didn't alternative political forces emerge?
Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley
The demand for alternative political forces is generated when
existing forces are perceived to be inadequately responsive to
the needs of the society. Political parties manifest the various
forces operating in a polity. In Bangladesh for nearly three decades
two major parties the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh
Nationalist Party (BNP) have been operating as embodiments of separate
streams of social forces. Despite the presence of other political
parties such as the Jatiya Party of former President Ershad and
the Jamat-E-Islami Bangladesh the AL and the BNP have been the
virtual centerpieces of the country's politics since 1979 and more
particularly since 1991. The dominance of these parties in the
post-1990 period when resurrected parliamentary democracy was ostensibly
in full operation, turned the political order into a virtual two-party
Both the Awami League and BNP are avowedly liberal parties with
centrist inclinations and based on the active support of lower-middle,
middle-middle, upper-middle and upper classes. On account of transformations
at the global, regional and national levels the Awami League gradually
changed its economic manifesto from the 1990s. It changed its earlier
commitment to socialism and replaced it by loyalty to social welfare.
It, however, remained unflinching in its commitment to secularism,
Bengali nationalism and democracy.
SK. Enamul Haq
By contrast, the BNP while avowedly committed to democracy and
social justice, advocated Bangladeshi Nationalism and without overtly
abandoning secularism stressed the role of Islam in a predominantly
Muslim society. From 1990 the AL under the leadership of Sheikh
Hasina, daughter of the founder President of Bangladesh Bangabandhu
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the BNP under the leadership of Begum
Khaleda Zia, wife of Liberation War hero Shaheed (Martyr) President
Ziaur Rahman, succeeded in mobilizing widespread and steadfast
popular support for their respective parties. Each party, with
assistance from allied political forces commanded support of more
than 30% of the electorate in the national elections of 1991, 1996
and 2001 while the Awami League scored a victory in the national
polls of 1996.
For one and a half decade the two-party system seemed to have
become well entrenched in a parliamentary order that appear to
work despite many shortcomings. Appearance, however, did not faithfully
reflect the reality. A close look at the three parliamentary Governments
that ruled Bangladesh from 1991 shows that tradition of the strong
executive dominating the scene continued unhindered. The parliament
remained comparatively ineffective despite the system being parliamentary
cabinet in form. Governance weakened and decayed. State institutions
inherited from the past including the civil bureaucracy, lower
judiciary and local government lost their strength through a process
of degeneration and undesirable excessive politicization. Violence
in politics that began to spread in the 1980's increased manifold,
especially since the mid-1990s and corruption in all spheres of
life expanded like a hydra-headed monster.
What Almond and Verba called 'civic-culture' appears to be in
short supply in our society. Only lip service seems to have been
rendered to the essential democratic values of consensus on important
national issues, by-partisanship in foreign affairs, toleration
of different and divergent political ideas and views, rule of law,
human rights and peaceful resolution of political conflicts.
the three decades of liberated Bangladesh, the indispensable
of democracy called constitutional opposition has had
a very rough deal. Aptly has it been said “the purpose of
the party system in a democracy is to make opposition respectable.” It
appears that the party system in Bangladesh failed to realise
this essential purpose of making opposition respectable. Elections
have been regarded as zero-sum games in which 'the winner takes
all'. After every election the winning side tried to ride roughshod
over the defeated opposition both within and outside Parliament,
thus weakening the practice of democracy. Both the major political
parties consciously or unconsciously, tried to politicize the
entire society in their own favour. Lack of toleration and
give and take
resulted in turning Bangladesh into an illiberal and uncertain
democracy. Power was centralized in the hands of top party
leaders who also alternated to become Chief
Executives of the government. Dynastic trends were visibly promoted.
Coteries close to the top leadership indulged in cultivating and
promoting corruption. Governance suffered and people's demands
and rights to have a better quality of economic, political and
social life were often ignored and frequently suppressed. Economic
development became skewed. Despite growth economic development
failed to effectively address the issues of equity and just distribution.
People became restless and often agitated even in the absence of
political leadership to voice their rightful demands for adequate
supply of necessities such as electricity, water and fertilizer.
All this, coupled with waning trust in the efficacy of the Caretaker
government system for securing free and fair elections led to profound
and widespread political conflicts especially during 2006. Confrontations
between the 4-party ruling alliance led by the BNP and the united
platform of the opposition led by the Awami League spilled on to
the streets causing nationwide violence and disorder. As history
witnesses, the result was the promulgation of Emergency on the
11th January 2007, postponement of national elections scheduled
to be held on the 22nd January and the emergence of a reconstituted
Caretaker government with the support of the armed forces.
The failure of the major political parties to conduct politics
in a desirable manner caused grave concern of the society at large.
Even before the events of the 11th and 12th January 2007 there
was a widespread feeling that alternative forces were needed to
fill the gap created by the inadequacy of the dominant parties.
After the advent of the reconstituted Caretaker government discussions
about the necessity and the importance of such alternative forces
have become more prominent in government, political and civil society
circles. Both the print and electronic media have been athrob with
heated deliberations on the issue. Simultaneously energized discussions
are also continuing on needs of constitutional reforms to achieve
desirable separation and balance of power, reform of constitutional
bodies and state institutions including public administration and
reform of political parties for their effective internal democratization.
The question naturally arises: will there be any need for alternative
political forces if the existing political parties can reform and
democratize themselves, put reins on powers of the autocracy of
personalistic political leaders, arrest undesirable dynastic tendencies,
resist corruption and vow to help to establish good governance.
The obvious answer is no. The necessity will become inexorable
if the parties fail to do what is expected of them and what they
publicly promise to do.
Even in such a situation the rise of alternative force or forces
is not going to be easy. Politics everywhere is bound by tradition.
Bangladesh is no exception. 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. This is evident from the stillborn efforts of
Noble laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus in what appeared for him to be
an adventure in uncharted seas. Further, attempts by other comers
in the field are still to show visible strength.
negatives are not evidently enough to create, propel and sustain
political force in present day Bangladesh.
are apparently in short supply. A capable and effective alternative
political force will certainly need charismatic as well as
competent leadership. Charisma and competence by themselves are
It will also need effective organization and mobilisation.
A competitive party “with sound organisation and effective spread can successfully
aggregate diverse interest of specific groups and bring broad unity”.
In Bangladesh today building such a political party is easier
said than done. It requires not only capable, honest and dedicated
but also long and hard work to build such a structure successfully
challenging the existing dominant leaders and their parties.
At the moment neither new and capable leaders nor their dedicated
and committed associates and followers are in sight. That is
the process of emergence of alternative political forces seems
to have stuck.
The author, a noted thinker and social scientist, is the founder
Chairman, Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB),
Editor, quarterly “Asian Affairs”.