Democracy in Bangladesh – 2
A few weeks ago, I started a series, cross-posted in UV, taking stock of democracy in Bangladesh. The idea was to do weekly installments. The first one was on 20 September, so we are already behind schedule. This series is going to be in fits and starts, which is also the story of our (and indeed of anyone else’s) democracy.
So, how does democracy, no scratch that — how does government work in Bangladesh? Can we call it a democracy?
These are the questions explored over the fold. The definition of democracy used is Lincoln’s: government of the people, by the people, for the people. This definition is examined against what has been happening in Bangladesh under the four elected governments since 1990. And let me stress what has been happening, not what is written in the constitution. Also note that the first two decades and the recent emergency era are not even considered as worth examining for their democratic credentials.
Tentative answer: Bangladesh under these governments falls short of being a democracy.
Let’s go through each of the three components of Lincoln’s definition.
What is a ‘government of the people’? It’s a government that represents the people it governs. What do we mean by ‘represent’? An extreme meaning would be that the government resembles the population at large. By that extreme metric, no government can really be democratic. A more common sense meaning is that the government represents various factions and schisms within the society. Further, a representative government is one that ensures that contentious issues are resolved such that not only does the majority opinion prevail, but also that the minority is bought into the fold to make the decision durable.
That is, a democratic government governs for all the people.
What is the Bangladeshi reality?
We hold regular elections for an electoral college of 300. This electoral college elects a prime minister for five years — the same two individuals have been on ballot for all four elections. The prime minister listens to a group of advisers — some of whom are drawn from the electoral college, while others are chosen for no clear reason except her preference, some are given fancy titles while others have no formal role. The prime minister, or her advisers, makes all the executive decisions, appoints people to key (and non-key) posts in the state machinery, and makes law. Meanwhile, the members of the electoral college that voted for the PM has five years to run their part of the country as a personal fiefdom. Electoral college members who didn’t vote for the PM has nothing to do. Sometimes they can’t even go to their area, which are given as fiefs to PM’s chosen individuals.
Is this a government of the people? Hardly. It’s clearly not representing anyone who didn’t vote for the PM. And of the four governments elected since 1990, only the current one received votes of a majority of the country’s eligible voters.
But this isn’t the whole story.
What are the cleavages and schisms in Bangladeshi politics?
We have three broad camps. One claims to uphold the ‘Spirit of the Liberation War’. The second one claims to be ‘Bangladeshi nationalists’, but they are divided in two groups, with the smaller group regularly joining hand with the first camp. These two camps have alternated in running the country, but the third camp — claiming ‘the law of Allah’ — have mostly (though not always) backed the larger group of ‘nationalists’. Except for this third camp, the difference between different political factions — whatever they claim to uphold — really comes down to two things: how they perform in office (see below) and which cult of personality they worship.
That is, in practice, there really isn’t all that much to choose from in terms of policy ideas (though not execution, see below) between the two camps (or specific political parties). Therefore, in practice what happens is what most people want. Seen that way, perhaps the government is, in a strange and ironic manner, representative after all.
So, do we have a ‘government of the people’? My tentative view — we barely do. Let’s give ourselves half a point here.
Now turn to ‘government by the people’. What does that mean?
It means a participatory government. It means a government where the people who are governed participate in decisionmaking and execution of those decisions.
The extreme ‘government by the people’ I guess would be in ancient Greece where people (well, men who were not slaves) gathered in the town centre and voted on everything. That’s clearly not feasible in the modern world — imagine 160 million Bangladeshis gathering anywhere!
Rather, a participatory democracy is taken to mean one where people elect different layers of government to perform different tasks, and the government consults the people through formal channels before making any decision.
How does Bangladesh perform?
Not very well. Once the electoral college chooses a prime minister, that’s it as far as the people’s participation is concerned. Sure we have local government bodies. But they don’t have any power. And we have a bureaucracy that tells people what to do, rather than ask the people to participate in deciding what is to be done. The bureaucracy, in turn, does what the prime minister (or her designate) tells them to do.
Sometimes the prime minister (or her designate) does consult the public on some policy decision. But this isn’t a regular occurrence — it happens when the prime minister wants it to happen. And there is no guarantee that even when the public is consulted, it has any bearing on the government decision.
Bangladesh has a ‘government by the people’?
No it doesn’t. A zero on this count.
Finally, let’s turn to ‘government for the people’.
This is taken to be a government that is accountable to the people. This means, when a government performs well in resolving a contention, in delivering a service, or executing a decision — in short, when it improves the public welfare (as judged by the people) — it is rewarded. And the reverse holds true when the opposite happens.
Ideally, accountability means scrutiny of every decision and its execution. But in practice, that’s a difficult feat to meet anywhere. In practice, accountability involves a free media, independent judiciary, and regularly-held competitive elections — with all of them being on an ‘ever improving curve’.
Let’s see how Bangladesh fairs.
Start with media. It’s self evidently not as free as it could be when opposition journalists can be locked up or killed as has happened under all governments. But nor is it quite shackled either. There exists a myriad of ways the media can, and do, expose malgovernance (and occasionally report good governance). More often than not, when the media fails to report malgovernance, it does so out of its own partisan agenda.
We aren’t so lucky with the judiciary however. Recall how our government is centralised into the person of the prime minister. She (or her designates) chooses the judiciary. Therefore, one is silly to expect the judiciary to be independent. If anything, given how subservient to the prime minister our judiciary could be, it’s quite something that it shows any independence at all. And it has shown independence sometimes.
And finally there is the issue of competitive elections. Note how the qualifier ‘competitive’, and not the more common ‘free and fair’, is used. A competitive election is where all sides can put forward their cases openly in a competitive manner. Our experience has been that when all sides participate, the election, by and large, is competitive.
And when the election is competitive, it has been, at least in part, about the incumbent’s performance. If a government messes things up badly enough, our experience has been that it is booted out quite ruthlessly. Knowing this, the government does try to improve public welfare.
That our standard of living has improved steadily over the past two decades suggest that the government does try. That each incumbent has been thrown out suggests that at least partly they are held accountable for not trying hard enough.
So do we have a ‘government for the people’? While there is room to improve, we probably do. Not quite full marks, but well over 0.5 on this count.
So, do we have a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’?
My tentative answer, we score less than 1.5 out of 3, so not quite.