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How is the opposition in Bangladesh faring?

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Police beat up BNP activists in the capital’s Nayapaltan neighborhood on October 26, 2021. BNP men clashed with law enforcement after the party concluded a rally outside its central office to protest against communal attacks in the country. Photo: Collected

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Police beat up BNP activists in the capital’s Nayapaltan neighborhood on October 26, 2021. BNP men clashed with law enforcement after the party concluded a rally outside its central office to protest against communal attacks in the country. Photo: Collected

The Prime Minister had made a very profound and significant remark earlier this month on the state of the opposition in the country. She touched the heart of the problem: democracy, parliament and the opposition. Unfortunately, his comments have not received the attention they deserve given the abject condition of democracy and its indispensable complement, politics, in Bangladesh. This says a lot about how little interest politics has for the public or for the main opposition political parties living in the shadow of the ruling coalition. One possible reason could be that the public has swallowed the Awami League mantra of “development before democracy” and would not want to return to the status quo ante where political activities have often hampered the development process. Thus, the discourse on politics has become less of a priority, indicating the weakening of public interest in politics.

What the Prime Minister had said, and I paraphrase his statement, is that the opposition has failed to gain credibility or gain the confidence of the people. This is not the first time she has commented on the state of the opposition in Bangladesh. In fact, she had made similar remarks last January during the inauguration of the Mujib Borsho; it deserves to be quoted in full: “For a democracy, a strong opposition party is essential because we want our democratic trend to continue. What she added is equally important: “The current opposition parties in parliament have not been able to win people’s trust at the desired level due to lack of leadership.

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Clearly, the Prime Minister is concerned about the state of the opposition in parliament, as she should be, because an effective, functional and vibrant opposition gives democracy a credibility that the current opposition in parliament does not is certainly not, and it has ravaged the current parliament of the credibility that a properly elected parliament would engender through free, fair and credible elections. Needless to say, a country without a political opposition worthy of the name is fraught with uncertain political consequences, because the vacuum created by such a state of affairs allows suprapolitical elements, outside parliament, to fill the vacuum, posing as for an alternative to the current political regime.

It is worth noting that the army was not cited as the villain, as was the tradition for political parties to do until recently. It has been 32 years since Khaki’s back was seen in politics and 52 years since the end of Pakistani rule. Thus, the PM’s remarks assume more poignancy for the underlying message they contain.

In short, why has the situation come to such a point? Why did democracy and democratic institutions, freedom of speech and the right to dissent become so limited under the watchful eye of a political party whose political cry was democracy and government of the people? Shouldn’t the ruling party share some of the blame for the situation that prevails today, a unique situation in parliamentary democracy, where the main opposition in parliament has been subsumed under the ruling party?

The tactics the AL used with Ershad and the Jatiya party in the 2014 elections are all too well known. It was on the verge of being scuttled as all opposition political parties decided to boycott the elections legislative. An opposition had to be found, because there could be no parliament without an opposition, and Ershad was forced to join it. He was hospitalized, a convenient euphemism for confinement, while his deputy was only too happy to take part in the polls, which validated the questionable elections that followed. His letter of withdrawal of nomination took several weeks to reach the office of the electoral commission of the Interallied Military Hospital (CMH), only a few kilometers as the crow flies. Unfortunately, AL has replicated what Ershad did in 1988 with the fourth parliament. It must have cost the ruling party a pretty penny, apart from the odd arrangement where several JP(E) MPs were inducted into the cabinet. JP(E) came to be jokingly called JP(AL), and the democracy we had, as a hybrid.

The 2019 elections went the same way. So what kind of “opposition” can we expect from a domesticated opposition? With the BNP, the country’s main opposition in parliament, navigation was easy for the ruling coalition. And wasn’t that what the AL had negotiated? So why complain about something for which we are responsible.

But democracy is not just about parliament and the parliamentary opposition. There are favorable conditions that facilitate the practice of democracy and the conduct of politics, for example, freedom of expression and freedom of association, assembly and the right to dissent. Unfortunately, the space for the practice of all the above ingredients has become increasingly restricted. The Digital Security Act (DSA) is like a sword of Damocles, the worst victims are the media, which plays the role of opposition in the absence of opposition in parliament. There can be no democracy, let alone effective opposition, without freedom of expression. The proposed new online laws are even stricter. The recent Zila Parishad law, which violates the constitution, has dealt a severe blow to the essence of local government, which under the constitution cannot be run by unelected people. All this is done, it is feared, in view of the next legislative elections.

The Prime Minister’s comment is a sad admission that democracy in Bangladesh suffers from a serious deficit. In addition to an effective parliamentary opposition, many problems need to be solved. Addressing issues and applying political will, and putting country above party is the only remedy to get democracy in Bangladesh back on track.

Brigadier General Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retired) is a former deputy editor of the Daily Star.