A time to rejuvenate the ideals enshrined in the constitution
It is imperative for us to recognize that our country is indeed moving towards a challenging -- and what may truly be a defining -- decade for Bangladesh as a nation, not merely in its quest to be a thriving economy, but simultaneously in its constitutional obligation to be a sustainable democracy.
And it is in our interest as a country to uphold and practice the values of a multi-party democracy, if Bangladesh is to ensure that economic growth is moving towards civic progress. Otherwise, the elusive 8% GDP growth rate will simply be another tool for the most privileged in society to enhance their wealth and power.
The past 10 years embody all the key tenets of what political scientists term democratic backsliding. Interestingly, such has happened in a period where successive regimes headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have taken the country on a remarkable path of socio-economic progress. It begs us to inquire as to what is the opportunity cost of prioritizing a relentless approach towards economic growth.
Democratic backsliding refers to a gradual and systematic decline in the quality of a democracy -- this is often caused by state-led weakening of civic and political institutions which form the foundations of a democratic system. And these institutions include the electoral process, the judiciary, and the media.
The period from 2010 to 2019 saw two national elections -- both missing credibility in some form. In 2014, the general elections saw 153 out of 300 parliamentary seats being uncontested, with the Awami League winning 79% of total seats. With the opposition BNP boycotting the elections, Bangladesh witnessed the formation of a bizarre alliance/understanding between the ruling party and a home-grown opposition in the Jatiya Party.
The 2018 elections, whilst seeing participation of the BNP, was controversial to say the least -- allegations of vote rigging, intimidation, and irrational turnout numbers portrayed ensured that the election was in all essence a constitutional exercise, rather than a celebration of democracy. The unfortunate result of this has been the repudiation of the practice of multi-party democracy -- this practice of co-opting the electoral process in the scales witnessed today has resonated not simply in national elections, but across smaller electoral platforms.
The clear intimidation during the recent Ducsu elections or across mayoral races post-2014 indicate a desire to monopolize politics in the country -- and this in itself shows a philosophy of power-grabbing rather than belief in attaining a public mandate.
The past 10 years have seen Khaleda Zia at her weakest. In 2018, Begum Zia was imprisoned on charges of abuse of power and corruption -- and with her health in decline, one may argue that the once defiant leader of the masses, who alongside Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, changed the very landscape of politics in the country, is experiencing a demise in what has been a dynamic political career.
A weakened BNP has defined a decade of AL-rule where democracy has systematically been side-lined. Therefore, this very shrinking of political space has been the greatest danger posited to what has been a fragile parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh since 1991. Today, it is difficult for anyone in the country to claim, with integrity, that Bangladesh is anywhere near a society which practices the basics of a liberal democracy.
This decade also saw a large shift in how social media and, broadly speaking, the mass media, operates in the country -- the formulation of the Digital Security Act 2018 is seen by many as a direct attack on the fundamental rights of citizens.
Bangladesh’s economic rise is one which is well documented -- and rightly so. Nevertheless, when it comes to broader indicators of democracy, Bangladesh’s standing has waned this past decade, both nominally and in a qualitative sense.
From having a score of 6.11 out of 10 in 2006 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, the score has fallen to 5.57 in 2018. Our country is ranked 112 out of 126 countries in the most recent World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index.
Nevertheless, the roots of the ruling party lie in its quest to instill democracy in the country -- Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is synonymous with the very idea of fundamental rights of and for citizens.
The coming decade, then, should ideally be one for celebrating, institutionalizing, and spreading the ideals of democratization -- as enshrined in the constitution of a country imbued in the spirit of the 1971 Liberation War.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a Graduate of Economics and International Relations.