Democracy in Bangladesh – 4

Posted in politics by jrahman on December 17, 2010

In the earlier instalments of this series, I reprised the case for democracy,  analysed how Bangladesh matches against a Lincolnesque definition of democracy, and the state of separation of power and checks and balances in Bangladesh.  Conclusion so far, despite having four freely and fairly elected governments since 1990, Bangladesh still falls short of being a democracy.

The discussion thus far has been general, without referring to actions or inactions of any specific government or political party.  In this instalment, I will get a bit more specific.  Here I discuss ‘where did Bangladesh go off track’?  Since everyone agrees that democracy was one of the founding principles of Bangladesh, clearly sometime after 1971 this founding principle was betrayed. 

The general narrative has it that the principle of democracy was betrayed in August 1975, when the founding president and his family was killed in a putsch and martial law was declared.  The country was ruled by military strongmen for 15 years after that, and democracy never took root.  A dissenting narrative holds that the founding president himself betrayed democracy in January 1975, when he declared a one party dictatorship. 

I contend that both these narratives have it wrong.  I contend that the system of government we initiated in 1972, before the coups and Bakshal, had features that made undemocracy inevitable.  I contend that with first-past-the-post single member constituency, unicameral legislature, strong unitary state, and the Article 70, we went off track in 1972. 

Let’s consider these elements one at a time.

 To get an idea of what the first-past-the-post voting system with a single-member constituency might mean, consider an example.  Suppose there are two parties, A and B, contesting 100 seats, with 100 voters in each seat.  Suppose in every seat, party A gets 51 votes against B’s 49.  A gets total of 5100 vote against B’s 4900, but wins all 100 seats.  That is, a party commanding only slightly more than half the people’s support can turn the country into a one party state under this system. 

Extreme example not likely to happen in Bangladesh?  Then consider these facts: in 2001 election, AL had 40% vote and 20% seats, against BNP-JI alliance’s 45% vote and 75% seats; in 2008, AL-JP alliance had 57% votes and 85% seats against BNP-JI’s 37% vote and 11% seat.  In fact, BNP won proportionately more votes in 2008 than it did in 1991! 

Single member constituencies with the first-past-the-post voting system makes for extreme, unrepresentative results.  Like much else, Bangladesh inherited this kind of voting system from the British.  Even the British are revisiting the system.  But I don’t see much talk about it in Bangladesh. 

Interestingly, I do hear a lot of political debates about whether people vote for the candidate or the party symbol.  Folks active in politics tell me that, on average, the symbol matters more than the individual.  If that is true, then perhaps some kind of proportional system would be better suited for Bangladesh. 

In any case, there are many other countries that inherited their voting system from the British.  But these countries also have other institutional features that somewhat mitigate the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system.  For example, most federations have bicameral legislature, where the upper house is elected on a different voting system.  In many cases, the upper house has very strong powers to check the executive. 

Bangladesh is, of course, a unitary state.  Given the relative homogeneity of its population, and the smallness of size, a federation in Bangladesh would probably mean costly duplication of bureaucracy.  Thus, the unitary structure makes sense.  And given the unitary nature of the republic, the case for an upper house isn’t immediately obvious.  But that just highlights the problem of the voting system.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh is not just a unitary state, its an extremely centralised unitary state.  Every facet of governance in Bangladesh is run from the capital, with local governments having powers and responsibilities over practically nothing.  There are local elected councils, but they are ‘supervised’ by either local MPs (when there is an elected government in power) or centrally appointed bureaucrats (during the quasi-military eras). 

Ironically, three significant experiments with strong local government were carried out by governments that were undemocratic by even Bangladeshi standards.   The Bakshal regime envisaged district governors running all government services, including law and order, in their districts.  This was, by far, the boldest attempt at devolution of power — of course, it was under the rubric of a one party state.  The Ershad regime introduced the upazilla system, whereby the local councils were to be in charge of all development programmes.  And the 1/11 regime insisted on holding upazilla elections. 

By contrast, the two ‘democratic’ parties have a rather shameful record.  The BNP government annulled the upazilla system in the early 1990s.  The current government has stripped upazilla chairmen of pretty much all power. 

Most importantly, those who designed our system of governance in 1972 failed to anticipate the need to establish strong local governments so that their powers couldn’t be usurped by the centre.  This was even more astounding given concentration of power at the centre was a major reason behind Pakistan’s demise.

As it happens, it’s not quite the case that there is no local representation in government.  The MPs are local representatives.  And they are seen as local representatives than legislators.  When someone seeks re-election, they don’t point to their achievement in parliament, or their contribution to policymaking.  They point to how many culverts they built, how many mosques and schools they refurbished, and how many sports tournaments they held.  To some extent, pork-bareling happens everywhere.  But in Bangladesh, it’s all about beef-bareling, and nothing else.  The MP’s job is indistinguishable from that of a local mayor. 

And this is because, given Article 70, the MP has nothing else to do.  As a result of the article, any MP not following the party line is stripped of their MP-ship.  This simply stops any MP from having an interest in the work of legislating.  

I should note here the article’s historical background. In the pre-Ayub Pakistan, parliamentary majorities changed very rapidly. Under the 1956 constitution, Pakistan had four Prime Ministers in 30 months.  To negate that possibility, Sheikh Mujib insisted on inserting the Article into the 1972 constitution. 

However, is the Article by itself provides sufficient safeguard against auctioning of MPs?  For example, the 30 April 2004 political drama allegedly involved bribing MPs to cross the floor and bring down the government.  If enough MPs were ready to be sold to the highest bidder, the Article would not have sufficed in keeping the government in power.

What the Article has done, however, is to turn parliament into a Paltan maidan, and MPs into de facto mayors.  And since there can’t be two suns in one sky (unless it’s a sci-fi movie), MPs have ensured that realy mayors have no power. 

Thus, a combination of voting system, unicameral legislature, strong unitary nature of the republic and the Article 70 make democracy unlikely in Bangladesh.  And all four things have been there from1972.


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  1. […] No, he was not.  As a unitary state with a unicameral legislature where MPs cannot vote against the party decision, where all powers are centralised in the hands of a single individual, Bangladesh is not quite a democracy today.  Neither was it under Zia.  Nor was it in 1972.  […]

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