The Awami League promised democracy and good governance.
However, the present state of democracy and governance tells a story of how the promises remained largely ignored.
Ailing democracy and poor governance have raised serious questions about the AL-led government’s capacity to deliver on its electoral pledges in these areas.
Amid such a situation, the AL-led government stepped into fourth year of its tenure on Thursday.
In the run up to the January 2014 parliamentary polls, the ruling party pledged various measures for good governance, strengthening democracy and consolidation of independence of judiciary.
It also promised to make parliament effective and pledged to ensure accountability of lawmakers’ functions in and outside parliament.
But the current parliament began its journey with a handmaiden main opposition. Three of its MPs were inducted into the cabinet. Its chief was made special envoy to the prime minister with the status of a minister.
The main opposition Jatiya Party has been suffering from identity crisis. It failed to play its due role in parliament. It never said “no” to any of the bills placed by the government in the last three years.
In the absence of a strong opposition, the government remains largely unchallenged in parliament.
The AL pledged to forge a national consensus on important issues like upholding democratic process among different political parties, professional bodies and civil societies. But in the last three years, it did not make any move to this effect.
Instead, on many occasions, the government high-ups blasted civil society personalities for their criticism of government activities.
The government has also refused to restore the provisions of the 1972 constitution for separation of judiciary. The chief justice on several occasions alleged the government’s unwarranted interference in the functions of the judiciary.
Worldwide, it has long been settled that without effective independence of judiciary, a democracy cannot function properly. But in Bangladesh, things are different.
The AL-led government pledged to strengthen its efforts to establish rule of law and protect human rights. But alarming incidents of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances portray a sorry state of the rule of law and human rights.
It has made no move to appoint an ombudsman in line with the constitutional provision to ensure good governance. Its pledge remains only in paper. The AL before the December 2008 election had also pledged to appoint an ombudsman.
No significant measures were taken in the last three years to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission, another diversion from its pledges.
The electoral democracy has suffered the most in the last three years though the AL pledged to strengthen the electoral system.
The process of damaging the electoral system began with the January 5, 2014, parliamentary election.
In that election held amid a boycott by the BNP-led alliance, the AL easily won three-fourth majority in parliament. Moreover, 153 out of the 300 MPs were elected uncontested, denying people’s voting rights. In the elections to remaining 147 constituencies, voter turnout was low.
Electoral irregularities like ballot stuffing and fake voting returned in the last parliamentary polls after five years. The electoral anomalies dominated almost all the local government elections held in the last three years.
After the first year in office, the AL had to face widespread street violence for the first three months of 2015. The BNP-led alliance enforced countrywide non-stop blockade from January 6, protesting the government’s move to foil the alliance’s programme to observe the first anniversary of the one-sided parliamentary election as “democracy killing day”.
Widespread violence erupted across the country lasting for around three months during the blockade coupled with frequent hartals. More than 100 people were either killed or burnt alive in firebomb attacks on vehicles.
The law enforcement agencies took stern actions against the opposition alliance’s leaders and activists. The movement failed to oust the government.
Since then, the BNP remains in disarray. Outside of parliament, the AL and the government now appear unchallengeable.
The law enforcement agencies, however, were tough against dissenting voices.
The Democratic Left Alliance leaders and activists who have been protesting the construction of a coal-based power plant in the Sundarbans area faced police actions several times.
In 2016, police used excessive force to drive away demonstrators trying to encircle the Dhaka police headquarters over the police failure to arrest suspects for molesting women on the Dhaka University campus. Police used clubs, rifle butts, water cannon, and teargas as protesters gathered near the DMP office.
Law enforcers attacked students who took to the streets protesting an alleged leak of question papers for medical college admission tests. The students were demanding a fresh admission test. Police foiled their human chain and detained some students.
However, the government has kept a steady focus on economic development activities. It took up several mega projects for infrastructure development. A few of them improved road and rail communications to some extent.
Policymakers of the government have been talking much about development activities, but less about improving governance and democracy.
Accountability of the government is absent to a large extent which is contradictory to democratic norms.
The overall situation also raises questions over the transparency of the huge expenditures for major development works and apprehension about the sustainability of economic progress.
Different international organisations in their indices portrayed a gloomy picture of governance in the financial sector.
“Endemic corruption and criminality, weak rule of law, limited bureaucratic transparency, and political polarisation continue to undermine government accountability,” according to the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, an annual publication by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.
In the global corruption index of Transparency International, Bangladesh could not do well due to poor governance. The country slipped one notch to rank the 13th most corrupt country in the world in 2015, a position jointly shared with Guinea, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Laos and Uganda.
Freedom of the press, according to political scientists and economists, is a primary contributor to good governance.
Countries with greater press freedom tend to have strong democratic governance and less corruption.
This has been once again proven in last year’s two international indices on press freedom and corruption released by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and Transparency International.
Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Norway scored high in the world press freedom index released by RWB last year. Like previous years, these are the five top ranking countries in a list of 180 nations with greater press freedom.
Bangladesh ranked 144th in world press freedom index and 139th in the TI index.
The rankings show the poor state of governance and freedom of the press though the AL pledged to ensure press freedom and fight graft to ensure good governance.