Overview of Paper
Since 1991, Bangladesh has enjoyed unbroken democratic rule under a parliamentary system. The country has held three national elections, as well as numerous local elections. After the first post-military rule election, the reins of government have changed hands twice in free elections, and a fourth national election is scheduled for early 2007. In today’s global context, the existence of such a record of democratic rule in an important Muslim majority society is remarkable, demonstrating that Islam and democracy are compatible. The fact that many Islamic nations are still struggling to establish democratic institutions suggests that Bangladesh’s experience may offer lessons for bringing about democratic transitions in Muslim nations. What is more, Bangladesh could offer lessons to international actors – foreign policy agencies, multilateral organizations, international non-governmental organizations – on the most promising programs to adopt for assisting other nations to make democratic transitions and to consolidate democracy. To be sure, Bangladesh must cope with serious shortcomings in its democratic institutions and practices. Bangladesh is still in the process of consolidating democracy, and the outcome of that process is by no means guaranteed. Nevertheless, signs of progress are evident. Outside actors attempt to play a significant part in Bangladesh’s democratic consolidation. Multilateral organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and foreign policy agencies all have programs to enhance Bangladesh’s democratic practices. Do the efforts of outside actors help? Are they legitimate? What barriers prevent their efforts from achieving greater success? Can these barriers be overcome? The present paper surveys the state of knowledge on the efforts of outside actors and suggests research directions for providing complete answers to these questions.
Democracy in Bangladesh
Bangladesh was born in revolutionary popular struggle. The former East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan due to a conflict over identity, but the breakdown of the democratic process was the precipitating factor. For many years, East and West Pakistan had shared an uneasy bond of sovereignty as heirs to the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan separated from India because its leaders successfully persuaded the British that Muslims required their own state. They argued that the differences between Muslims and Hindus were too great for the two peoples to coexist in the same country, and a united India would clearly be under Hindu domination. Consequently, in 1947, the two nations divided, with the predominantly Muslim East Bengal becoming East Pakistan.
Yet, the common bond of religion was not sufficient to hold the two widely separated parts of Pakistan together. In practice, the elites of West Pakistan dominated the nation’s financial, political, and military affairs. Population growth in East Pakistan meant that the majority of the people were effectively disenfranchised. The differences between the two wings of Pakistan began to surface when Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the legendary leader of the nation, decreed that Urdu would henceforth be the official language of government and business, despite the fact that the majority of Pakistan’s citizens spoke Bengali. The crisis that ensued did not lead to the immediate breakup of the country, but it did generate movements for autonomy that ultimately resulted in demands for independence in East Pakistan.
The growing tension between East and West Pakistan came to a head when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, unexpectedly won a national election. Had the results of the election been respected, Mujib, often called Bangubandhu and now considered the Father of the Nation of Bangladesh, would have been Prime Minister of Pakistan. The election results came about because the ploys the ruling elites used to prevent a united front in East Pakistan failed, and Mujib’s near-unanimous victory there provided a majority overall. Faced with this shocking outcome, the elites in West Pakistan chose to repudiate the election rather than let Mujib form a government. Mujib was arrested and jailed in West Pakistan, and most of those who would have formed his cabinet went into exile.
From this began a resistance movement to Pakistani rule, a democratic, grassroots struggle to express the popular will in what would become Bangladesh. The Pakistani government met the resistance movement with violent military reprisal. Up to three million citizens died in the brutal repression during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. Intellectuals were particular targets, as university faculty and students were executed. Nevertheless, the aspiration for democratic self-determination enabled the Bengali people to defeat the Pakistani army, with the assistance of Indian forces. This shows that the desire for democratic self-rule among the people is strong, and this drive for democracy has shaped the nation’s politics since, despite a number of serious setbacks along the way.
Bangladesh began as a democratic nation. Mujib returned from exile to take his post as Prime Minister in the newly independent Bangladesh. A constitution was adopted that guaranteed free elections and human rights for all. Despite this promising beginning, Bangladesh’s democracy would fall prey to factionalism and violence. Facing a series of crises, the Mujib government attempted to pull more power to the center, tending toward a powerful presidency centered on Mujib’s personality. This was not unusual in developing countries at the time, but elements in Bangladesh were strongly opposed, and charges of corruption in Mujib’s family and government were leveled. Plotters hatched a coup, carried out by executing Sheikh Mujib in his home, along with many of his family. Among the few to escape the bloodshed was Sheikh Hasina, who was in Germany at the time. She has since become the leader of the Awami League and won the office of Prime Minister in 1996.
After a series of political maneuvers, General Ziaur Rahman emerged as the nation’s leader. Zia established a military government, but he realized that the legitimacy of military rule in Bangladesh was short-lived. Thus, he instituted a process of restoring democratic processes. Ziaur Rahman, unfortunately, also came to grief. For reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, a coup was hatched against him, and he was assassinated while visiting Chittagong. The promising moves toward democracy were thwarted, and military rule returned. Again, the nation experienced instability as various factions fought to gain the upper hand. In the end General H. M. Ershad emerged victorious, and he took the post of military ruler of the nation. Ershad’s regime held power from 1982 to 1990, when popular pressures forced him to resign and to allow national elections.
In order to ensure free and fair elections in a highly charged political environment, Bangladesh developed an innovative device, the caretaker government. The caretaker government’s primary task was to oversee the election process, and to conduct routine administrative tasks. The purpose was to ensure a neutral entity held political power while elections were in process, so that all political parties would have a fair chance at victory.
The first election gave the majority of seats in Parliament to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Khaleda Zia, widow of assassinated leader Ziaur Rahman, led the party and assumed the post of Prime Minister. The Constitution allowed the sitting government to serve five years before holding a national election. In 1996, Bangladesh held its second national election since the restoration of democracy. As observers of democracy know, the second election is the most critical, because it can entail the transfer of power, always the most difficult task for new democracies. When President George Washington handed the presidency to John Adams in the United States, a historic event had occurred. In Bangladesh, the country’s history of violent transfers of power made the second post-Ershad election even more critical. In the event, the Awami League won a surprising victory, so that the issue of peaceful transfer of power was urgent. Here, perhaps, was the beginning of the consolidation of Bangladesh’s democracy, for the transfer of power that allowed Sheikh Hasina to assume the post of Prime Minister did take place without incident, and the Awami League served its full term of five years. In the third national election since 1991, the Bangladesh National Party regained the majority in Parliament in 2001, and again the transfer of authority was orderly. Now the country is poised to hold its fourth national election since the restoration of democracy.
The theme running throughout Bangladesh’s history is an abiding aspiration for democracy. The nation was born when the Pakistani regime repudiated democracy in favor of dictatorship and repression. The people of Bangladesh rose up and demanded self-rule. Difficult, violent conflicts that led to military governments could have thwarted the nation’s path toward democracy. They did not. Instead, rulers realized that they had to respond to the people’s will if government was to sustain legitimacy. Thus, in spite of several military governments, Bangladesh saw a broad-based popular movement that brought about a peaceful restoration of democratic institutions. Such movements do not arise in a moment. They require steady, patient, and courageous effort. The strength of the pro-democracy movement in Bangladesh is testament to the nation’s abiding commitments. Feldman notes:
The nascent democracy is still very fragile. But the bottom line is that Bangladesh is struggling to become a Muslim democracy, evidence that it can be done even under the most difficult conditions.
Significance of Democracy in Islamic Nations
The story of Bangladesh’s struggle to establish and consolidate democracy carries considerable importance in today’s world. Although the issue has been on the global agenda for some time, the events of September 11, 2001 brought it to the fore. Within a year, President George W. Bush had disseminated his administration’s overall strategy in response to the terrorist attack. The Bush strategy includes several elements, notably reliance on the preemptive use of American military power, temporary ‘coalitions of the willing’ rather than working through established alliances, and increased emphasis on homeland security, including closer scrutiny of foreigners entering the United States. Most important for this discussion is that the administration believes the war on terrorism to be a global struggle between good and evil, the forces of freedom arrayed against a dark form of Islamic fundamentalism. In order to defeat these dark forces, the Bush administration has committed to supporting democratic governments and transitions to democratic institutions throughout the Islamic world.
Of course, the current focal point of this experiment in social change is Iraq. The administration made several claims to justify the invasion of Iraq, including alleged violations of United Nations resolutions on weapons of mass destruction, and alleged connections to Al Qaeda. Evidence has not supported these assertions; no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and no links to Al Qaeda of any significance have been proven. The administration continues to advance the argument that liberating Iraq from a dictator, and instituting democratic processes, justified the invasion. Doing so, they have argued, will turn Iraq from enemy and potential threat to supporter and ally of the United States in its war against terrorists. In addition, Iraq can serve as an example and inspiration to other nations in the region; U.S. invasions will not be required to bring about transformations in countries that see strengthened popular movements invigorated by the success of democracy in Iraq.
Yet, some observers doubt that this project can succeed. They question whether democracy is feasible in Muslim societies, which puts in doubt the administration’s rationale for using military power to bring about regime change in Iraq. If Islam is inherently anti-democratic, and deeply held by tens of millions of citizens in Islamic countries, then the problem is much greater than simply removing a dictator. If the administration is correct, removing a well-entrenched dictator would allow the natural aspirations of the Iraqi people for freedom to flourish, and a self-reinforcing process of democratization should ensue. Initiating the transformation of dictatorships to democracy is important because democratic nations are peaceful nations, and they are less likely to be breeding grounds for terrorism. Accordingly, if the United States can set in motion the process of democratization across the Muslim world, it will have removed the roots of conflict with the west and solved the problem rather than simply addressed the symptoms.
This line of reasoning rests on the proposition that the values of freedom and democracy are universal. But skeptics say that it is naïve to assume that such universal values exist. Rather, they say, Islam’s tenets regarding political power, the status of women, the limits of personal freedom and the like are major barriers to liberal democracy. If so, the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror rests on a flawed premise. Regime change is not likely to lead to social change if the people’s most deeply held beliefs and the society’s strongest cultural influences are not conducive to liberalization on the American model. Consequently, the compatibility of Islam and democracy has become an urgent question for policy makers and scholars.
Clearly, the Bangladesh’s history of striving for and achieving democracy contradicts the proposition that Islamic nations cannot be democratic. In addition, several other predominantly Muslim democracies exist. Malaysia has been a federal constitutional monarchy with parliamentary democracy since 1957. Turkey has stabilized its parliamentary system, not experiencing military rule since martial law was lifted in 1987. Indonesia re-established parliamentary democracy, after President Suharto’s resignation, with elections held in June 1999. Although some would question its democratic credentials in that positions of real authority are appointive rather than elective, Iran has held regular national elections, operating under its current constitution since 1989. Moreover, Iran certainly had parliamentary government until Mossadeq’s government was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953. In addition, such nations as Algeria, Pakistan and Egypt have experienced periods of democratic government, and many Muslim nations’ constitutions contain provisions for free elections, although they are not fully implemented. Thus, while Islamic nations may be facing greater difficulties today in establishing stable democracy, the assertion that Islam and democracy cannot co-exist goes too far. Even the assertion that Arab Muslim countries have not and cannot enjoy democratic freedoms overlooks the constitutional and historical evidence that these nations have similar democratic aspirations to other nations. As a recent article noted about Egypt’s recent moves toward reform:
Demonstrations and a thriving political culture are in the collective memory of Egyptians…. As Egyptians we are proud of that history but we sadly regret the political lethargy and decay that are the weeds of those successive dictatorships. We want our country back.
The author refers both to a long history of popular politics in one of the Arab world’s leading nations, and current longing for opening the Egyptian political system. It is worth noting that in Egypt the suppression of democracy went hand in hand with the suppression of Islamic tendencies, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such cases suggest that the democratic deficit currently evident in most Islamic nations arises from other sources than Islam. Consideration of democratization processes in other regions and cultural settings reinforces this view. Latin America, for instance, had few democratic governments throughout the 20th century. Military juntas and authoritarian governments, in which power changed hands almost solely by coup d’etat or revolution, were the norm. It would have been easy to conclude that something about nations with a Hispanic heritage prevented the emergence of liberal democracy, especially when Spain was also under Franco’s military rule. Yet, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the 1990s, almost all the military governments of Latin America, as well as Spain and Portugal, gave way to elected governments. In Mexico, decades of one-party rule, in which elections did little more than ratify the decisions of party leaders, truly competitive multi-party elections now take place. If the Latin American experience is any guide, the Muslim societies with democratic governments we see now may be harbingers of the future rather than anomalies.
Nevertheless, the process of democratization is not automatic, and the specific cultural and historical circumstances of each region and nation must be taken into account. We may discern some lessons from the Latin American experience and of other regions for democratization in the Muslim nations, but the best guide for democratizing Muslim nations is how Muslim nations themselves have democratized. It is critical to understand how Islamic societies have reached an appropriate accommodation between the religious and the political realms to map out effective democratization processes for non-democratic Muslim countries.
The most important lesson that we can draw from reviewing the record of democracy in Muslim countries is that democracy is most stable and functions best when it grows out of the nation’s own political struggle. We have no evidence that imposing any form of democratic regime by the force of arms of an outside power has led to positive results. All four of today’s Muslim democracies – Bangladesh, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia – have arrived at democratic institutions as a result of indigenous political forces. This is not to say that outside actors cannot exert influence on the democratization process, for good or ill. Rather, the mainspring of democratization has been and likely will continue to be popular will.
Problems with Bangladesh Democracy
Bangladesh is among the few Muslim countries to have established democratic institutions. Although different in many ways from Arab and other Muslim countries outside South Asia, the common bond of the Muslim faith makes the country similar to other countries so that it could offer useful lessons for their democratization. Yet, Bangladesh’s young democracy does have serious problems. A fair assessment of Bangladesh’s value as a template for others must acknowledge that the country’s record is not entirely positive, and to suggest how the pitfalls seen in Bangladesh may be avoided.
Problems with Bangladesh’s democracy include the following:
· Divisiveness between the parties, thwarting bipartisanship
· Lack of internal democracy within the parties
· Weakness of political institutions
· Unequal status of women
· Economic inequality
These characteristics of Bangladesh’s democracy make for a rough political environment, in which “money and muscle” often determine outcomes. Connections and family ties often decide as to “who gets what” rather than open and accountable democratic decision-making. But this is true in all democratic societies to varying degrees. No modern state can emulate the ideal of town hall democracy or the direct democracy of ancient Greece. Besides, examination of the actual practices of functioning democracies offers negative as well as positive lessons, informing us as to what to avoid as well as what to emulate.
Much of the action in Bangladesh politics occurs between the parties. In practice, this means that politics is often carried out on the streets, as the contending parties use various tools of intimidation to win. The hartal, a legacy of British-era anti-colonial struggle across the subcontinent, remains an important political weapon, especially for the opposition party. The hartal, or strike, can close down businesses, education, transportation, and public offices locally, and even nationwide, for hours, days, or weeks. The purpose is usually to so disrupt normal commerce and daily life that the government will submit to the hartal sponsors’ demands. The hartals are often well enforced so that businesses, schools, and government offices do not open during the hartal, whether from fear of retaliation or solidarity with the strike’s aims. In order to break the hartal, the ruling party may also take to the streets, resulting in physical confrontations. Further, violence is not infrequent even when no hartal is underway. At times, the level of inter-party hostility is so high that party members (and sometimes their family members) are killed or maimed by opponents, an especially frequent occurrence during election campaigns.
This high level of conflict, rooted in deep resentments about past wrongs done, discourages party cooperation on issues of vital national concern. The majority tends to exclude and ignore the minority, while the minority refuses to agree to any policy measures, regardless of merit. The ruling party sees the minority as a nuisance at best, a hindrance to progress and threat to regime stability at worst. The minority sees opposition and street-level politics as its only option in a system that gives nearly total control to the ruling party. The kind of bipartisanship that characterizes mature, stable democracies is lacking in Bangladesh. Yet, this is not a result of the nation’s Muslim faith. Rather, the history of South Asian politics, a historical legacy that does not apply to most other Muslim nations, has more relevance. Thus, although Bangladesh displays a rough brand of politics, this does not mean that the same need happen to other democratizing states. And, of course, Bangladesh may evolve more civility in its inter-party politics as the nation’s democracy matures.
Another issue in Bangladesh is the lack of intra-party democracy. In particular, the party leadership has great say over who runs for office, in which districts, and it imposes strict discipline on members in their official roles. Candidates for office must make a contribution to the party coffers. Favored candidates or those who make sufficient contributions will be allowed to run in ‘safe’ districts where their party is likely to win. Others may be allowed to run in competitive districts. In any case, candidates are beholden to party leadership for their opportunity. In addition, both major parties have small ruling councils that include about twenty top party leaders. These councils make the important decisions about candidates and the party’s position on major issues.
If an issue comes to a vote in Parliament, Article 70 of the constitution mandates that all party members must vote with their party’s majority. In other words, crossing party lines when a member of parliament might, for reasons of conscience or judgment, vote against his or her own party is forbidden. Given the power of the top leadership, this means that MPs essentially vote by following directives rather than weighing the merits of issues to decide their own positions. Again, this uniquely strict party discipline is not related to Islam. Instead, it was adopted in order to ensure that party members were less likely to respond to illegitimate incentives to vote against their party. Yet, the result has been to devalue membership in Parliament, as most members are not able to exercise independent judgment.
Strict party discipline is one among many reasons that the formal institutions of government are weak in Bangladesh. Ideally, Parliament would be a deliberative body in which members debate, compromise, and bargain as they enact policies that are in the national interest. But because the real decision-making falls to a few at the top of the party hierarchy, voting in Parliament is largely a formality, and thus debate and discussion lack meaning. The MPs often fail to attend sessions, so that achieving a quorum is difficult, and the minority party often boycotts in protest of its lack of voice. The majority party often fails to form committees, without which a legislature cannot function.
Another problem with Bangladesh’s democracy is one shared with most of the world: unequal access, representation, and power for women. Bangladesh remains a patriarchal society, and women are less likely to participate, run for office, or otherwise be political than men. Bangladesh has taken measures to correct the historic subordination of women. For instance, local government councils have seats designated for women. Parliament has periodically followed the same practice, allocating thirty seats to women. Very recently the number of women seats has been raised to forty five through the fourteenth constitutional amendment. Moreover, Bangladesh can claim the distinction of having women at the head of both its major parties, both having served as Prime Minister. Still, serious inequalities remain, and this, research has shown, does tend to be a greater problem in Muslim countries than non-Muslim.
One of the greatest barriers to full realization of the democratic ideal is severe economic inequality. Bangladesh’s economy is growing steadily, and development is occurring for millions. But per capita GDP remains among the bottom third of all nations. Tens of millions live at or near the poverty line. Roughly half the people lack literacy skills. Travel and communication outside the cities remains difficult. Meanwhile, those in the top tier enjoy a high standard of living, including education in elite universities, frequent travel abroad, fine homes, cars, and the like. Under such conditions, political influence is unequal. Of course, this too is a reality in most of the world’s nations. The United States, with claim to being the world’s oldest democracy, must grapple regularly with the influence of money in political campaigns. The privileged are far more likely to have access to influential officials than ordinary citizens. This fact of political life worldwide is hardly unique to Bangladesh or to Muslim countries. Nonetheless, the extremes of wealth and poverty in Bangladesh do call for greater efforts to correct the problem, preferably by bringing the living standards of the impoverished masses up, not pulling the well-off down. To reduce inequality is in everyone’s interest, for regime stability is always at risk in highly unequal societies. Democracy, rather than allowing peaceful accommodation, can become the catalyst for demagogues and extremists. In a Muslim society, this can take the form of Islamic extremism, but the underlying problem would not be religious or ideological, but frustration and resentment arising from lack of opportunity and a sense of injustice.
Another barrier to the full expression of Bangladesh’s democratic aspirations is corruption. Transparency International has declared Bangladesh to among the most corrupt nations in the world, in the sense that bribery and other payoffs are pervasive. Obviously, when public officials respond to personal gain rather than the public interest, democratic institutions do not function well. Covert agenda subvert the most basic principle of representative democracy: accountability. Voters can never be sure why elected officials make the choices they do, or what to expect of them once elected. Widespread knowledge that political officials are susceptible to corruption also undermines the public’s confidence in democratic institutions. In regard to Islam, exasperation with corruption is one reason Islamist solutions often appeal to so many people. They may share a sense that politicians from Islamist parties will not be so prone to take bribes and other pay-offs. Once a system becomes corrupt, rooting it out becomes a difficult task, and thus extreme solutions may appeal to the mass of the people.
On the other side of the ledger, Bangladesh’s democracy has some assets. For one, elections are free and fair, due in part to the caretaker government. Participation is widespread and enthusiastic. The people of Bangladesh genuinely care about the electoral process and value their rights to vote. In addition, the press is uninhibited, opinionated, and diverse. To be sure, Bangladesh lacks the rich electronic media (Dhaka, a city of approximately ten million people, has had only one radio station until recently). In addition, illiteracy limits many citizens’ ability to gain knowledge about politics and government. Yet, the people talk freely and frequently about political affairs, with no evident limits or fears about what they say. Everyone has an opinion and is willing to express it. Further, Bangladesh is the home to thousands of non-governmental organizations, including some of the most active NGOs in the world. The strong NGO sector can help build civil society, an essential foundation for liberal democracy.
This brief survey of the barriers to democracy in Bangladesh indicates that these barriers are not inherent in Islam or unique to Bangladesh. The sole exception is the status of women, which is an issue across the Muslim world. However, here, Bangladesh may offer positive lessons to other Muslim societies. Although women remain subordinate and lack equal access to political and economic opportunity, Bangladesh’s efforts to correct this situation could help show others that the subordination of women is not required by Islamic doctrine. To the contrary, Razia Akter Banu of Dhaka University has made the remarkable claim that Muhammad was “the first feminist” because he gave much greater consideration to women than was the norm in his day. If Banu is correct, then Islam contains the resources for a radical challenge to unequal and patriarchal relations in Muslim nations.
All this said, it is still true that Islam exerts significant influence in predominantly Muslim nations, and to achieve democracy requires more than simply grafting western-style institutions onto these societies. As the review of literature above has indicated, the Muslim countries that have established and to some degree consolidated representative institutions have adapted the democratic model to Islam’s principles and the traditions shaping Islamic civilization. In Bangladesh, the relative lack of theological differences within the Muslim community has averted the kind of difficulties now on display in Iraq, with its Shia-Sunni cleavage.
Yet, Bangladesh has had to cope with the disagreements between those who want a secular state, and those who want Islam to be an explicit basis for government and politics. Bangladesh was born in the assertion of national, not religious, identity. The common bond was said to be language, and this meant that all Bengali speakers, including the substantial Hindu minority, shared the common identity. This is what made Bangladesh’s demands for autonomy so contradictory to the existence of a united Pakistan; Pakistan existed because Muslims needed their own country. But if peoples of different faiths but sharing the same language could live peacefully in one country, then why did Muslims break away from India at all? The implication of Bangladesh’s independence is that Bengali nationality, not religion, should define the community. This would suggest a thoroughly secular state.
But the rocky start for the country’s politics induced leaders to seek greater legitimacy for their rule. Inevitably, they emphasized their identification with and commitment to Islam in order to buttress their authority and ensure regime survival. The constitution was changed to state that Islam would be the basis for the nation’s laws. Islamic parties, discredited for siding with Pakistan during the Liberation War, rejoined the political process and have held seats in the Parliament. Today, Bangladesh proudly proclaims itself to be a moderate Muslim nation, a friend to the west and a partner in the war against terrorism. Yet, it is fair to say that the tension between secularism and Islam means Bangladesh experiences a dynamic relationship between religion and politics.
How has Bangladesh managed this tension? In Bangladesh, in contrast to such countries as Turkey, the solution has been cooptation. The BNP, although it holds a majority of Parliament without need for partners, has brought the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party into the ruling coalition. Recognizing the legitimate aspirations of devout people while maintaining a secular orientation to most political matters appears to have done far more to moderate Islamist elements than the repression and prohibition of Islamist parties seen in Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria. Indeed, Bangladesh seems to have done better at recognizing that Islamist parties, even in power, tend toward moderation, and that it is hardly democratic to allow the people to vote for “any candidate they want, unless their candidate believes in Islamic values.” In most countries, voters are more concerned about economic well being than religion, unless their religious beliefs are affronted. Bangladesh, by coopting the main Islamist party, has both recognized the Islamic values of the country and maintained its focus on practical issues of economic development.
Outside Actors’ Democracy Promotion Activities
The foregoing provides needed background for assessing the proper role for outside actors in helping Bangladesh to consolidate democracy. Certainly, the most important force for democratization is the people of Bangladesh, and the long history of striving for democracy shows that the country will continue along the democratic path regardless of setbacks. Nonetheless, Bangladesh has experienced removal of democratic institutions before, and problems do attend its efforts to consolidate representative government. Still, in today’s global context, the success of democracy in Muslim nations is critical, and the world must not risk failure in countries that already have achieved democracy. Outside actors can support Bangladesh’s accomplishments and encourage further progress.
Increasing attention to Bangladesh may be required because some troubling signs have recently emerged. To take some examples, in August 2005, a number of Bangladesh-born British citizens were removed from a flight leaving Dhaka on suspicion of terrorist ties. In another incident, two Bangladeshi Christians were hacked to death after showing a movie about the life of Jesus Christ, against warnings from local extremists. Additionally, there has been a significant rise in the number of madrassahs, with their share of schools and students rising faster than general educational institutions. Many observers worry that madrassahs in some Muslim nations (Pakistan in particular) are responsible for growing anti-American and anti-western sentiment. Most of the friction regarding “terrorist” or “insurgent” activity is with India, not Europe or the United States; India recently reiterated its claims that anti-India insurgent camps are located in Bangladesh. Yet, the fears that Al Qaeda may be infiltrating Bangladesh and the possible rise of indigenous extremism indicate the need for other countries to be concerned.
Indeed, worries that Bangladesh may have begun to harbor extremists have been expressed. A story in the Indian press puts the case most strongly, stating that “madrassas in Bangladesh are a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists,” and that “the Islamic fundamentalist cause seems to be in the ascendant in Bangladesh.” It claims that as Pakistan has become less hospitable to former Taliban and Al Qaeda, they have diversified their base, including moving operations to Bangladesh. “What makes the situation worse,” the article continues, “is the fact that a number of transnational Islamic terrorist groups, including the Al-Qaeda, have established a presence in Bangladesh in alliance with the various fundamentalist organizations in the country,” presumably with government acquiescence.
A similarly alarming view is expressed in an op-ed published in Taiwan. The Vice-President of the Human Rights subcommittee of the European Parliament asks whether “Bangladesh is headed into the black hole that consumed Afghanistan under the Taliban.” The author notes that fears are mounting that fundamentalist forces are increasing their presence, with government support, and that returning migrant workers in the Gulf States are bringing back radical Wahhabi doctrines. Fearful Hindus, Ahmadiyyas, and tribal people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts are said to be fleeing the nation for safety. “The world cannot afford a second Afghanistan in Bangladesh,” he concludes. Indeed, the Awami League’s General Secretary Abdul Jalil expressed doubts that Bangladesh would be able to continue in the secular tradition of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. An American diplomat in Dhaka seems to harbor worries that the upcoming national election will bring out the worst in Bangladesh’s political divisions.
From a larger view, the United States has implicitly declared that other countries must adhere to a certain set of parameters regarding their political and economic institutions or face various forms of retribution. For instance, the Bush administration has established the Millennium Challenge Account on the premise that foreign assistance will go only to those countries that show progress on democracy, human rights, and free market policies. Adopting this policy orientation suggests a corollary obligation to help countries that are struggling to meet these criteria. This need not mean military intervention to change governments and establish a new order. Instead, in most cases, especially those like Bangladesh in which considerable progress toward consolidated democracy has been made, non-military assistance would be appropriate. The obligation to help countries establish and consolidate democracy extends beyond the United States, for the international community, through treaties, U.N. programs, and other manifestations of its will, also expects that nations will achieve a certain degree of popular accountability and good governance. Accordingly, other countries, U.N. agencies, other multilateral organizations, and non-governmental organizations have taken a hand in promoting democracy around the world and in Bangladesh. Thus, although the democratization project of the Bush administration has lent greater urgency to the task, the international community bears responsibility to help countries in their efforts to consolidate democracy.
In sum, in light of troubling signs that Bangladesh’s democracy faces difficulties, and the ethical obligation of the international community to assist nations in their efforts to achieve stable, legitimate government, the question of what outside actors have done, with what effects, becomes central. These questions raise others: what are the barriers to further progress in Bangladesh? What has worked and what has failed in regard to outside actors’ efforts in that country? What could be done better? What programs should be abandoned? How can outside actors encourage democracy without running afoul of the nation’s religious and cultural traditions? To what extent is “non-coercive intervention” in the form of democracy promotion programs an infringement on Bangladesh’s autonomy and sovereignty?
The current state of knowledge does not allow definitive answers to these questions. The following offers a survey of the activities of some of the more prominent outside actors engaged in democracy promotion, a discussion of civil society, and assessment of the promise and pitfalls of these activities. The conclusion suggests lines of research that would help us answer important questions about democracy promotion in Bangladesh.
Foreign Policy Agencies
Many nations provide various forms of assistance to Bangladesh. Increasingly, their programs focus on governance. This grows out of unsatisfactory experience with programs that attempted to focus exclusively on economic development projects, as lack of capacity to deliver and lack of accountability undercut the efficacy of the programs.
The United States sponsors governance-related programs via several entities. The United States Agency for International Development has adopted a focus on local government. They describe their work:
In 2003, USAID helped create associations of elected officials, at the local council (Union Parishad) and municipality (Pourashavas) levels. The councils promote debate and help identify national priorities for decentralization. USAID also helps develop links between citizens and local elected officials to identify priorities, increase funding and monitor service delivery.
In 2004, USAID and its partners began programs to promote political party reform, constituency relations, leadership training, strengthening parliamentary committees, and ensuring free and fair elections in 2007. Since 2003, USAID has also worked on combating corruption.
The National Democratic Institute, a part of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, is also active in Bangladesh. NDI has assisted in election monitoring, conducted political party training, and aided NGO capacity building. In 2003, NDI initiated a program to foster dialogue among the four major parties, the BNP, Awami League, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Jatiya Party. In addition, NDI works toward strengthening the role of parliament, increasing citizen access to government, and enhancing the legitimacy of the electoral process. The Resident Director of NDI has stated that the coming national election will be a crucial test of Bangladesh’s democracy. In his view, the international community can help the country weather this difficult time by supporting the Election Commission, providing observers, and voicing concern over the rising level of political violence.
The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh, also U.S.-funded, has a wide range of programs on governance, law, and civil society. “The Asia Foundation collaborates with local partner organizations to facilitate broad citizen participation in political processes, improve electoral processes, and encourage effective civil society advocacy for the rule of law, access to justice, and the protection of fundamental human rights.” They address such issues as improved relations between the public and police; corruption prevention; election observation; introducing online resources for government; legal empowerment; analysis of local government; and various forms of technical assistance.
The Department for International Development administers Great Britain’s programs in Bangladesh. The main goal of its programs is to enable Bangladesh to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The Country Assistance Plan works in conjunction with the Bangladesh government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy within five ‘avenues,’ including Pro-Poor Growth, Human Development, Women’s Advancement, Social Protection, and Participatory Governance. Among the seven priority areas is supporting “action to make the public sector more accountable and responsive to the interests of poor people,” and to develop “pro-poor groups that more effectively demand resources, services, and realization of rights.” Like agencies just discussed, DFID also aims to strengthen the committees in Parliament. DFID supports a number of NGOs and the work of Transparency International, and is exploring ways to assist the development of civil society.
The Canadian International Development Agency has designated Bangladesh a Focus Country, and it supports the Bangladesh government’s Country Development Programming Framework. Its governance programs focus on the environment, legal reform, gender issues, banking reform, and elections. The program on legal reform joins with the Bangladesh ministries and local NGOs to develop a rules-based, effective, transparent and predictable legal framework. The aim is to protect vulnerable groups and to encourage further reform and accountability. The World Bank and Denmark work with CIDA in pursuit of these goals.
Japan has stepped up its presence in Bangladesh. It tops the list of foreign assistance donors. Yet, available information indicates that Japanese programs focus on economic development, meeting basic needs, infrastructure, and disaster preparedness rather than governance and democracy promotion issues.
The United Nations, working through a number of specialized agencies, plays a major role in Bangladesh. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are the other two major multilateral organizations involved in Bangladesh. The World Bank appears not to implement programs to promote democracy, although governance issues are incorporated in the conditions of development projects, and the World Bank participates in programs involving other donors. The International Monetary Fund focuses on financial and economic issues, with attention to ensuring transparency in economic governance. The United Nations sponsors democracy promotion through the UN Development Programme. UNDP has recently focused on enhancing parliament. Many programs of limited scope and duration are conducted. In the summer of 2005, European Union representatives offered assistance in the 2007 national election. Canada’s Parliamentary Centre worked with the United Nations Development Programme to conduct training in Canada for Bangladeshi MPs. Further information on the activities of multilateral organizations in Bangladesh is difficult to obtain from published sources.
International Non-Governmental Organizations
International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) were instrumental in the development of Bangladesh’s extensive NGO sector. Yet, as the local NGO community has expanded, INGOs have reduced their presence. In addition, they have shifted from direct implementation of programs to coordination and contracting with Bangladesh’s NGOs. Still, they remain important in development efforts. Regarding democracy, however, INGOs and NGOs have not fully incorporated popular voices into their deliberations. Indeed, the influence of donor-supported NGOs even leads to questions as to whether they represent challenge to elected representative institutions. The INGOs, NGOs, and their donors, constitute an “intermestic development circle” that “disrupts traditional lines of accountability, and as a result marginalizes important elements in society,” including civil society, the Islamic community, the masses, and the state. Moreover, the political parties and elements of civil society tend to distrust NGOs as representing outside interests. Thus, although INGOs working through NGOs participate in a number of democracy-promotion activities, their relationship to society makes their activities problematic.
Toward a Comprehensive View of Democracy Promotion
As we have seen, Bangladesh has a long history of fighting for democracy. The people of Bangladesh have repeatedly shown their desire for a functioning, legitimate representative democracy. This aspiration has been thwarted due to deep political cleavages and a tradition of street-level politics, often marred by violence. In addition, corruption at all levels of society hinders the development of accountable, democratic institutions. Nevertheless, parliamentary government survives, and the three national elections held since 1991 were by most accounts free and fair. In today’s world, Bangladesh has a precious legacy as a moderate Muslim society, one the world has a compelling interest in maintaining and advancing.
The persistent social inequalities of Bangladeshi society make it all the more remarkable that democracy has survived. Addressing poverty and inequality is an essential element of a program for consolidating democracy in Bangladesh. Indeed, in regard to all developing countries, the development community increasingly recognizes that economic and political development work together, and this has resulted in greater emphasis on programs to strengthen parliament, the election process, parties, the news media, law, and other aspects of democratic government. A survey of available information leaves the impression that Bangladesh is no exception to the general trend.
Yet, no comprehensive portrait of the efforts of outside actors to foster democracy in Bangladesh exists. Knowledge of the many programs and organizations is scattered across the various agencies and organizations involved. Consequently, we do not know whether their activities are working, whether they complement, duplicate or contradict one another, and what might be done to improve democracy promotion activities. The “Tuesday Group” is the one coordinating body to have brought together major country donors with the World Bank, but this group does not include all the actors or programs. In light of the years of effort and the pressing concern to ensure the survival of Bangladesh’s democracy, a comprehensive study is essential. This author’s preliminary research on the topic conducted in Bangladesh in 2003 revealed that numerous studies exist in the files of the agencies and organization, few published or read by others in the development community. Simply pulling this material together, summarizing it, and reporting it would be a valuable service. In addition, the leaders of organizations engaged in democracy promotion have a wealth of information that could be gathered through elite interviews. Another possible research item would be careful outcome assessments on a sample of prominent programs.
In any research on the role of outside actors in democracy promotion, it will be important to bear in mind both the positive and negative aspects of these activities. It is tempting to believe that any activity that aims to promote democracy is inherently good, in that democracy is highly valued. Yet, as noted above, such programs do represent a form of ‘non-coercive intervention.’ That is, even though military means are not employed to bring about change, the leverage donors can exert on a developing country such as Bangladesh means that these program inevitably impinge on both the nation’s sovereignty and its indigenous political development. Even with the best of intentions, outside actors can create resentment and resistance among the people and leaders of Bangladesh. Researchers must recognize that non-coercive intervention can take a paternalistic tone. After all, people in the Bengal region have had civilization for millennia, and they have raised their families, conducted their business, and governed themselves quite without the help of countries with histories less than three centuries long. Accordingly, future research into the role of outside actors in democracy promotion should aim at improving these efforts, while maintaining full understanding that the source of democracy in Bangladesh is the people of Bangladesh who have fought so long and hard to achieve it for themselves.
In regard to the implications of Bangladesh’s struggle for democracy and the U.S. strategy of transformation, the lesson is clear. Bangladesh demonstrates that Islamic nations are capable of democratization. Other than the status of women, the problems that have plagued Islamic societies are found in most other democratic nations around the world, and Bangladesh has shown leadership among Muslim nations in correcting this profound problem. Outside actors have played a significant role in the improvement of the status of women in Bangladesh, especially in support for indigenous women’s education and women’s NGOs. On one hand, this might indicate that a policy of transformation will succeed; democracy seems to be a universal value so that, the Bush administration would argue, removing dictators will allow the natural aspirations of the people in nations such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen to flourish.
On the other, Bangladesh’s solution to the relationship of Islam to secular government suggests precisely the opposite. Bangladesh recognizes that religion becomes a compelling political issue primarily when Muslims’ religious beliefs are affronted, and this has led to the accommodation, not suppression, of Islamic parties. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has inflamed religious sentiment across the Muslim world. Many Muslims see the invasion as a war on Islam, not a means to ensure freedom. Whereas people by and large accepted that the United States had a justification to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq lacked such justification, and it put American troops in some of Islam’s holiest cities. Muslims see the invasion serving Israel’s interests, not the universal aspiration for democracy. Military intervention, in short, radicalizes, rather than moderates, religion in politics. Effective democracy promotion by outsiders can usefully rely on programs that encourage the positive trends in Muslim societies, with due respect for the sovereignty of the nation and its traditions.
Lastly, the relationship of outside actors to Islamic groups in Bangladesh indicates the need for great care in designing democracy promotion programs. The donor-led activities of NGOs and INGOs have created tensions with Islamic groups. Bangladesh became a major recipient of foreign assistance, due to the extreme poverty and frequent disasters befalling the country. Donors often preferred to work with local citizens organized into NGOs than to channel aid through government. Consequently, to some extent inadvertently, donors created a professionalized, largely secular force in society that has come into, sometimes violent, confrontation with Islamic groups. The greatest tension is found in the villages, where the majority of the people live. “In general,” writes Stiles, “conservative Muslims reject NGO-style progressivism as a mere ‘leaf on the tree’ of Western cultural imperialism.” Stiles even predicted that the conflict between Islamists and the secular NGOs” could result in a political crisis for the NGOs,” which would by the same token diminish the influence of outside actors to assist democracy promotion in the country. Unfortunately, this rising conflict came about due to missed opportunities to engage in joint ventures with Islamic NGOs engaged in such activities as food relief and medicine. In short, a democratic society expresses its popular will via all its institutions, and it is a fact that a major element of popular will in Bangladesh is commitment to Islam. When beliefs and values are respected, religion stays in the background, allowing politics to be about practical development and security issues. Outside actors are well advised to design their programs in ways that do not challenge the nation’s religious faith.
* Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Texas Tech University, USA
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 Ibid, p. 118.
 Ibid, p. 121.