Vol. 5 Num 694 Sat. May 13, 2006  

Straight Line
Ignominy of 'illiberal democracy'

The Bangladesh political scenario abundantly shows that a political culture conducive to stability is yet to emerge. As far as threat perception relating to security is concerned, in our situation, the internal dimension has to have an edge over the external. Experts agree that there are two definite indicators of weak states: lack of social cohesion and state capacities. The security and enforcement dilemmas of weak states are rooted more in internal threats. Recent studies on third world security conclude that internal political and economic instability pose serious threats to core values of such states as independence and sovereignty.

Negative fall-out
Bangladesh, it appears belongs to the category of Third World politically instable states as well as to the category of weak states in security consideration. We have to unfortunately admit that the fragile growth of our democratic institutions since early 1991 need to be nurtured if they are to survive. Democratic renewal in Bangladesh have come under democratic sway in the recent past and has perhaps spawned an "illiberal democracy". Democracy, in our parlance, has not brought constitutional liberalism. This is not unusual as to date few illiberal democracies have matured into liberal democracies.

Assuming that Bangladesh is passing through the supposedly illiberal phase of democratisation, it is presumed that political instability that goes with the period of transition has security implications for the country. The sources of such instability are negative politics, lawlessness, misgovernance, patronising violence, keeping armed cadre in student labour fronts, boycotting parliament amongst others. The reasonably free and fair election in the yesteryears still remains open to question in terms of both input and output. The questionable input for our election has been money, including substantial amount of black money. Such money militates against the democratic spirit and impacts negatively on the quality of elected representatives.

Criminalised and commercialised politics
Discerning observers would agree that in recent times, middle class professionals with credentials and with roots to the people have been squeezed out of the political market to yield place to rich businessmen, industrialists or individuals with questionable means of income. The security ramification of this phenomenon is that elected legislators having the backing of black money amassed through smuggling of narcotics or illegal arms can put the country at the mercy of few powerful dons, pulling strings from behind. Fingers are already pointed at such elements. In the context of the violent trend in politics such accusations cannot be summarily ruled out. Therefore, the election system, vitiated by money-and-politics nexus and a literally non-performing parliament are factors sufficient to make politics volatile and unstable with serious long-range ramifications.

Criminalised and vandalised politics is another indicator with alarming fall-out Violence and politics have become almost synonymous. The emergence of political bully boys would not have been possible without patronisation by political parties. Violence has had serious negative impact on the political culture of the country.

Social cost and image
Media reports indicate that more than few hundred people die and few thousand suffer wounds in violent political clashes each year. The campus violence, an extension of violent politics at the national level, has seriously affected academic functioning. The twenty-four hour security patrol by the law enforcing agencies in campuses puts heavy strain on scant resources to the detriment of felt needs of enforcement in critical sectors, in addition to spoiling the image. The armed students are protected by the regime and opposition. Some studies suggest a causal linkage between endemic violence and demise of democracy. The increasing incidences of violence in Bangladesh politics over the years are clouding the future of democracy.

Our intolerant political conduct is reflective of an immature political culture and politics is viewed as a game in which winner takes all in a zero-sum format. Political parties are found to contest elections as if they are fighting wars. Political divide and rivalry often degenerate into personal enmity, thus infusing an unhealthy element of acrimony that leads to violence. The party in power is mostly intolerant, arrogant and even feudalistic in attitude. The opposition mostly opposes the government for the sake of opposition and are in politics as if with the undertaking to bring down the government. Such a scenario has been described as "crisis of governance". A country with such a crisis in governance will be ill-equipped to face the challenges of management including those emanating from security environment.

Extremism and denominational politics
The ulterior use of religion for political ends and a constitutional provision for making Islam the state religion appear as an anathema for a country that started its journey as a secular polity. Bangladeshis were no less devout Muslims in 1972 than they have become in post 1988 under Islam as a state religion. Under cover of religion, in our fledgling polity, marked by poverty and political instability, the country has become an easy base for extremist denominational politics. There is no denying that despite insignificant representation in the national legislature, religion-based politics has its socio-political base deep and wide across the country. The onslaught of bigotry has already devastated us and we can all see its retrograde effects when religion and state get mixed up.

Lack of inner democracy has retarded the growth of political. The weakness of inner party democracy is a serious constraint to the consolidation of a democratic culture and building of a national consensus. The survival of absolutism in our "illiberal democracy" has led to the reappearance of the dictatorial culture of a coterie of civil servants or personally loyal political associates.

Divisive polity
There are at least two divisive issues that keep the socio-political pot simmering, often boiling. Those issues relate to our identity and who made the declaration of independence. Politicised emotion is the root of those controversies. The difference over the issues between the two major political parties get translated into a social divide, thereby negating the scope for social cohesion. Lacking in the much-needed social cohesion Bangladesh turns out to be a "weak state".

We have to admit that our ethno-linguistic and religious homogeneity factor has not succeeded to bring the dynamics of socio-political relations within a manageable limit. Presently, our society is characterised by significant elitemass gap. A small segment influences the decision making, allocation and distribution of resources. The failure of democratic experimentation in the initial years of independence led to a succession of military and quasi-military rule by a coalition of the higher echelon of the military and civil bureaucracy. Political leaders joined later to complete the "coalition of convenience." The first two groups remained dominant.

The elections of 1991, 1996 and 2001 may have restored the supremacy of political leadership but in the meantime immense damage has been caused in our political culture by the combined onslaught of corruption, criminalisation and commercialisation of politics of the country. The penetration of business interests in politics made possible through a policy of distribution of political patronage and bureaucratic support continued on a wider scale and the emerging business class not only attempted to control politics through donation to party coffer, they displayed a greater readiness to join politics themselves. We now have politicians and parliamentarians who have business interests. This commercialisation of politics has become the safest and convenient vehicle of achievements.

Our tendency of carving out a niche for self or group in politics and business leads to fierce competition which possible has linked politics to the underworld violence. Our politicians crave for Westminster model of democracy but they have combined the colonial agitational politics with the role of the opposition. This is the mindset of both position and opposition. One cries for maintenance of law and order, protection of nation interest while the other fights for the democratic rights of the people in relentless agitation, work stoppages and violence. Therefore, policies, postures, statements and actions of the political parties and ruling regimes have significant role in conflict aggravation and its transition from one phase to another.

The interface between the political feuds and intense power struggle, on the one hand, and violence of different intensities, on the other is provided by the underworld to which the political leaders of various statures are connected in a shady way. According to credible reports nearly 300 godfathers control criminal and terrorist activities across the country. The godfathers belonging to major political parties are actually mid and high level leaders of such parties.

The link between small arms and violence has given rise to organised crime which is sustaining due to triangular nexus among criminal underworld, power-hungry political elite and corrupt law enforcing agencies. The arms-violence linkage is assuming a permanent shape in our politics, economy and society. It has emerged as an internal dimension of our security concerns. Without a non-partisan political commitment it would not be possible to root out this menace.

Bangladesh polity has failed to forge national cohesion on fundamental values. Inadequate nation building and state building processes are the cause. Lack of mutual trust and prevalence of hostile political attitude have resulted in weak political institutions and weak national capacity to resolve national issues. The process needs to be reversed.

Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former Secretary and IGP