Democracy deficit creating crises in different sectors

Speakers on the second day of the two-day 1st Development Studies International Conference, Dhaka (DSIC)-2024 at Sonargaon Hotel, Dhaka, on 6 May, 2024Prothom Alo

In comparison to the nineties, the balance of power in political and economic organisations in contemporary Bangladesh has been destroyed. Power has been centralised due to the democracy deficit. The inevitable fallout of this situation has appeared as different types of crises in the banking sector, share market, educational institution and project implementation.

These observations were made at a session on the second day of the ongoing 1st Development Studies International Conference, Dhaka (DSIC)-2024 at Sonargaon Hotel Monday afternoon.

Development studies department of Dhaka University and national daily Bonik Barta have jointly organised the two-day conference.

Hossain Zillur Rahman, advisor to a former caretaker government and executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), moderated the session on ways to recover democratic deficit.

Senior fellow researcher at BRAC University’s BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) Mirza Hasan, professor Naomi Hossain at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University in London and associate professor of development studies department at Western Sydney University Zulfan Tadjoeddin presented three articles.

Addressing the conference, Hossain Zillur Rahman said that the question of whether the serious democratic deficit in Bangladesh is creating deficiencies in carrying out the responsibilities of the government appears naturally. When you talk about growth, this question comes up - where does the economy of Bangladesh stand now? What’s the picture of income, and the poverty situation? whether economic analysis, development analysis and political analysis are taken into consideration.

As the governing party’s influence is a reality in Bangladesh’s political system, so is the presence of different opinions in the electoral process, thinks Hossain Zillur Rahman.

Speaking about the last parliamentary elections, he said an influential political party (the governing party) was frightened of a meaningful election. Though the influential political party was highly confident of their development activities, they did not have any interest in a meaningful election in the country.

Hossain Zillur Rahman also thinks the democracy deficit in the country has been creating a crisis in carrying out the government’s responsibilities. According to him, this crisis is more widespread in banks, stock markets, educational institutions and in project implementation, which is surprising. All these are the inevitable consequences of centralisation of power.

Mushtaq Khan, professor of Economics at SOAS University of London, believes that there is a need to increase accountability and balance in power and policy-making capacity in Bangladesh.

In his speech as a panel speaker, he said, two changes become evident while comparing today’s Bangladesh with that of the 90s. Political and economic organisations have changed.

Recalling that in the nineties there were two alliances led by the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Mushtaq Khan said that the two alliances were able to mobilise a large number of people. They did not have much ideological differences. Both alliances could counter each other; none of them believed that any one party would stay in power forever. They also had an understanding that one side could not completely remove the other from the political scene. As a result, there was a kind of balance in politics.

According to him, there was a balance in the economy. The owners of ready-made garment factories were not as politically involved and were not in parliament. So there was a balance of power distribution between various parties in that phase of democratic governance in Bangladesh. But later one party came to power and removed the other party from the scene.

Professor Mushtaq Khan remarked that India’s democracy has now turned into a dictatorship. Adani and Ambani, two largest conglomerates of the country, now control India’s economy. The same is happening in Bangladesh. A few big business groups are controlling things here. This trend is new in Bangladesh. No new industry has emerged in the last two decades but extensive infrastructure has been developed, which may increase the debt burden of Bangladesh. In the meantime, the indication of which is gradually becoming evident in the economy of Bangladesh.

He said that the decision on distribution of power is being taken within the party in Bangladesh. This suggests that the organisational structure of the party is not strong enough. Raising questions on the role of the country’s civil society in such a situation, he said, alternative organisations should be built to overcome the situation. This could put pressure on the government to fulfill its responsibilities.

Speaking at the session, MM Akash, professor of the economics department at Dhaka University said that it is inevitable to have people’s involvement in key decisions, not only in polls or political competitions, that bring qualitative changes in their lives. Those who are now competing against each other in the governing party are not the people’s representatives. They are the representatives of the people who seized power. A representative of the same society.

He further said in terms of one-party rule, can Bangladesh give rise to the Lee model (former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan) or the Marcos (former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos) model? That means there is uncertainty here. Herein lies the question. No one knows what the future holds.

MM Akash also said despite the democracy deficit, economic growth and progress in social indicators are considered a paradox. But it should be kept in mind that in the development of Bangladesh four elements played a key role -  the expatriate workers’ income, the advancement of the apparel industry, the development of small and medium industries and unprecedented success in agriculture.

But how much of the voice of those, who have taken the country forward, has been reflected in the country’s decision-making, he asked.