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OP-ED: What democracy demands

  • Published at 12:44 am February 13th, 2021
time democracy

We need to work towards stronger rule of law, freedom of speech, and better opposition parties

Democracy is a way of life -- its demands include tolerance, strong institutions, freedom of expression, regular and fair elections. Constitutionally, Bangladesh is a democratic country, but in practice we seem to struggle to ensure the pillars of democracy. To assess the future of democracy in Bangladesh, we must critically examine her present political landscape.

Democracy in Bangladesh faces several challenges. A strong opposition party is absent. The rule of law is not consistently implemented. Freedom of speech is at bay. Free and fair elections are not always evident. 

Neighbouring India influences internal politics. Inter-party and intra-party indiscipline wastes political energy. The cult of personality is persistent.

On the other hand, Bangladeshi democracy has notable achievements. The separation of the judiciary from other branches of state is a milestone. The present government has facilitated significant economic growth. 

Civil organizations and some media outlets continue to publish news and editorials that vigorously challenge the government to act democratically, despite government attempts to muzzle freedom of expression through the Digital Security Act.

The Awami League, under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has succeeded in growing the economy and increasing electricity production. These successes have systematically weakened the main opposition party, effectively kicking them off the political field. 

As a result, oftentimes they boycott elections, to the detriment of a healthy democracy.

In the last 12 years, however, there have been accusations of high-level corruption and serious human rights violations, including disappearances, most recently evidenced by the arrest of photographer Shahidul Alam.

University students are regarded as pioneers of grassroots movements throughout the world. Worryingly, there are increasing curbs on such student movements in Bangladesh.

In September 2018, the Bangladeshi government introduced the Digital Security Act, imposing huge restrictions on media. The government, increasingly, is unwilling to accept any dissent or protest and is tightening restrictions on freedom of expression.

Gratitude to India for her role in supporting independence in 1971 is seen by political observers as a failure to vigorously negotiate in the best interests of our sovereign democracy. The trans-boundary water negotiations typify this.

Upholding the rule of law is a cornerstone of any democracy, but the spate of extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh shows just how fragile the constitutional right to life and justice is.

The cult of personality is also strong in Bangladesh. But policy, and not personality, must be the ultimate guarantor of democracy. Another significant threat to democracy is the role of religion in politics, where political parties behave as if they are the custodians of religion rather than of the people. Something akin to a theocracy rather than a democracy thrives.

While acknowledging these shortfalls, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The impulse for freedom, justice, and equality that impelled our independence still yearns for its full expression in our young democratic state. It won’t be denied.

People are aware of their democratic civil rights, and they will not be silenced in their quest. Young people want an end to banal political practices and are working towards creating more liberal democratic parties. There is hope for our democracy.

Democracy in Bangladesh has always been at risk. Rampant corruption, absence of strong opposition parties, restrictions on freedom of expression, and political disappearances have weakened our democracy. Yet, significant hallmarks of democracy have consolidated it. 

Among those achievements are economic growth, electrification in rural areas, an independent judiciary, and the establishment of the Election Commission. These indicators give me the confidence to assert that the future of democracy, if carefully guided, is still positive. 

Inamul Kobir is a graduate of political science.

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