Institutionalising Democracy in Bangladesh

Dr. Akhter Hussain

27 May, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Institutionalising Democracy in Bangladesh

Dr. Akhter Hussain

Bangladesh emerged as an independent country in 1971. In fact, the country was established with the sacrifice of the lives of millions for establishing democracy as the system of governance. Through many ups and downs contrary to the principles and essence of democracy, the country is continuing with the cherished system with many limitations or shortcomings. It proves the fact that the people of the country at large like or are in favour of the democratic system of governance. For this particular reason, even after the democratic process was thwarted time and again, the country reverted back to the path of democracy.

Over the years, democracy has been perceived in a number of ways that include government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is also seen as government with the consent of the governed. Others say it as a form of government in which all citizens have rights and the ability to govern them. According to one source, there are six characteristics of a democracy. These include citizen rule, majority rule and minority rights, individual rights, free and fair elections, citizen participation and cooperation, and compromise. Citizen rule indicates that citizens are granted the right to vote to elect their representatives. It also takes into account the existence of clear guidelines for elections with term limits for key positions wherever applicable. The second principle of majority rule and minority rights ensures the rule of the majority, but at the same time, minority rights are protected by law.

With respect to the characteristics of individual rights, the democratic system protects individual rights. Here, the protection of individual liberties is of utmost importance. Fundamental human rights are guaranteed here and all citizens are equal under the law. The characteristic of free and fair elections is one of the most important foundation stones of the democratic system. Free and fair elections need to be held at regular intervals for the election of representatives of the people at all levels of government. The electoral process, in fact, reflects the will of the people in running the system with their chosen representatives.


The other characteristic of citizen participation ensures that besides voting, they also participate in different forums in running the affairs of the government. The sixth characteristic talks about cooperation and compromise. The system of cooperation and compromise is the cornerstone of the democratic system because it is used to protect individual rights, safeguard diversity, and represent all communities. Through the exercise of various rights, the rights of the underrepresented people are protected. However, proper functionality of a democratic system depends on the exercise of democratic practices. In the long run, democratic practices institutionalise a democratic system of government. These practices are ways through which citizens can work together. On certain issues, they may differ or disagree. But still then, they work together to solve those common problems.

Bangladesh started with the democratic system of government. But after a while, more than once, the democratic system was replaced by unconstitutional authoritarian system of government. However, in the 1990s, the country reverted back to a democratic system and is operating with such a system now. But the system is still not institutionalised for a number of reasons and many of them are the results of the earlier unconstitutional usurpation of state power and resulting authoritarian system of government. Notable among those reasons are the legacy of discontinuation and distortion of the democratic system of governance. In 1975, there was an initiative to introduce a one-party system in the country. In reality, it was a move to form a national government to address pressing issues confronting the nation at that particular time in history.

However, it could not be introduced in full because of a change of government. The real discontinuation happened twice, with the promulgation of martial law in the country suspending the Constitution in both 1975 and 1981. Later, democracy was restored in the country with the intention of providing legitimacy to those unconstitutional governments. The democratic systems introduced by the military rulers were designed to serve their purposes. These discontinuations and distortions had far-reaching consequences, and the country has not been able to come out of some of them yet. The military (transformed into civilian rulers afterwards) promoted divisiveness in the polity to perpetuate their grab on power. They unsettled issues which were settled through the liberation war. These include the rehabilitation of war criminals and their parties, and the removal of the concept of secularism which changed the egalitarian nature of the constitution through military promulgations. These moves created insurmountable permanent acrimonious divisions among the citizens.

The other fall out of process of discontinuation and distortion was the introduction of the practice and culture of physical annihilation of the political opposition. This started with the murders of Bangabandhu, his family members and keens, and the four national leaders (killed in jail). Later, it became a regular practice exercised by different regimes in one form or another to physically annihilate opposition leaders and forces. The current Prime Minister survived several of such murder attempts on her life, which were engineered by state agencies under the instructions of former regimes. The most notable incident was the 21st August grenade attack on her political rally at Bangabandhu Avenue in 2004. The heinous attack left 24 dead, including Ivy Rahman, who was the wife of Zillur Rahman, a former President of Bangladesh. Many suffered grave injuries that included prominent party leaders who formed a human shield to save Sheikh Hasina. In the same manner, SAMS Kibria, a former finance minister, and Ahsanullah Master, a labour leader, were killed in separate grenade attacks. They were both members of parliament (MPs) at the time of their assassinations. Later, such atrocities were also committed against innocent people in 2014 and 2015 in the name of protest and political agitation.

The other reasons include weak institutions like the election commission, partisan bureaucracy, and partisan and dependent civil society institutions. In fact, their weaknesses could also be lined with the process of discontinuation and distortion of the democratic system by the usurpers of state power. These regimes made conscious and deliberate efforts to keep the above stated institutions weak and dependent so that they could be used for providing them the necessary legitimacy for grabbing state power. Lack of democratic practice within political parties is the other reason that hindered or is still hindering the institutionalisation of a democratic system and practices in Bangladesh. Leaders of political parties that were created through unnatural processes are more reluctant to practice democracy within political parties as they fear it would threaten their leadership positions within their parties.  

Against all these odds, if we carefully look into the history of democracy and its practice, we can say that Bangladesh has had democratic rule in two phases of its nearly 50 years of existence as a sovereign nation – the first phase was from 1972-75, and the second phase began in 1991 and is continuing till this day. However, there was an interruption in the country’s democratic process as the military-backed caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed was in power for two years from 2007-08. In that sense, institutionalisation of democracy and associated practices would require more time. For this to happen, it is believed that the following recommendations need to be pursued by Bangladesh with missionary zeal and commitment. These include, beside others, uninterrupted continuation of the democratic system and practices, broad consensus on national issues and principles, the practice of democratic principles within political parties, dismantling of the culture of impunity, and finally, the practice of the principles of inclusion, effective participation and tolerance.

(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude).


The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh.