BANGLADESH: Wrestling, Freestyle

The politics of confrontation has paralysed the functioning of Parliament. According to data available, the current Jatiya Sangsad, which began its journey on January 25, 2009, has been witnessing  poor presence by the opposition. Till September 2012, the House has had 319 sittings, of which the opposition boycotted 266 and joined only 53. Leader of the Opposition and BNP chief Khaleda Zia joined only eight sittings. The opposition last joined the House on March 20 this year and then began a fresh boycott, which still continues.

The media has played a significant role, acting as critiques of government policy, and has taken up the role of the opposition in the public space

The record of the Awami League is equally dismal. Between 2001 and 2006, in the opposition, the party boycotted 223 out of 373 days when Parliament was in session. In the past, budgets have been passed with the opposition boycotting the session. According to the Dhaka-based Daily Star, in June 2012, the previous three parliaments between 1991 and 2006 had passed 16 budgets, of which opposition MPs boycotted five. If one includes the current Parliament until this year, the opposition has been absent 20 times during the passage of the budget.

The culture of political contestation has also nurtured violence to settle scores at the local level. According to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based NGO, in 2011, 135 people were reportedly killed and 11,532 injured in political violence. There were 340 incidents of internal violence in the Awami League and 104 in the BNP during this period. In addition, 22 people were killed and 3,770 injured in the Awami League’s internal conflicts, while three were killed and 1,234 injured in the BNP’s internal conflicts. This pattern gets repeated every year, pointing to the larger political malaise. This culture of violence has percolated to educational institutions and has politicised the universities.

Political polarisation has effectively ensured that half of the population does not have any say in the decision-making process, taking into account the votes won by the two alliances (the Awami League got 49 and BNP got 33 per cent of votes). League promised radical changes when it assumed power, but it did not take any step to alter the culture of confrontational politics or to establish inner party democracy and carry out political reforms. In major issues like economic or foreign policy the two parties hold divergent views, often, merely to oppose each other.

Even the trial of war criminals, which the BNP initially supported, has got politicised with the opposition labelling the entire exercise as politically motivated. Polarised politics has consolidated the religious parties as they have emerged more organised; due to the antagonistic relations between the two main political parties, effective measures against Islamic radicalisation are sharply lacking. 

The Awami League believes that Gen Zia was responsible for the killing of Sheikh Mujib and his family as he indirectly supported the army coup

Bangladesh’s democratic future will be shaped by the political culture that the country evolves. So far, the leaders of the two principal parties do not even meet or exchange greetings in public. The party culture is largely shaped by the individualistic style of leadership. There is lack of democratic functioning within the two parties as they inherit two important legacies represented by their founders. The leadership firmly remains in the hands of the two families. The two parties reward those members who express personal loyalty.

The country’s politics has remained an ideological binary, given the 14-party coalition and 18-party coalition headed by the Awami League and BNP, respectively. Smaller parties like the Jatiyo Party and Jamaat have benefited by aligning with these two parties as they are not in a position to take power single-handedly. Yet, both the Jamaat and Jatiyo have emerged as king-makers in this politics of polarised competition.

However, despite the politicisation of the bureaucracy and judiciary, Bangladesh has a vocal civil society, with NGOs representing minorities, women and interests of the marginalised. The media has played a significant role, acting as critiques of government policy, and has taken up the role of the opposition in the public space. There are structural weaknesses in its institutions, but Bangladesh exhibits vibrant societal culture and boasts an extremely politically aware people who, it is hoped, will make democracy sustainable.

In South Asia, Bangladesh has one of the largest cases of female participation in elections. The voter turnout in the last election, held in 2008, was more than 86 per cent which is the highest in the region. This promises an optimistic chapter for democracy in the days to come, despite the myopia and antagonism stalking the political landscape.  


The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Delhi.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2012