliament and Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister, is just provoking this opposition trend. Thus the trend is still in the negative direction, the parliament, as the most important institution of democracy still remains a mere Cinderella body. The important mass media like radio, T.V. are being used as government mouthpieces; the lower judiciary is still depended on the executive though the government is repeatedly promising not to interfere in the regular activities of the judiciary but it has still been sustaining till today even after the separation of the judiciary. After completing the term 5 years, the 8th parliamentary election was held under the caretaker government of Justice Latifur Rahman on October 1, 2001. And the BNP formed the qualision government. After formation of government they did the same things as did earlier. They made the parliament a rubber stamp one with the absence of opposition parties. They politicized all of the political institutions and recruited their own party’s goons and cadre to these institutions. The level of corruption, nepotism and favoritism was reached its highest peak which labeled Bangladesh as number one corrupt country for five consecutive terms. Then after 5 year Four Parties Alliance’s rule and nearly two year military backed care taker government, Awami League-led Grand Alliance formed the government in January, 2009 and are making best effort to exercise democratic culture but the path is not moisturized till now.

[1] Emerson, Rupert, From Empire to Nation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960, p.273