11/22/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Repetitive Election Paralysis Syndrome and the Struggle for Meaningful Democracy in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh people have been continuing their struggle for democracy through electoral processes since before 'Independence.' Once again they wait seemingly helplessly for a peaceful change of power in the next general election penciled in for January 2014, under conditions in which it is difficult to have any confidence. The Bangladeshi people's politicians have crippled the democratic electoral system, which has made the next general election very uncertain. Even with this very dysfunctional electoral system people dream of a functioning, dignified democratic government. Yet whether and when this controversial election will actually take place are issues of great uncertainty. Who will take part if they do, who will win, and what will happen if this party wins or that party loses remain subjects of intense speculation.

The voting population have seen all of the parties and voted for them at different times, they have all failed to fulfill their electoral promises. Ordinary people outside any of the political groupings see no hope with these sets of people and parties. They want a real and radical change in system and leadership. Our question remains about who would bring such change, as these politicians will not.

Continuity of Family Dynasties
The political leadership most likely to rule after the next election are Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, and in near future the son of Sheikh Hasina, Sajeeb Wazed or son of Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman. Many prophesy that close family relatives from both political families will rule the future Bangladesh as this is what happened after the assassinations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman. These political families have left few chances for others and muddied political platforms so ordinary people cannot even think about entering into politics, by creating the impression that politics is not for ordinary people and that all politics runs through them. Sajeeb Wazed and Tareq Rahman have been criticized for their roles at different times and both stand accused of abusing state power. Needless to say, people are looking forward to a post-family dynasty politics.

Mujibur Rahman was never free from his dependence on New Delhi, and it is likely that nor will his daughter Sheikh Hasina. Mujib believed that he himself was Bangladesh, more so that he was good for the country, and that it could not manage without him. The same pattern of thought and self has been demonstrated by Hasina's leadership. Mujib's bitter struggle with the army high command is illustrated by the decision to construct the ultra loyalist Jatiyo Rakhi Bahini (National Defence Force). That struggle continues to date and many speculating that the 2009 BDR Mutiny was Hasina's vengeful continuation of that struggle. Mujib's fatal mistake was the fashioning of the single-party state run by the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), abandoning the idea of pluralism by unilaterally transforming democratic provisions in the constitution (Ziring, 1992). Hasina's most recent amendment of the constitution is fully against the spirit of rule of law and democracy. It has led the country towards violence and many argue that it is one of the prime minister's great mistakes. Slowly but surely democracy is being washed out of the existing system, and rule of law is been replaced by lawlessness as the years unfold.

Zia is praised by many as the 'people's leader' for saving the country from further violence and repression and promoting a pro-people state system. But many hold him responsible for guiding Bangladesh straight (back) into the army cantonment. Following the assassination of Mujib, an estimated 2,000 persons were imprisoned on charges ranging from criticism of the government to high treason. By the end of 1976 Bangladesh jails held an estimated 25,000 political prisoners. Zia instituted a stern system of military justice that meted out harsh penalties for acts deemed to be 'treasonous.' He is alleged to have sentenced thousands of officers and men to death for actions judged to be a mortal threat to the army as well as the nation (Ziring, 1992). Following the assassination, Ziaur Rahman, his wife Khaleda Zia rose to become the country's first woman prime minister. Twice prime minister of Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia, like her long-term rival Sheikh Hasina, has battled back from claims of extortion and corruption to challenge the incumbent again for the top office. As head of the party formed by her husband, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), she became a powerful opposition figure and played vital role in fighting back the military rule of Ershad. However, many observe her to lack the farsightedness and deep political understanding of her late husband.

During her years in power, Khaleda Zia has also notably failed to fulfil her electoral promises, continuing the path of her predecessors and failing to effectively mitigate rampant corruption from her party ranks. It was during her most recent tenure that Bangladesh started to win the dubious award of most perceivably corrupt country on earth . Critics have criticized Khaleda for her lack of maturity in politics. Recently her letter asking the U.S. to intervene in Bangladesh has provided more evidence of nearsightedness and intellectual redundancy. This raises questions of how safe Bangladesh is with her and her advisors hands on the steering wheel.

Political Alternatives: Jamaat-e-Islami
In Bangladesh there are people who view Jamaat-e-Islami as an alternative political force, that will advocate social justice and replace the current dysfunctional system by introducing a just and functioning state mechanism. Over the years however, Jamaat has failed to stand as any independent political party, rather it aligns with this party or that party. The party claims this to be the part of a political strategy, but critics see these alliances as against the greater interest of the people and as tactics which have fulfilled the narrow interests of the party. Many also argue that the party will lose its identity if it continues this present strategy. Analysts observe that Jamaat could be a key player in the country's parliamentary politics in the near future if they successfully stood alone and advocated the foundations of an Islamic understanding of democratic system.

However, for many this is an impractical dream while they are fighting for their very survival. Not to mention the indisputable fact that the nation is presently divided, and confused, on the issues of religion and politics. Historians remind us that dynamic religion has always been key to progressive social change, and Bangladesh cries out for a revitalisation of its systems. "Islamic Socialism" has been an answer proposed by many over the past half century, from Ali Shariati to our own Abul Hashem through more recently by Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, where a welfare state would be built inspired by spiritual, cultural, intellectual and political revolution established by The Beloved Muhammad (pbuh). To this end, I feel -- and I am not alone in this -- that Bangladesh is badly in need of another selfless, integrating and challenging figure like the "Red Maulana" Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, who is regarded as the proponent of anti-imperialist, non-communal and left-leaning politics and who challenged the tyrannies within of British India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It has been suggested that there do exist activist leaders whose political values and practices resemble Our Late Red Maulana's. For example, Farhad Mazhar, who has continuously battled against the current fascistic regime with tolerates no dissent and demands absolute loyalty from the local press corps. He very recently stand alone against the covered-up massacre in Dhaka, where unarmed protesters were allegedly extrajudicially killed by the law enforcement agencies as they meditated and slept in the early hours on May 6th under cover of darkness.

The Fatal Attraction of the Military Option
While autocracy has become self-reinforcing, democracy remains absent in political institutions and state mechanisms. The state has increasingly become the source of abuses of power, which grants its stakeholders space for violence and destruction, ensuring full impunity to the perpetrators and the state which remain beyond the reach of domestic and international law and free to continue to carry out violence and aggression.

Ordinary people have a sense that politicians will not change until they are forced to. That only a more demanding and responsible elite can compel the present ruling one. Often this is a military one. It is unfortunate when a peaceful change of power does not take place, but who is responsible? If politicians do not want the elections to take place, there are no possibilities of dialogue; consequently, the only traditional alternative is an unconstitutional takeover of power.

Although some argue that the present setup of government is undemocratic and is itself creating a space for military takeover of power, we need to look more closely at the moments when the military has taken over power in recent history. The role of the military in attempting to pursue of radical change has been widely criticized by many and welcomed by some. Some see their interventions as glorious parts of their history, and many others as political disasters. The 15th August Coup in 1975 resulted in the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the 30 May 1981 Coup the killing of Ziaur Rahman. Progressive people in Bangladesh wonder what will happen if any radical attempt taken by the military, and who would be the next victim of brutality, Khaleda Zia, or Sheikh Hasina?

Rhetoric and Reality
Frustrated voters and critical analysts see Bangladesh in different way than the people who are benefited by the present political setup. For them endemic social injustice, lawlessness, deeply rooted socio-economic inequality are certainties in Bangladesh. All the main political parties claim they are the protectors and promoters of the values and the inspiration of 1971 Independence. However, reality is different from rhetoric, liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; justice in social, economic and political sectors; and equality of status and of opportunity; remain only for selected few but in many cases, only in books.

People are left feeling that this is not the the democracy that they once dreamt of, and for which many have sacrificed for, or even what the meaning of democracy is. People's lack of control over their own lives and the decisions that affect them directly. No matter which party they vote for, there is little change. For years voters have focused on throwing out the incumbent party and bringing in the other party. In our society there is an impression that elections are all that there is to democracy. In Bangladesh class conflicts have traditionally played an important role in the political culture, whether superficially expressed as religious, or ethno-racial separatism, or through social movements and uprisings against landowners, factory barons and pretentious religion-baiters. As a consequence, general elections become the sites of registering these struggles. Here the voting-class people, whose political participation and stake usually counts for nothing, collectively decide who will triumph, and who will be eliminated. But this cycle, as in so many election cycles, the voting class people will have to vote to choose best among the worst as they have no champion.

It is also evident that politicians are not keen for any fruitful dialogue. The recent telephone conversation between Khaleda and Hasina is a shining example of this. However, they are very keen to meet western diplomats and mouth fake commitments to the international community towards promoting and protecting democracy and rule of law.

Uncomfortably Numb: The Political Roles of Education, Media and the Judiciary

Let us assume that people have understood that all political parties have failed to fulfill their electoral promises and that there is a need for a change of system and there are urgent issues to address. Why then are voters not noticing these failures when they make voter decisions? Are the voters themselves failures or is there some mechanism ensuring that change does not come.

English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic,George Orwell said, "Whoever controls the image and information of the past determines what and how future generations will think; whoever controls the information and images of the present determines how those same people will view the past."

In the country the formal and informal education system has been designed and maintained in such a way that discourages and keeps people uninformed about contemporary politics. The learning population learns the history of ruling elites wanting them to learn, but the people's class struggle and people's history remains unheard. The mass media is politically polarized and owned by partisan business interests. It plays a vital role in shaping the pre and post election mindset of people in favor or against of any given party.

Critics have recently blamed the 'Daily Amar Desh' for talking very favorably of the opposition BNP and presenting false news which has harmed the reputation of Bangladesh's 'War Crimes Tribunals' and increased religious fervor leading to rioting and violence, but many praise the role of the newspaper for exposing some uncomfortable truths. This is not a novel scenario, some years ago the 'Daily Janakantha' was also blamed by critics for presenting politically biased news. There are media who claim neutrality but are owned by the political businessmen who cleverly shape their channels participation in domestic and international information warfare. They decide what people will think and what they will do, wear, eat, drink -- and obviously -- whom they will like or dislike when voting.

Politicians keep the judiciary weak, and make sure that whoever holds position are chosen by them and will do what they want. This cleverly cripples the very instrument that should hold them accountable. They promote violence which creates fear and poverty in society which helps them to remain in power over the poor and the scared, and continue their corruption with impunity as the judiciary is toothless and spineless and sole partner of the corruption. It is as if the politicians use every state instrument to create that anesthetizing sense of fear and hopelessness in which people do not have the time think about politics, accountability and greater change.

As the election fever sets in, when its time to make the ruling party accountable for failing to fulfill electoral promises, the political parties promote violence on a wide scale and to distracting effect, such that people lack the time and resource to reflect on their recorded past, consider other possibilities and develop their own manifestos for change. At another level, people live under such fear and threat of violence that they limit their ambitions of making politicians accountable, rather than focusing on the fundamentals of how to overcome that violence and fear. This inhibits the social process of building alternative and perpetuates the choice of the least worst option.

Commentators reminds us that sooner or later an election will happen, and that the ruling party or the opposition will win the vote battle. However, do any of these statements mean that Bangladesh is a democracy? Many ask whether the present system is a democracy or if democracy is yet to come. How long will they have to wait to see a democracy? Will it be the next election or election after? Who will bring the democracy ? Will we need another 1971?