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Why are we still continuing with a 'viceregal' political system? - Rounaq Jahan

Eroding democratic values and Constitution - Dr. M Zahir

Democracy: An unfinished agenda - Dr Kamal Hossain

A case for proportional representation - Rashed Khan Menon

Is majority rule same as democratic rule? - Kazi Anwarul Masud

Responsibilities of majority rule - Muhammad Zamir

The issue is democratic culture - Emajuddin Ahamed

Leaders and politicians - Mohammad Badrul Ahsan

Black money in electioneering - Inam Ahmed

Party nomination on sale - Rezaul Karim

The tale of limping parliament - Reaz Ahmed

Politicians hindering progress - AH Jaffor Ullah

Whither parliamentary standing committees - Shakhawat Liton

Politicians must take blame for failures - Syed Ashfaqul Haque

Antagonism takes precedence over understanding Shakhawat Liton

Thirteen years of democratic experience: Strengths and weaknesses Reaz Ahmad

Distorted political culture Shameem Mahmud

Party constitutions: Rarely followed Rezaul Karim



Distorted political culture

Shameem Mahmud

Since independence Bangladesh witnessed extreme instability in politics in the first decade, and the second decade was marked by a long period of autocratic rule of General HM Ershad and the country stepped into a democratic path after the end of the Ershad regime following the mass upsurge in 1990. Stepping into democratic rule in 1991 with a consensus on parliamentary system of government was an important episode in Bangladesh's political history.

Peaceful transition of power through a constitutional provision of caretaker government signifies another major success in sustaining democracy. But the country still suffers from a culture of power politics and politics of attrition between the two major parties, while hierarchical structure within these parties is another major challenge to strengthen democratic practices.

Yet, after 13 years of democratic government (as elected through free and fair elections) in the country, a strong perception is held by large segments of the society that political parties are ineffective and out of touch with present day needs.

Here, the question to reform our politics, political parties and their structure and agendas, or even the approach to politics of the politicians have been points for concern. Barring chiefs, general leaders within the parties have little scope for personal contribution in the functioning of the party system of the political parties. This continues mainly due to dictatorial role of their party chiefs and reluctance to follow party constitutions.

Broadly, there is a considerable movement towards a two-party system in Bangladesh, as two political fronts currently wield the greatest power -- ruling four-party alliance under the leadership of the BNP -- and the main opposition Awami League (AL).

If we consider the last two general election results, where these two fronts bagged nearly 94 per cent in 2001 and 96 per cent in 1996, of all votes cast, we can specify the discussion to BNP and AL.

At this point, then, how are these two political parties, which have ruled the country since the resuscitation of democracy, functioning under the leadership of Khaldea Zia and Sheikh Hasina?

Both leaders inherited the offices of party chiefs through a culture of dynastic rule. Moreover, it is unlikely that any of the leaders (having the necessary qualities) within BNP or AL can say that they could be the successors to Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina.

The tenure of both these leaders seem to be unquestionable, and thus perpetuating. There is no example in our recent political history that any leader of these two parties has braved to oppose any proposal or decision of their chiefs even at internal meetings of party forums.

Theoretically, a political party is a group organised to support certain policies on questions of public interest and the aim is to elect officials (leaders) to carry out party's policies under the leadership of respective party chiefs. Generally, political parties act as a training ground for political leaders who will eventually assume a role in governing society. Leadership, in a way, is instilled in these politician amid the democratic practices in party forums.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh has had a very poor tradition of growing leadership through democratic practices in the parties. Instead, the chiefs have been elevated to their positions under the aegis of what is an institutionalised dynastic culture ---effectively extending these undemocratic structures of power to the party level and subsequently as the incumbent ruler at state level.

The concentration of power at the top of both the parties have edified these leaders into "unquestionable leaders" to fellow party leaders and party workers, hence elevating them above all criticism.

In this way, both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina remain key sources of power in their parties. Many important decisions are taken by dint of their personal charisma and without any discussion in party forums. If there is a discussion, it remains ceremonial. Other leaders could hold posts, only according to the sweet will of their chiefs. The chiefs can do and undo anything that they want in the party. Personal liking and disliking carry heavily in the weight for considering party positions and portfolios.

In fact, the danger of such personal leadership is that political institutions may not grow under such a personal system. It also leaves no opportunity for orderly succession of authority in the parties. In such a situation, we can say that the main parties are not functioning democratically as other leaders have very little scope or no way to differ with their party chief, even if she is wrong.

Ironically, these leaders have been incessantly crying out for the establishment of democracy in the country. One of them has been titled 'daughter of democracy' while the other 'leader of uncompromising principles'.

A simultaneous concern after the last 13 years in our politics is that people at large have lost confidence in their politicians. Taking the advantage a room has been created of alternative 'political stream or force' with civil society members as called by a former president.

But, in a democratic system civil society can never be a substitute of political parties. Political parties and civil society should work as natural ally where parties reach out and engage civic groups and co-operate with them on specific issues. And, it is true that when the politicians fail extra democratic forces come to scene.

Then, what our political parties or politicians should do? The first and utmost necessity is to bring reforms in political parties in a bid to restore people's confidence. The democratisation of political parties and transparency in operation of party activities are essential for the political parties. The young and meritorious leadership must be groomed and trained to replace the older generation who are still dominating the political landscape with their early twentieth century beliefs.

We cannot run in this century with such politicians who prefer to look to the past instead of future. Politicians have to take it seriously that days have been changed and people want a change also. People don't want such a politician whose only business is to deliver speeches and attack the opponents. People don't make lawmakers to boycott the parliament, and also not to utter abusive words to opponents.

People don't want to see criminals in party positions and for this parties must have to oust such persons. Someone has to take the first visionary step in order to break the vicious circle of using weapons as both the major parties unofficially patronise armed criminals for the sake of keeping a 'balance of power '.

Political parties have to be transparent for their actions and decisions to establish transparency at state level when the party wins people's mandate to rule. Nobody knows how much a party expends to conduct its regular activities and during the election period. What are the sources of their income and areas of expenditure? At the same time nobody asks for sources of income of the politicians when there is a strong belief among people that extortion is one of the main source of income of politicians. The present day leaders should be accountable to their fellow workers and as well as to people. Moreover, party nomination for national and local elections should follow strict regulations or the party will fix some strict and specific criteria for the people who will seek party tickets. The parties have to announce it firmly that they will not nominate any person with criminal and corrupt records for the election race.

Instead of personal choices and family dynasty, leadership should be chosen on merit and hard work, and definitely through ballot boxes.

Leaving aside the ongoing hostile politics, the parties have to set agenda for people in accordance with present day demands as in this complex country there are far more pressing issues.

If the political parties do not learn to compete with a higher degree of mutual respect, the country will have a very long walk towards becoming a democracy in broad sense from just holding free elections under the Caretaker Government. And in this sense, the decline of political parties ultimately threatens the foundations of democracy.
The author is staff correspondent of The Daily Star.

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