Bangladesh: From a shadow of Pakistan to maturing democracy
Dhaka, December 1: Bangladesh has announced the schedule for the next general election and has invited the global media to be present, subject to registration, during the occasion. The polling will be held on January 7, 2024.
The results will be out on the same night. The five-year term of the current Parliament will end on January 24. The next Parliament will be ready to step in before that deadline, thereby ensuring the smooth run of the democracy as is the norm worldwide.
Election ensures people’s mandate and all democracies of worth hold it in time. Bangladesh shares borders with the world’s largest democracy India. Except for the two years of Emergency during 1975-77, India never missed this milestone. However, what is common to democracies around the world, was not so common to Bangladesh till the incumbent Shiekh Hasina government of Awami League assumed power on January 25, 2009.
Before that, Bangladesh was like Pakistan, where no Prime Minister completed a full term and elections were held at the sweet will of the army.
Take the present scenario in Islamabad as a case study. The Pakistani President dissolved the parliament at the advice of the Prime Minister on August 10, 2023. As per the rule, the election should have been conducted within 90 days i.e. latest by November 8. The deadline is missed and, no one knows when the election will be held. It had always been so.
Tenure of Parliaments in Bangladesh
Bangladesh was born out of Pakistan in December 1971 after a deadly civil war that had cost thousands of lives. However, the system – namely the sympathizers of Pakistan in politics, army and administration –struck back too soon. Bangladesh is probably the only populous country that adopted “secularism” as a founding pillar of the Constitution.
The first elected Parliament was in place in April 1973. The journey was practically over on August 15, 1975, when the first President of Bangladesh, father of the nation as well as Hasina, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed mercilessly along with most of his family members, in an army coup. Hasina survived the attack.
Some of the killers established army rule which lasted till 1990. Some others were given shelter by the developed West, which considers itself as the guardian of democracy. Nur Chowdhury, an assassin of Mujibur Rahman, has been happily living in Canada, ignoring repeated requests from Bangladesh for repatriation. It is the same Canada that had given shelter to terrorists, wanted in India, in the name of liberalism. Canada refused to hand them over to India. Some of these terrorists bombed the Montreal-London Air India flight, in mid-air, in 1985, killing 329 people.
The army rule officially ended in Bangladesh in 1990. But, unofficially Bangladesh's army was pulling strings and puncturing democracy for another two decades. Not a single election during the period was held in time. The gap between the two Parliamentary tenures varied from six months to two years (2006-2008).
During the intermittent period, the army enjoyed free and unaccounted power. They ran the country through handpicked frontmen taking over as Prime ministers and Presidents.
The so-called democratic run was also not free from the influence of the army. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – which had assumed power with Pakistan-backed Jamaat-e-Islami for two terms (1991-95 and 2001-2006) - was created by former army ruler Ziaur Rahman (1977-1981). It is now run by his widow Khaleda Zia and son Tarique Rahman. Both were found guilty of multiple crimes by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
Jatiya Party, the third most important political force (after Awami League and BNP), was established by military ruler H M Ershad. While the League and BNP rivalled for power, the Jatiya Party joined the ruling coalitions of either side.
That takes us to a peculiar situation. Awami League is the only major party in Bangladesh that was born out of a people’s movement, led the Liberation War in 1971 and is not a natural ally of either the Islamists or the Army. Seen from that perspective, the 15-year-long stay of Hasina in power through elections, and the changes she brought in the functioning of the Parliament should be held as signs of maturing of the democracy in Bangladesh. The trend has helped Bangladesh in terms of economic prosperity. The gross domestic product grew by five times in 15 years. Bangladesh overtook Pakistan in terms of per-capita income. And, when compared to Pakistan’s struggling economy, Bangladesh is prospering.
Today, Bangladesh is not only the second largest economy in South Asia with less share in mineral resources; it is also the most stable economy after India. From the begging bowl of the world, Bangladesh became the second economy after India that offer aid to foreign countries. Dhaka extended a foreign currency swap to struggling Sri Lanka two years ago.
That’s indeed dramatic. And, that probably explains why there is so much effort to unseat Hasina. She is leading Bangladesh on her journey from a shadow democracy to a matured democracy, thereby creating an existential crisis for the ruling class of the past.