Democracy in Bangladesh – 3
Couple of months ago, I started a series called Democracy in Bangladesh. The first installment, a revised 2007 UV piece, made the case for democracy. The second instalment analysed democracy using a Lincolnesque definition, and found that Bangladesh under the four elected governments since 1990 have fallen short of being a democracy.
In this installment, I continue with the theme that democracy involves more than just free and fair elections. A democratic State has to be one exhibiting ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’.
These ideas originate from the city states of classical Greece. They were part of the government system of the Roman Republic. And philosophers of the American and French revolutions articulated them in the 18th century. Most modern constitutions pay at least lip service to them, as does ours.
But in this series, I don’t look at the fine letters and the minute details of what’s in the constitution. There are others who are better qualified than me to do that. Rather, I note my observation of what has happened in Bangladesh since 1990. And I contend that if ‘separation of powers’ and ‘checks and balances’ are necessary for a State to be democratic, then Bangladesh has not been a democracy.
The idea behind the separation of powers is that different powers of the State is distributed among different branches and layers such that at any time, no single individual or groups of individual become too powerful. That is, contending layers and branches of government keep each other under checks and the power is balanced. When this happens, the risk of an autocratic takeover is reduced.
One way the power of the State is distributed is among different layers of government. This is most clearly visible in federations, where the central government has powers over a defined number of issues, and the federating states or provinces have powers over other issues. Particularly, the coercive powers of the State — that is, the monopoly over legitimate violence — are distributed in the federal structure: typically the centre has the responsibility over national defence, but the federating unit has the responsibility over law and order. Of course, as in life so in statecraft, money talks. In a federal structure, taxation powers are also distributed among different layers, and thus typically it is hard for a single individual or coterie to dominate tax and spending.
In Bangladesh, there is no such separation of power. Bangladesh is a unitary republic, with an all powerful central government. Local governments like the city, upazilla, union or municipal councils exist, but have no power to do anything substantive. If any individual mayor or chairman tries to achieve some positive outcomes for their constituencies, they quickly run into stiff opposition.
And where do these oppositions come from? That takes us to the other way separation of powers is achieved (indeed, this is how separation of powers is typically taught in undergraduate political science).
In a democratic State, power should be distributed among different branches of government. The Executive should have the power to do things. The Legislature should have the power to decide what should be done. And the Judiciary should have the power to decide whether what is done is done appropriately.
In a democratic State, obviously the Executive and the Legislature are to be elected, but the Judiciary is also supposed to have some form of accountability. In a democratic State, the Executive is supposed to be scrutinised by the Legislature, and constrained by the Judiciary. And in a democratic State, the Legislature is not meant to perform any executive function.
What happens in Bangladesh?
In Bangladesh, an electoral college of 300 people are elected. This electoral college chooses the Executive for a five year term. The Executive runs the government through a centralised bureaucracy (which has responsibility for both national defence and internal law and order). Those electoral college members belonging to the Executive’s faction becomes its agent in local areas.
The Executive sets the agenda for legislation. The electoral college acts as a rubber stamp for the Executive’s agenda. The Executive decides how much money it needs to run its agenda, and where the money comes from. The electoral college acts as a rubber stamp for the Executive’s budget. There is no such thing as a Legislature.
The Executive runs the court system as if its just another bureaucracy. There is no such thing as Judiciary — there is judicial bureaucracy.
What about checks and balances? The only time the Executive faces any check is once every five years, when the election happens. But the election happens in a pretty peculiar manner.
Once every five years, the civil-military-judicial bureaucracy is given all powers of the State for certain unspecified period to hold the election to the electoral college. Given what could happen, it’s a miracle that only once has the unelected supposedly caretakers have tried to stick around for a while.
We may have had four free and fair elections. But whatever we have in Bangladesh, democracy it ain’t.
(Cross-posted in UV).