What is the role of political parties and civil society in upholding these values?
Democracy is not merely holding periodic elections, but a combination of institutional developments, practices of political rituals, and a culture of tolerance and accountability.
The essential attributes to democracy are regular, free, competitive, multi-party elections for legislatives; respect for civil and political rights including freedom of expression, assembly and association, and a rule of law under which all citizens and agents of the state have true and legal equality.
However, the presence of these, by itself, does not ensure that a society has achieved a democratic polity unless there exists a democratic culture to nurture them. Democratic culture includes freedom of expression, accommodation with political opponents, equal treatment of all individuals, inclusiveness of all in social justice, and responsible behaviour of the opposition.
Without all parties subscribing to these values, citizens, members of the civil society, judiciary and the bureaucracy, and democratic institutions are bound to behave in an arbitrary manner, and thus create a turbulent political and social atmosphere.
Holding parliamentary elections at regular intervals demonstrate that tremendous progress has been made in formal aspect of democracy in Bangladesh. It guarantees, among other things, the right to vote, equality, and freedom of expression.
However, progress has to be made in regard to the substantive aspects of democracy, such as inclusiveness of the citizens, ensuring social justice, and building a culture of accountability and responsibility. Before the 11th parliamentary election, the government had given ample space to the opposition to create a level playing field and invited them for dialogue to hold a peaceful election.
After the election, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, through various ways, made it clear that the government was determined to build a sustainable and substantive democratic culture. The PM has clearly announced that she would show zero tolerance to corruption, ensure accountability of the legislative, and shall monitor their work and initiatives.
She also stated that food adulteration is also a sort of corruption, which the government will handle strictly. We have noticed that rape incidents are being addressed promptly, and perpetrators arrested, which indicates that social justice and rule of law shall be ensured even if the law is violated by members of the ruling political party.
In Bangladesh polity, the culture of tolerance and appreciation has not flourished yet, and it is now the responsibility of the opposition to start practising and preaching these ideals to keep the progress and democratic features of the country intact.
Political rhetoric that promotes enmity and hatred among different classes of people must be abolished to sustain democracy. Criticism should not be made by the opposition for the sake of criticism, and constructive criticism should be welcomed by the ruling party to create an enlightened society and progressive political culture.
We have to remember that failure to appreciate the essence of liberal democracy was at the heart of the previous crises that Bangladesh has witnessed since 1975. Thus, expecting the opposition political party to demonstrate reasonable, sensible, and rational gestures seems only fair.
When the ruling party is determined to create a culture of accountability, it is possible to practice and cultivate a peaceful substantive democratic political atmosphere in the country if BNP recognizes their previous mistakes and takes a vow to discard the path of violence and other retrograde ideas.
We cannot afford any disruption in our social and political spheres for sustainable development and democratic order of the country, and all the citizenry must realize this and come forward to build our cherished nation which we got through the sacrifice of millions of martyrs.
Extremism, violence, and a culture of intolerance are serious threats to our democracy and development, which need to be guarded. Civil society is an important space where we can stipulate our needs and negotiate with the state, or create a social movement against any tyranny by any political party. The civil society, media, and social organizations of Bangladesh -- lawyers, journalists, university teachers, student forums, intellectuals, cultural activists, writers alike -- must prove that they can speak up for creating a culture of tolerance and accountability, a political culture free from violence and conspiracy.
We have to realize that substantive democracy -- a system of governance having a set of values -- cannot be achieved in just a few years, especially when undemocratic governments have ruled the country for more than two decades and polluted the polity and social order. The process of substantive democracy has been introduced by the Awami League -- a process which instills accountability, social justice, and tolerance into our society, and helps build the institutions to nurture those values, ensuring the participation of the people in the system.
This process must be valued and nurtured by our citizens, political parties, bureaucrats, judiciary, and civil society for nation building.
Farzana Begum is Executive Director, Bangladesh Manobadhikar O Poribesh Andolon.