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Origin. Bangladesh was a product of three successive partitions. The first partition took place in 1905 during the British colonial period, named as East Bengal to placate the Bengali speaking Muslims who were lagging the majority Hindu population in socio-economic development. The act was also considered as part of the colonial doctrine of ‘divide and rule’. The second partition occurred in 1947, while granting independence to India, the departing British bifurcated the country into India, and Pakistan on Hindu, Muslim religion basis. The Muslim majority East Bengal located on the eastern side of India was clubbed with Muslim dominated regions in west and formed a new nation of Pakistan. The Pakistan Army backed with Islamists in Bengal engaged in mass murder, rape to suppress the tide of civil disobedience formed following the annulation of 1970 election results by military junta, who were not willing to hand over power to Prime minister-designate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Bengal. This refusal to cede power culminated to the rise of Bengali nationalist and self-determination movement followed by a genocide committed by the military junta from West Pakistan. This genocide led to Indo-Pak war in 1971, and ended with a Pakistan surrender in Dhaka, and emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation and recognition by the United Nations as a sovereign nation.
Democracy Definition: Robert Dahl categorized eight institutional guarantees as essential for democracy which Stephen Orvis (page 109) labeled as Liberal Democracy. Polyarchy is another name coined by Dahl for the true democracy’s real-world approximations. He considered polyarchy as an unattainable ideal-type regime in which governments would be completely responsive to the will of their citizens. Dahl’s empirical theory of polyarchy has become his normative theory of democracy (Krouse, 1982). The eight minimum requirements for political democracy formulated by Dahl: a) freedom to form and join organization, b) freedom of expression, c) the right to vote, d) broad eligibility for public office, e) the right of political leaders to compete for support and votes, f) free and fair elections, g) the availability of alternative sources of information, and h) institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preferences. Civil liberties coupled with political rights are vital components of liberal democracy. Similarly, existence of a democratic political culture is essential for a legitimate, functional, and sustainable democracy.
Is Bangladesh a Democratic Nation?
Bangladesh’s constitution established a secular unitary, Westminster-style parliamentary republic with universal suffrage. The prevailing situations in Bangladesh are evaluated with the above eight characteristics specified by Dahl and try to define the state of democracy. These characteristics can be broadly categorized into two segments – Civil, and Political rights.
Civil Rights & Liberties
a). Freedom to form and join organization: Freedom of movement, Freedom of assembly, and Freedom of association are enshrined in the constitution. The right to hold public gatherings, meetings with other citizens is protected in Article 3. However, many times government bans gatherings of more than five persons. Sometimes, authorities arrest the activists to disrupt the demonstrations.
Labor Unions. Several legal barriers exist for collective bargaining, union formation. Several restrictions are placed on labor movements which includes a 30% minimum membership requirement for a factory-level union recognition, severe restrictions on the right to strike, union membership reserved to only permanent members, etc.
NGOs. The 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, made it difficult for NGOs who are critical of the government on rights issues. NGOs are subjected to harassment and surveillance and authorities have broad authority to deregister those who make “derogatory” remarks about government.
b). Freedom of expression: The civil disobedience is displayed through non-violent protests, such as Hartal, Gherao, Dharna, Bandh (Rashiduzzaman, 1997). The government has been using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act to subdue the students who are using social media for expression of freedom. Dhaka Tribune newspaper reports that year 2017 marked the highest number of violations at 335, and 70% of these were against journalists. The frequency of violet attacks against secular bloggers, religious minorities, atheists, foreigners, and intellectuals are increasing. Deadly terrorist bombing acts were committed targeting minorities. Reporters Without Borders (RWB), while releasing its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, raised the concern of continued violence against media and the blatant inaction on the perpetrators from the government.
c) Right to vote: The constitution provides universal suffrage for all adult citizens irrespective of gender, race.
d) Free and fair elections. The legitimacy of any democratic government lies in the execution of a free, and fair election process where in all the interested parties can contest as candidates and all eligible votes can exercise their vote at free will. Higher rates of voter participation help in consolidation of nascent democracies, and act as a check on the elite power. Decline of voter participation leads to the marginalization of citizens from democratic life, and the entrenchment of social and economic inequalities which subsequently damages the democracy. Higher participation rates also subdue the dominance of democratic institutions by few privileged groups and enable the increased participation of non-elites in democratic institutions. Bangladesh had ten national elections in various regimes with a normal voter turnout of 75-80% except the last one held in 2014. The last election was boycotted by the opposition BNP and the voter turnout was 50%. Of the ten national elections held so far, four were found free, fair and credible, conducted by the non-party caretaker government. The rest were conducted by the party in power and were not out of controversy and marred with allegations of manipulation.
e) Broad eligibility for public office. The 350-member unicameral parliament (Jatiya Sangsad) is a mixed member majoritarian (First past the post for 300 single-member parliamentary constituencies (SMD), and 50 seats reserved for women distributed by proportional representation on elected party position in the parliament) house with a term limit of five years. Article 66 of the Constitution enables any citizen above the age of 25 to become an elected member of the parliament. The elected leader of the majority becomes the Prime minister. Another constitutional post of President is elected by the 300 parliamentarians in an open ballot, and thus generally represents the majority party of the legislature. Any citizen over thirty-five years of age is eligible for the post of President.
f) The right of political leaders to compete for support and votes. Bangladesh possess a multi-party political system. Ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL), and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are the main two dominant national parties. AL was founded in 1949, and BNP was founded in 1978. Jatiya Party is a third national party which participated mostly as a coalition partner. Apart from the above three major parties, there are about 25 small political parties. Since its inception in 1971, Bangladesh had ten national elections to its parliament with the founding election held in 1973. The general election held in 1979 handed over the power from Awami League to opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party thereby passing the Huntington’s two-turn over test as a sign of democratic consolidation. Both AL, and BNP have stable bases of support, formed governments, survived electoral defeats, and served as an effective opposition (Shah, 2016). Election related political violence is common and is an integral part during every election cycle. Neopatrimonialism is very prevalent in all regimes and deeply ingrained in the political culture (Mozahidul, 2013).
g) Availability of alternative sources of information. For effective participation of citizens in political life, alternative sources of information be made available from other sources instead of depending on a single source which could be the government or a political party or an association. Internet is the dominant source of alternative information across the world. Access to internet is mostly available in urban areas where the telecommunication network services are available. Significant growth is witnessed in the usage of internet across all income groups. There is no national level governmental restriction on internet access, or websites. Government does not impose any filtering service unlike China, and mostly regulated by existing legal frameworks.
h) Institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preferences.
Bureaucracy. The civil services of Bangladesh are categorized as General cadre and Technical/Professional cadre, and all are recruited by Bangladesh Public Service Commission, a constitutional body responsible for recruiting government servants, handling service matters like transfers, promotions, etc.
Judiciary. A common law based legal system with usage of judicial precedent. The acts passed by the parliament are the principal source of legal process and are subjected for Judiciary review. Judicial appoints, and their service matters are independent from executive branch and managed by Judicial Service Commission.
Military. Starting with a coup in 1975, there were few two military regimes and several failed attempts with the last one in 2007 against the then caretaker government. However, during the last decade military stayed away from interfering with political powers.
The successive completion of five-year terms of the successive elected governments qualify Bangladesh to be democratic government. The critical examination of the present situation in Bangladesh against the eight-point criteria set forth by Dahl for defining democracy clearly establish the existence of democracy in the country. However, the high levels of corruption, acrimonity prevailing between the two major political parties, occurrence of military coups, violence against minorities, excessive use of force against protests, clientelism, are the adverse factors. Hence, the country could be considered as a “Partly Free” Democratic country which is also in line with the ranking given by Freedom House.
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