Prospects for Democracy and the Role of the Military

Analysing all these factors, some scholars at home and abroad have suggested that the Bangladesh polity might well be on the road to persistent praetorianism with an occasional civilian-military façade (Baxter and Rahman 1991:59). The popular uprising of 1990, with the direct participation of most of the political parties in Bangladesh, and subsequent events, however, give grounds for optimism. Though Bangladesh has yet to build a political system based on consensus and compromise, it has come a long distance in that direction.

The political parties, despite their stunted growth and lack of institutionalisation, have now arrived at a consensus on the nature of the political system in the country. Nothing short of a representative parliament is acceptable. The government must be accountable to the parliament. The judicial branch must be independent as the bulwark of basic human rights. The press must be free. The consensus has been evident in the rejection of seven-party and five-party alliances to participate in either of the Sangsad elections under Ershad and also in the eight-party alliance’s refusal to take part in the 1988 Sangsad election.[19]

These demands, having been repeatedly voiced from different party platforms during the last decade, became the core of the consensual agreement reached by the three political alliances on 19 November 1990. These alliances, working as the motivational force behind the popular uprising, were instrumental in bringing it to its logical conclusion on 6 December 1990. In a society characterised by endemic violence and intense factionalism, thanks to the willing co-operation of all the political parties the general election of February 1991 turned out to be absolutely free, fair, neutral and peaceful. The Twelfth Amendment Act, reintroducing the parliamentary system of government, was enacted in an environment of unprecedented cordiality among the political parties on 6 August 1991. The parliamentary committees of the fifth Sangsad, designed to institutionalise parliamentary control over the different ministries, have started functioning.

The orientation of the armed forces in Bangladesh also seems to have undergone some change. They treated the movement against Ershad from October to December 1990 as a political problem and wanted it to be solved politically, General Ershad’s insinuation of a more active role for them notwithstanding. Most coups are internally generated by local cleavages and power conflicts, but external encouragement or discouragement can be crucial to their success or failure. In Bangladesh, American assistance has been of crucial importance to the success of the post- Mujib regimes, and the 15 August 1975 coup was a turning point in the warming of Bangladesh-US relations. The triumph of democratic order globally, and especially in South Asia, may help further deepen the changing orientation of the armed forces in Bangladesh.

An alternation of military and military-dominated civilian regimes in Bangladesh thus may not be the only prospect. A democratic order is more likely to strike its roots into the political soil of Bangladesh if the political parties can maintain the emerging consensus and politics of compromise.

[19] Most of the political parties which were opposed to General Ershad’s usurpation of political power and his autocratic rule formed two alliances in 1983: a fifteen-party alliance centred on the Awami League, and a seven-party alliance centred on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). On the issue of participation in the 1986 general election the fifteen-party alliance broke up, forming an eight-party alliance centred on the Awami League, and a left-leaning five-party alliance. These three alliances played a crucial role in ousting General Ershad from power in December 1990.