Democratising our political parties: physician heal thyself

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley
During the two decades following resurrection of an avowedly parliamentary-cabinet type of democracy a virtual two-party system seems to have become part and parcel of the political arrangement. In substance, however, parliamentary democracy appears to have been elusive. All the elected governments in office from 1991 to 2006 were under the relentless domination of a strong executive. Parliament failed to become the centrepiece of the system

POLITICAL parties constitute the heart of a democracy. Functioning and stable democracies are featured by well-organised and well-knit political parties which themselves are democratic. Unfortunately, countries suffering from political underdevelopment, among which Bangladesh is one, have to carry on with ‘uncertain’ and ‘limping’ democracy. Such a system is at once brought forth by and results in dominant undemocratic political parties. These organisations reflect the larger context of the political topography of their societies. Such societies manifest depressing political underdevelopment. As Samuel P Huntington, the enunciator of the controversial concept of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ observed, in an earlier work, ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’, ‘…the principal locus of political underdevelopment (are) the modernizing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in which) with a few exceptions, (the period) after the Second World War (has been) characterized by increasing ethnic and class conflicts, recurring rioting and mob-violence, frequent military coup d’état, the dominance of unstable personalistic leaders who often pursue disastrous economic and social policies widespread and blatant corruption among cabinet ministers, and civil servants, arbitrary infringement of the rights and liberties of citizens, declining standards of bureaucratic efficiency and performance, the pervasive alienation of urban political groups, the loss of authority by legislatures and courts and the fragmentation, and at times, complete disintegration of broadly based political parties.’

The situation is created by the inability of the political leaders concerned, past and present, to appreciate the significant and primary role of political development. They fail to comprehend the wisdom of the African statesman Kwami Nkrumah who asserted: ‘Seek Ye first the political Kingdom and all things will be added up to it.’ As a prominent analyst of politics aptly observed, ‘…The experience of both early and later modernizers suggest… early attention to the problems of political organization and the creation of modern political institutions makes for an easier and less destabilizing process of modernization.’

In the words of Huntington, ‘political parties, as instruments of mobilizing new groups into politics and as entities not easily controlled by a single leader, may act as useful and effective balance to the shortcomings of personal leadership… Well-established competitive parties with sound organisation and effective spread can successfully aggregate diverse interest of specific groups and bring broad unity. A well-developed party system—whether dominant, multi-party or even single, capable of absorbing new social forces and offering consideration to new demands arising—is an effective component of political stability. Such an arrangement is a safeguard against the weakness produced by instability which invites military intervention.’

Unfortunately, in many less developed and developing nations including Bangladesh, political parties have not been able to graduate to the desirable level. During the two decades following resurrection of an avowedly parliamentary-cabinet type of democracy a virtual two-party system seems to have become part and parcel of the political arrangement. In substance, however, parliamentary democracy appears to have been elusive. All the elected governments in office from 1991 to 2006 were under the relentless domination of a strong executive. Parliament failed to become the centrepiece of the system. Weak and inadequate governance eroded the vitality of the polity. Degeneration and excessive polarisation of state institutions hampered the flowering of true democracy. Coping institutions inherited from the past including the civil service, local government and lower judiciary decayed and contributed to the weakening of the state and democratic way of life. Political violence increased and corruption spread fast like deadly cancer.

Political health of the nation suffered immensely on account of lack of consensus on core national issues, bi-partisanship in foreign affairs and toleration of different and diverse political beliefs and opinions. Democracy and good governance were adversely affected by inadequate application of the rule of law, protection of human rights and ineffective practice of peaceful resolution of political conflicts.

Again, there has been a transparent failure in ensuring the rightful and respectable place that the constitutional opposition invariably deserves in a truly democratic order. Political parties contending for power viewed elections as a zero-sum game where the winner took all. The triumphant side always rode roughshod over the defeated opposition. Increasing polarisation became the order of the day as both the principal parties unabashedly carried on efforts to politicise various segments of society. Professional groups became divided along party lines. Administration and business became polarised as party-governments turned into partisan governments. The country appears to have become the abode of an uncertain or illiberal democracy as toleration and give-and-take came to be in scarce supply.

The sorry process of degenerating democracy was at once accompanied and caused by concentration of power in the hands of top party leaders who also alternated to become chief executives of the governments. The sad scenario was also marked by visible strengthening of dynastic trends in political leadership. Charismatic and personal leadership appears to have spawned opportunities for the self-seeking sycophants who could enter the circles close to the dominant party leaders in the commanding heights of governments.

Revival of the parliamentary cabinet system was avowedly aimed at ending the autocratic trends and tendencies of the presidential order established in 1975. That order was dominated by an all-powerful executive branch led by a president who headed both the state and the government. It was hoped that the overthrow of the system as a result of strong civil uprising during the closing days of 1990 would bring in desirable separation of powers marked by democratic check and balance. The dream was that parliamentary government would revitalise the legislature, ensure meaningful and effective independence of the judiciary and bring forth a responsible executive branch operating under the rule of law.

The dream was not realised. The inertia of momentum continued long after the changeover of 1990. The tradition of the overwhelmingly powerful chief executive continued without visible break. Article 70 of the constitution of the republic made it impossible for the legislators to defy party whip on pain of losing their membership of parliament. Coupled with an administration which had become used to dancing ‘to the tune of the piper’ controlled by the master, this further contributed to the continuance of the dominant executive. In consequence, what emerged in place of the presidential system was not a parliamentary but a virtual ‘prime ministerial’ order.

The sweeping powers of the chief executive of the government did not emerge from the weakness of the constitutional system alone. Exercise of seemingly unfettered power and control by top executives was also the fruits of their charisma. The charismatic mantle of the top leaders of both the major political parties was the product not only of dynastic credentials but also of their track records as effective political leaders fighting against autocracy and keeping their respective parties under their firm control.

As this writer wrote on an earlier occasion, ‘…The existing principal parties embody and manifest major trends and forces in the society. Their leaders not only have strong dynastic credentials but have also succeeded in acquiring charismatic mantles in course of two and a half decades of political struggles and activities. The leaders and their parties have not failed their ideological and political followers in terms of upholding the ideas and concepts of their political organizations. Their failure is writ large in their inability to practice real democracy within and outside the parties and their incapacity in achieving good governance when in power. That failure does not yet seem to have created the space for emergence of an alternative political force.’

During 2007-2008 the caretaker government backed by the armed forces realised this truth after fruitless attempts at fostering such alternative forces. Manned by non-political administrators and experts that government yielded to the political realities and left the scene with their mission unfulfilled. In one area, however, they initiated a partly successful exercise: efforts at democratising the political parties. The Election Commission entered into partially fruitful deliberations with the political parties on democratic reforms of the parties. Revision of party constitution to impart democratic tone and temper, holding of frequent and regular party councils were agreed to by the parties themselves. Whatever democratisation resulted was achieved by consent rather than compulsion.

Nevertheless, there is a long way to go. Democratic political parties with constant give and take between the top and the bottom, between the high command and the grassroots and featured by open and fearless debates on vital issues of life, politics and economy can alone put reins on the wayward power of unchallenged charismatic leaders. Even in democracies autocratic trends and tendencies can grip lionised and unchallenged leaders who fall victims to deadly isolation. Once in power they become surrounded by a handful of close and loyal political lieutenants, sections of servile and effete civil bureaucracy and non-political or apolitical security personnel. A wall seems to have come up to divide them from their electorate, from the people the very source of their democratic power. The iron curtain, in time, insulates them and democracy fails to sustain itself. Democratisation of the political parties is the first indispensable step towards achievement of real democracy in place of a merely elective order. This all important step can be taken by the political leaders themselves. Aptly has it been said ‘economic prosperity makes democracy possible, political leaders make it real.

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