Intense social movements, robust economic development must for sustaining Bangladesh’s democratic freedoms

Bangladesh exhibits some positive aspects of democracy that are highly dependent on some economic and political factors

Akmal Hossain Oct 17, 2021
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Bangladesh’s democratic freedoms

Though Bangladesh started its journey as a parliamentary democracy, the political system cannot be described as one rooted in liberal democracy after fifty years of independence. There is an ongoing debate among scholars whether Bangladesh is an authoritarian state or a hybrid regime, but it is not a liberal democracy, according to them.

The term democracy is a contested word and has many meanings. Among the meanings given by democracy theorists to the word 'democracy' are the following: maintaining fundamental freedom and fundamental rights; accepting results of elections; upholding the rule of law; ensuring accountability; preserving democratic pluralism; ensuring equality; protecting oppositions' rights and freedom of association; respecting public opinion and media freedom.

Democracy, or liberal democracy, symbolizes the definitive end-point of human history, according to "end-of-history" theorists such as Francis Fukuyama. The idea provides social mobility and material stability to all members of a democratic society allowing residents to pursue personal growth without government intrusion.

The critical question is, what causes a country to be called a democracy or democratic. Democracy theorists struggle to describe the democratization process. Nevertheless, we can identify at least four factors that determine the democratization process. The factors include the degree of economic and political modernization of a particular country, cultural and religious values, demographic structure, and the international political system and environment.

According to some scholars, economic prosperity drives the democratization process by creating a 'middle class' society that demands more democratic values. Thus, Harrington Moor rightly points out “no bourgeoisie, no democracy”. From the cultural perspective, the more religious are people, the less are they democratic, with certain exceptions. Internally, a country's domestic institutions play an essential role in the democratization process. Furthermore, the chances of democracy in any country are likely to be influenced by current trends in the international system. The democratic changes in a neighboring political system might impact the witnessing country for more political freedoms and civil liberties.

The positives and negatives

According to Article 11 of the Bangladesh constitution’s chapter 2, the nation has embraced democracy as one of the state principles. From 1972 to 1990, however, none of the regimes practiced liberal democracy. Bangladesh has exhibited both positive and negative components of democracy. There have existed high levels of political participation, a plethora of political parties, a rising middle class, an active civil society, and regular elections. Nevertheless, the state has agonized from the deficiency of stalwart institutions to ensure the rule of law, accountability, and transparency in governance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the weakest aspects of Bangladeshi democracy in different ways. These include the damaging 'institutional hardballs' - the safeguard of liberal democracy; the self-censorship of media, civil societies, and various human rights groups. The absence of internal democracy among the major political parties, particularly the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has intensified the malpractice of power, which represses the future of liberal democracy in Bangladesh.  

Thus, the future of democracy in Bangladesh has two faces. First, democracy is currently and in the foreseeable future confronted with several difficulties that threaten democratic values.

Second, Bangladeshi democracy, on the other hand, has some promising prospects in the following years, but it will take time.

The negative elements of democracy in Bangladesh, including the substantial number of electoral irregularities, marginalization of opposition parties, fractured political institutions, and declining trust in government, indicate a bleak future for democracy in the country. In addition, an ineffective parliament has distorted the democratic law-making procedure, which is also responsible for the perceived decay of democracy in Bangladesh.

Furthermore, income inequality has increased manifold in the last few years, undermining the democratic postulates of Bangladesh’s democracy. AL and BNP, the two major political parties in Bangladesh, according to Duverger's classification, are devotee parties as they work around their one and chief leader. All these features indicate a not-so-rosy future for democracy in Bangladesh.

Ray of hope

But still, there is some ray of hope. Adam Przeworski writes, “No democratic country with a GDP per capita of greater than USD 6,000 has ever abandoned democracy”. Thus, economic development, scholars argue, is a crucial element for a country becoming a democracy.

The empirical evidence and abundant comparative analysis indicate a strong correlation between a higher level of economic development and a more robust democracy. Bangladesh is an emerging economy; the per capita income is going up. Thus, if Bangladesh surpasses the per capita income of USD 6,000, Bangladesh will have a sustained democracy.

Despite recent apathy to election and politics displayed by a section of the population, alternative political participation is growing through different social movements. Such social movements indicate people's alternative involvement in the politics of Bangladesh. Scholars have argued that there is a clear relationship between the strength of such movements and the level of democratic freedom in a particular country. The recent quota and road safety movements are examples of alternative political participation in Bangladesh.

Therefore, Bangladesh exhibits some positive aspects of democracy that are highly dependent on some economic and political factors. Bangladesh may be a liberal democracy, but it is now under challenge. We have to wait for years to witness the dream moment of democracy that we desire.

(The writer is pursuing MSS in political science at University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at akmal10th.du@gmail.com).