After the establishment of India and Pakistan as independent states in 1947, the democratic process in India was institutionalised within a short period, while that of Pakistan has not yet taken an institutional shape. Since its independence, Pakistan's democratic process has repeatedly been stumbled upon by the military. And this is why the country took ten years after independence to formulate a constitution.
Bangabandhu began thinking about liberating the people of East Bengal, who had been tormented for years by the military government of West Pakistan. On December 16, 1971, Bangladesh became an independent state under his leadership after many ups and downs. On January 10, 1972, Bangabandhu returned to Bangladesh from Pakistani captivity and began establishing a democratic society. Meanwhile, he worked to rebuild the war-torn Bangladesh. But pro-Pakistan extremists derailed the democratic process in Bangladesh by killing him and most of his family members on August 15, 1975.
General Ershad assumed control after Ziaur Rahman and carried on the military rule in the same manner. Attempts to usurp power in the guise of democracy continue by enforcing a crackdown on the opposition. Consequently, the opposition was unable to exert influence on Parliament. Following Ershad's overthrow in 1990, democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1991 following a popular uprising. Although the BNP was in power from 1991 to 1996, the Awami League had served its role as a strong opposition party in Parliament.
Similarly, after the AL came to power in 1996, the BNP stood as a strong opposition party in Parliament. Until then, the opposition's stance was strong in Bangladesh's politics. Therefore, a pertinent question is why the opposition's stand in Bangladesh's politics has become so weak in the last 15 years?
When the BNP came to power in 2001, it raised the age of retirement of the Judges from 65 to 67 years towards the end of its rule to ensure that the caretaker government is run by its men. Therefore, the caretaker government was made controversial. Later, due to various controversial attempts of BNP President Iajuddin Ahmed, people's confidence in the caretaker government significantly eroded. There is no way to deny the BNP's responsibility for disputing the caretaker government system. If the retirement age of the Chief Justice had not been raised from 65 to 67 years, the undesirable situation would not have arisen in the politics of Bangladesh in 2006.
A peculiar military-backed government took oath on January 11, 2007, in the wake of controversial decisions taken by then-President Iajuddin Ahmed, ignoring various constitutional provisions to form a caretaker government. At first, they said their main goal was to transfer power through a fair and free election. But after coming to power, they concentrated on implementing the policy of de-politicisation to disrupt the democratic process in Bangladesh.
In early 2007, when the then AL president-Sheikh Hasina went to the United States to meet her sick daughter-in-law, the government tried hard to prevent her from returning to the country. Even the government attempted to send Begum Khaleda Zia out of the country. But ignoring the government's bloodshot eyes, Sheikh Hasina returned to the country on May 7, 2007, and started organising the party and demanding an election. In these two years of undemocratic rule in the country, there was no opportunity for the opposition to play a role in the country.
In Parliament, the opposition is considered as necessary as the ruling party. The opposition is responsible for criticising all the government's wrong and evil deeds. Without a strong opposition in Parliament, the house will never be effective. Even a strong opposition party plays a crucial role in institutionalising the democratic system. But at present, there is a void in the parliamentary politics of Bangladesh. The Prime Minister has repeatedly talked about the absence of a strong opposition party in Parliament. Since the opposition has no position in the Parliament, the role of the opposition in politics is getting weaker day by day. Due to its weakness, the BNP has done very poorly in the 2018 elections. Due to its long absence from power, the reluctance of the party supporters towards the party was being noticed, which is a threat to the party's very existence on the one hand and an extreme threat to the democratic system of Bangladesh on the other.
As noted, political parties always strive for power to serve the people. Therefore, they must support the public while they are in state power and outside it. If we closely observe the role of opposition political parties during the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be apparent that they did not support the public. Instead, they stayed busy holding virtual political meetings. Even the role of civil society actors who are extremely critical of the government's performance remained questionable throughout the pandemic since none of the actors was seen supporting people at the worst ever time of the century.
As the country's opposition political forces have weakened, a kind of indifference of the people towards voting is noticeable, which does not augur well for the democratic system. Although the opposition has blamed the government for creating this situation, the real responsibility lies with the opposition because their absence in the electoral process has helped the current ruling party strengthen its position. State power will change through the election every five years - this is a usual practice of democracy. But the opposition's absence from the electoral process is a significant threat to the institutionalisation of the democratic system. The plan of the opposition alliance to come to power by relying on other forces instead of participating in the elections to cover up its failures is unlikely to materialise in the current context.
The democratic system will be strengthened with the participation of all the opposition parties in the parliamentary elections to be held in 2023 - this is the expectation of all. All political parties should take part in elections and win people's confidence. No other forces than the people will be able to bring any political party to the helm of power in Bangladesh. Therefore, the opposition political parties must realise this as soon as possible. Realising this reality will strengthen their position on the one hand and strengthen the democratic process in Bangladesh.
Simultaneously, the government must do everything to bring the opposition to the polls. A few months ago, a new Election Commission (EC) was formed in the country. None of the men with whom the EC has been formed is controversial. Since the next election will be held under this EC, all the opposition political parties should take this EC into confidence because the EC will never be able to conduct a fair election if the political parties do not participate in the polls with the confidence of the EC. Therefore, all parties should work to consolidate the democratic process by participating in the elections and keeping the trust of the EC.
The writer is a Professor in the
Department of Public Administration
at the University of Rajshahi