Democracy can only flourish if the government is held accountable
Bangladesh is a democratic country with a multi-party system. And yet, a strong and viable opposition is absent in Bangladeshi politics. This is having a detrimental impact on our democracy. For without opposition, an autocracy rather than democracy thrives.
Opposition is expected to play various roles in a democratic country. For example, it holds the ruling regime accountable by creating pressure; it informs people about government action and raises political awareness among people; it acts to provide a voice for those who have no voice. Unfortunately, the opposition in Bangladesh is failing to perform these expected roles. As a result, the ruling regime seems to be enjoying a kind of free ride of corruption and malpractice in the absence of an effective opposition.
For the record, there are numerous examples where our opposition has succeeded in fulfilling its roles, making our democracy more meaningful. We have witnessed that the opposition has come to power several times through fair elections. It has helped overthrow military rule. While all these are hallmarks of a vibrant democracy, they don’t guarantee what democracy demands, including tolerance for opposition and dissenting voices. Therefore, it behooves to explore when and how opposition parties in Bangladesh began to weaken and then take measures to invigorate them.
Opposition parties in Bangladesh began to weaken from parliamentary election in 2014. The ruling regime and opposition parties seriously clashed on whether elections would be held under a non-partisan election time caretaker government, or under the ruling government. Opposition parties, mainly the BNP, demanded for an interim caretaker government, which was part of the constitution from 1996 to 2011, while the ruling regime, Awami League, opposed the demand.
As a result, the opposition parties boycotted the election to the detriment of a healthy democracy, and the AL won by a landslide. The Jatiya Party remained a loyal opposition inside the parliament, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was the main opposition outside the parliament.
Opposition parties changed their earlier stand in 2018, and contested in the parliamentary election. Unfortunately, opposition parties could not win the election that time either, for there were serious allegations of vote rigging. After that, the AL became the only dominant actor in political life. Opposition parties have limited themselves to mild criticism in non- political press conferences, and have failed to create pressure on the government.
There are reasons as to why opposition parties have become so weak. Firstly, the ruling government wants to suppress opposition strictly and does not welcome dissenting voices. In continuation of such undemocratic ways, there are allegations that the ruling regime is carrying out extra-judicial killing, torture, and enforced disappearances.
Digital Security Act (DSA) is the latest addition in a series of policies taken to curb the opposition. Article 19, a freedom of expression and freedom of information promoting organization, found that a total of 89 cases were filed against 173 people under the DSA between March and third week of June 2020 alone. Amnesty International reported that more than 800 cases were filed under DSA in the first nine months of 2020. All these have seriously beaten down opposition parties.
Secondly, the current government has facilitated economic growth, including an increase in electricity production and per capita income. The government has launched various mega projects such as the construction of the most ambitious Padma Bridge and Metro Rail in Dhaka. Recently, Bangladesh has received recommendation for graduation from the category of Least Developed Country, since it has fulfilled the eligibility criteria in terms of per capita income, human assets, and economic and environmental vulnerability. These successes have systematically weakened the opposition, and kicked them off the political field.
Thirdly, opposition parties are suffering from a lack of strong and unfaltering leadership. They have failed to present charismatic leaders who can gain people’s trust. In contrast, the ruling party has succeeded in presenting various celebrities, business leaders, and cricketers as their leaders, who are already popular among masses because of their professional backgrounds. While talking about the weaknesses of opposition parties, this phenomenon cannot be glossed over.
John Stuart Mill argues that allowing people to air even false opinions is important -- for two reasons. First, people will abandon false opinions when they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas. Second, if they are not proven false, people can accept them. While talking about opposition parties in a democratic country like Bangladesh, it is tremendously important to create an environment which allows opposition to flourish and make democracy more effective.
Simply holding elections on a regular interval under the ruling regime cannot safeguard democracy. Our system must accommodate the opposition, allowing opposition parties to function in the way they are expected.
Inamul Kabir is a graduate of political science