For the last 12 years, the International Day of Democracy has been being observed on 15 September to make people aware of their rights and ensure their participation in establishing peace and economic-social justice.
Unfortunately, across the globe democracy has increasingly suffered ever since the United Nations General Assembly decided to mark the day in 2007. Freedom House, an independent watchdog dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, published its latest version of report on democracy that testifies the dilapidated state of global democracy.
The report lamented that the global average score has declined gradually, and countries with net score declines have consistently outnumbered those with net improvements. Those who question such reports have changed their opinion after the 11th general election held last December. To many, the day has become risible.
Freedom House is a Washington-based organisation and they have not spared US from their evaluation. In their opinion, despite strength of democracy in US, rule of law, freedom of media and democratic norms have become endangered in the face of constant attack from Trump administration. US, although still in the ‘Free’ category, has seen decline in its position while Germany, the UK and France are ahead. According to their findings, political and civil rights have eroded in 68 countries of the world.
Bangladesh is in the ‘Partly Free’ category like the previous year but it scored four less than the previous year’s score of 45, on a scale of 100, in the index. Almost all the indices of political and civil rights have seen decline. Controlled general election last year has apparently contributed greatly to this fall. The report mentioned political violence, legal and extralegal harassment of opponents, intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters, allegations of fraud benefiting the ruling party, electoral fraud by Awami League men with complicity of law enforcement agents and barring accreditation of the election observer groups such as ANFREL as the reason of decline in Bangladesh’s position in holding free and fair elections. Bangladesh got only one out of four in the question of standard of election.
Bangladesh also lost a point regarding fairness of electoral laws and framework, and impartiality of election commission.
Other questions which determined the state of democracy include right to organise political parties, opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections, freedom of the people’s political choices from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable.
Questions such as do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government, are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective and does the government operate with openness and transparency also determined the score of a country in the report.
Bangladesh either remained stagnant or saw decline in all the above mentioned indicators.
Two other indicators need mention here which contribute most in an eroding democracy. They are rule of law and freedom of expression. Bangladesh scored 1 out of 4 in freedom of expression. According to the report, factors such as political pressure, threats and self censorship have contributed to that decline. The question of academic freedom and freedom of thoughts in universities also has also got importance in the report.
We managed to get only 4 out 16 in the questions of rule of law. We got 1 point out of 4 in each of the questions such as is judiciary independent, does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters, is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies, do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population.
Former chief justice SK Sinha’s forced retirement in 2017 and political pressure to other judges have contributed to 1 point decrease in the question of rule of law, according to the report.
It is difficult to understand that if our political parties can perceive the danger of such a shabby state of electoral process and rule of law. Six lawmakers of BNP have been only competing to express their gratitude to the prime minister for bringing them into the parliament rather than prioritising the question of reviving confidence in electoral process.
Also, BNP as a party does not seem to care much about prioritising the question of establishing people’s right to vote. If they did, they would not have been busy contesting in local body by-elections under the same election commission which has been subject to so many controversies.
Demand of resolution of the allegations against the commission brought out by BNP, of which the election commissioners apparently agreed in turns, has dissipated. Even BNP and other opposition parties do not seem to have any say on allegations of financial irregularities against the commissioners.
An election where people can elect their representatives through vote is considered a cornerstone of democracy. It is beyond our perceptions that how can political parties or politicians remain indifferent to loss of such a vital fundamental right of the people.
General election of 30 December was going to portray Bangladesh as a one-party state again but BNP lawmakers have given new life to the ruling party and its allies by joining the parliament. The legitimacy crisis of the government has somewhat eased by BNP lawmakers’ joining the parliament. Contesting in by-polls would further legitimise the government. Perhaps they consider it as a bargain point for release of their incarcerated party chief. Perhaps repression and harassment of BNP men has been eased a bit for that decision. But, did it bring about any positive changes in people’s basic rights?
What about remedies of the allegations of grave misuse of power by law enforcement? Where is the accountability in the reported rampant corruption in the guise of development activities? Ministers have apparently supported such claims of widespread corruption by terming those incidents as ‘mere pilferage’. Allegation-counter allegation between BCL top leaders and Jahangirnagar University vice chancellor has made inference that commission business is the most lucrative money making way in the country right now. What about leaders of other wings of ruling party while even its student wing leaders are involved in commission business worth millions? Who will stand by the side of thousands of investors and depositors in share market and banks who are being subjected to reckless despotism of a certain group?
Democracy is undoubtedly going through a very adverse time. But, there is no alternative to fight against the tide. Civil societies in such cases lead the fight and Bangladesh is no exception. Two recent movements of students and customers’ protest against WASA authorities testify to it. Politicians should know that they and their parties would become irrelevant if they fail to learn from the role of those civil bodies. Thus, chance of their rehabilitation or revival would continue to wither no matter if any alternative political group arises or not.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist.
* This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Galib Ashraf