Mizanur Rahman Shelley
Effective democracy strengthened by well-built and functioning institutions is the key to sustained development. A democracy that works facilitates the emergence of a thriving society. History bears witness to the fact that in recent times democracies have brought about greater and faster development in concerned societies than dictatorial regimes.
Question may arise as to how a relatively loose system that is democracy can help greater development than tightly organized and avowedly efficient dictatorial rule? Pluralistic and multi-party democracy succeeds in delivering goods in terms of socio-economic development when it is accompanied by well organized, competent and autonomous institutions unhampered by disorderly political interference. True democracy like genuine freedom does not mean license. The heart of pure democracy lies in good governance which builds, promotes and sustains order. An orderly society is the indispensable condition of sustainable development in all its vital dimensions: political, economic and social.
In less developed societies democracy faces onerous challenges. There are many post colonial states in which this situation prevails and Bangladesh is one among such polities. The problem in Bangladesh as we will see later, is not creating institutions but in restoring them. Bangladesh, even at its sanguinary birth, inherited a copying set of state institutions. Polluted and chaotic politics dominated by myopic personal leadership damaged and dwarfed these institutions and made democracy uncertain by politics of division and confrontation. This has handicapped development and slowed down and limited the pace of socio-economic progress. In the case of Bangladesh as in instances of other such societies the malady is rooted in deeper socio-political crown realities.
Changes issuing from modernization lead to various problems of state building (e.g. legitimacy), nation building (e.g. the crisis of identity), participation and distribution (how socio-political benefits in the society are to be shared), penetration (effective governance) and integration (of particular government functions). Political development can be viewed as a political society's ability to effectively solve these problems. Narrowly defined, political development is "increased differentiation and specialization of political structures and increased secularization of political culture -- the significance of such development is in general to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of performance of the political system to increase its capabilities.
Despondent viewers of the darkness of political societies of the less developed kind such as S.P. Huntington hold, the "desirable and needed" expansion and consolidation of government power has not occurred in the post-colonial modernizing societies -- in many of these. Their "problem is not to hold elections but to create organizations. The primary problem is not liberty but the creation of a legitimate public order. Men may, of course, have order without liberty but they cannot have liberty without order. Authority has to exist before it can be limited and it is authority that is in scarce supply in those modernizing societies where government is at the mercy of alienated intellectuals, rambunctious colonels and rioting students".
The major agents of political development in developing societies have been described as (i) political leaders, (ii) political parties, and (iii) the military. In some instances labour, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia may demand special attention as significant factors.
The dangers of personal leadership remaining too personal may be overwhelming. Political institutions may not grow under such a personal system. Legitimacy and legitimizing succession may become a challenge that cannot be successfully faced.
"Political parties, as instruments of mobilizing new groups into politics and as entities not easily controlled by a single leader, may act as useful and effective balance to the shortcomings of personal leadership.
Well established competitive parties with sound organization and effective spread can successfully aggregate diverse interest, specific groups and bring broad unity. A well developed party system -- whether dominant, multi-party or even single, capable of absorbing new social forces and offering consideration to new demands arising -- is an effective component of political stability. Such an arrangement is a safeguard against the weakness produced by instability which invites military intervention".
Bangladesh did not emerge out of the wilderness of institution-less existence. The territory had experience of quality governance during centuries preceding British colonial-imperial rule. The people of the area had a rich heritage of competent local governments at the grass roots, such as the 'grams' (villages). These were built in the context of a society that encouraged and sustained toleration of diverse religious beliefs and customs. Again, from both the British colonial and post-colonial times, it had inherited an elaborate, transparent and well organized system of justice, a fairly competent and well-trained public administration, a coping law and order machinery and legislatures that worked.
Over the years it has evolved a strong and articulate civil society, a bold and skilled media and the most active NGO system in the world. In addition, it has a homogeneous population with a millennium-old syncretic culture marked by community of language and heritage. It also has a remarkable record of religious and ethnic toleration unblemished through untold centuries. All this has been competently enshrined in the democratic and secular constitution of the Peoples' Republic of Bangladesh.
The constitution of 1972 was the first and the most significant act of institution building undertaken by the founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Unfortunately, as with other institutions this too was modified and amended several times. Some of these amendments starting with the fourth amendment in 1974 distorted it departing from its essence and spirit.
As with the constitution show also in cases of other institutions distortions and degeneration were caused by considerations of personal, party and group interest combine with political exigencies. Among the institutions which have been distorted and dwarfed during recent decades are the legislature, the executive, especially the civil service and public administration, judiciary and local government.
The legislature even under overtly parliamentary system has been rendered ineffective by a personality dominated Priministerial system, a virtual continuation of the Presidential system that ruled the country from 1975 to 1991.
Although the lower judiciary has been separated from the executive from 2008, its independence is still to be fully realized. Recruitment too and appointments in judicial posts have been influenced by considerations of partisan politics. Centralization and concentration of power have played havoc with local self government in Bangladesh.
The four-decade long history of Bangladesh is thus replete with instances of reducing rather than building institutions. The root cause of this damaging process is deviation from and distortion of the original political culture of democracy. For historical reason Bangladesh from the very beginning has been a haven of personal leadership. Its politics and government have been ruled by charismatic leaders who became more dominant than the system. Such dispensations inevitably stand on the way of building and strengthening institutions. What is needed to rectify this undesirable situation is a thorough overhauling of the political culture in favour of true and unalloyed democracy. Democratic political parties practicing democracy both within and outside can alone arrest degeneration of the splendid institutions Bangladesh inherited at its birth.
'Uncertain' or 'illiberal' democracies, deviate from the universal democratic norms. In these distorted systems political parties and their leaders do not help build and preserve national consensus on basic issues. Differing viewpoints do not find mutual accommodation. Intolerance vitiates the political and social environment. Dissention and disunity become the order of the day. In consequence, political parties advocating differing ideologies and programs attempt to draw peoples support not by democratic persuasion but by force, overt or covert. Their political strategies are, therefore, often a mix of craft and coercion.
In this situation power becomes a vital instrument to be used not necessarily to achieve people's freedom, welfare and development but to attain dominance of the winning side. Consequently elections, even when apparently free and fair, become transformed into a 'zero sum game' where the winner takes all. Needless to say elections in these circumstances weaken, rather than strengthen democracy. Further, these also pave the way to the establishment of elective autocracies.
Democratic governance involves political mobilization on the basis of class and economic interests, fair political contestation for legitimacy of control over state institutions. It derives its origin mainly from Weberian concept of bureaucratic rationality in which formal institutions and well-defined procedures work. Close and symbiotic relations are visualized between the political process of democracy and economic process of capitalism. Political process in a democratic or democratizing country has great stake in the health of the capitalist economy. What about the developing societies like Bangladesh where capitalism is yet to become mature and democratic governance still unrealized? Weberian discourse recognizes the concept of patrimonialism as a pre-capitalist mode of political and economic organizations, where authority and legitimacy flow from traditional bondages, kinship, clans etc. But what we observe in the developing parts of the world is prevalence of patrons and followers brought together not necessarily by traditional bonds but inevitably by exchange relationship in which the dependents, clients or followers exchange their loyalty, support, and if necessary, muscle power in lieu of patronage and booties. In essence, consent and legitimacy do not flow from primordial values, as in patrimonialism but from money, opportunities and protection. Some analysts call it neo-patrimonialism because there may be façade of deference and consent. The essence of patron-client relationship is personalized control over resources, opportunities and decisions, factional mobilization and contestation. Politics in states such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and several African countries is characterized by patron-client networks which have been enhanced by the expanse and strength of informal governance.
The contenders, both winners and losers, in national elections, do not seem to have confidence in normal politics and in the effectiveness of their respective party in maintaining or acquiring power. In consequence, the competition for power becomes distorted and polluted.
Leaders of the ruling party try to secure their positions and ensure victory in the subsequent elections by arrogating to themselves a monopoly of state resources. Important institutions of the state are brought under the overpowering control and domination of the ruling party. This enables the government party to distribute favours to its clients who as beneficiaries in key positions in bureaucracy, business and professions are expected to help the patron, i.e., the ruling party in maintaining and prolonging its rule. This unfortunate experience predated the resurrection of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh in 1991. Nevertheless, this phenomenon became more intense and wide spread during more than two decades of parliamentary rule in which the two major parties alternated in forming the government.
The excessive spread and intensification of patron-client relationship between the rulers and loyal segments of the society created negative impacts on the national society. Patron-client relationship contributed to the weakening of the state instead of strengthening it. Important state institutions such as the civil bureaucracy, local government, legislature and judiciary were politicized as part of expanding network of patron-client relationship. This harmful process leads to discouragement to the development efforts.
Failing and failed states also witness a deliberate process of dwarfing of local governments by nearsighted political parties and their leaders. In many post-colonial states, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, successive governments led by different political parties distorted the inherited system of autonomous local government. The practice of exercising intensive and extensive control over local governments through bureaucracy and the Members of Parliaments resulted in the undesirable dwarfing of these representative bodies. Monopolization of local level development funds by the ruling party results in uneven and often inequitable development in the concerned areas. Further, continuous and stable development is also endangered by disruption of the system when change of government brings another party to power.
In fragile states the process of 'capture' spreads beyond state institutions. Political forces, locked in combat for power, engage themselves in dividing the society along the 'we' and 'they' line. Professionals, including physicians, engineers, teachers, journalists, businessmen are politicized and become clients of different major political parties.
Combative competition for increasing the financial might of the political parties causes a dangerous distortion in free-market economy. Encouragement and promotion of crony capitalism and enterprise creates an unfriendly environment for market friendly economy and opens wide the avenues of clientalist corruption. This degenerative process leads to wanton plunder and wastage of national resources and eats into the vitals of the economy. Consequently, the downslide of the state as an institution is further speeded up. Resources acquired by corrupt monopolization and manipulation of the economy are often used to maintain and promote 'muscle power' manifest in illegally armed party cadres. Such unhealthy practice disrupts the rule of law and democratic processes further impeding healthy, balanced economic growth and development.
Crude and unbridled power politics use political issues to divide the nation. Politicization of state institutions by the party in power threatens to lead to state-capture. The opposition tries to halt this process by taking to the streets. Political instability further intensifies social unrest and economic woes. Violence tends to rise and defy control. Whatever is left of democracy, healthy institutions and sustained development is threatened with destruction. This is the scenario of present day Bangladesh. At this juncture the ruling party and the opposition are locked in a dangerous confrontation over the issue of caretaker government. In this situation the only guarantee of restoring and maintaining true democracy and continuous development lies in meaningful dialogue between the major political forces to reach a consensus that democracy will continue by the method of fair counting of heads and not by breaking them.
Social scientist and writer Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley is founder Chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor, the quarterly "Asian Affairs". He was a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh. He is also the Chairman of Independent South Asia Media Commission, Bangladesh.