Civil Society and Political Party in Electoral Democracy: Bangladesh Perspective

 

Md. Sultan Mahmud*
Bibi Morium**

Abstract: In this paper, we have attempted to examine and evaluate the role of civil society and political party in framing the electoral democracy of Bangladesh. We have given a theoretical framework of their respective role in developing the nascence democracy and have tried to depict to what extent both civil society and political parties were able to perform their role and to what extent they were unsuccessful. We also have endeavored to uncover the reasons for failure in reaching their desired goals.

Keywords: Civil Society, Political Party and Electoral Democracy.

Introduction

Political party and civil society have special importance in electoral democracy. It is true to any nascent democracy, particularly country like Bangladesh. In a democratic electoral process, civil society and political party are inseparable parts, they work together. When political parties publish their election manifestoes regarding their plans and policy, the civil society analyze these manifestoes and aware the masses politically.  Moreover, the role of civil society and political party is inevitably important to develop a nation’s political institutions. Their role indicates the weakness or strength of democratic development of a country.

After a successful mass movement against the autocratic military regime in 1990, parliamentary system of government was reinstituted in Bangladesh. Unfortunately democracy is yet to be consolidated in Bangladesh. During the 1990s, the major political blocs were seen divided over the issues. Such as conflicting definitions of Bangladeshi identity, national heroes and liberation war symbols. Such division did not remain confined within the political elites but has influenced all social groups as well. Ultimately such polarization affected the democratic growth of both political party and civil society. This was just opposite to democratic culture that was expected to develop through the reintroduction of democracy in 1990 (Jahan:2000). After reintroduction of electoral democracy, public policy domain has always been bureaucratized or maneuvered by the ruling party. It dictates to serve vested political and economic interest. Moreover, intrusion of civil society into policy arena is looked on suspiciously. Civil society organizations were biased because of their links to ruling party or the opponents. Educational institutions, especially universities and colleges, had been used by the major political parties to further their political objectives (Alam:1985), Jahan: 2000). The press and private electronic media were relatively free but each news paper had tilted to either side of the political coalitions and often the private television channels were owned by the political business tycoons. However, confrontational politics is played by the two major political parties through the instruments of clientelism, patronage, nepotism, and corruption. Sometimes, violence has co-opted, politicized, weakened and polarized the civil society groups and undermined their ability to participate in political process. The winning party enjoys monopoly of power during their electoral tenure. Political decision making power centers around Prime Minister’s office. The society and civil society are politicized according to political line. Such features are common in rule of either of the two major political parties or of their coalitions (Ahmed: 1995). And such a party-society relation is against of the spirit of democracy. Under this situation, there need an evaluation of the role of civil society and political party in developing the electoral democracy of Bangladesh. This is currently missing in academic literature to the best of our knowledge. So, the main aim of this paper is to review the role of civil society and political party in framing the electoral democracy of Bangladesh.

This research uses the literature review method where different secondary materials were reviewed. The secondary materials were books, journal articles, and newspaper articles linked to our research topic. Observations are discussed in the textual format related to our research objectives. At first, the concepts of civil society, political party, and electoral democracy are defined. Then in the next two consecutive sections, role of civil society and political party in an electoral democracy are discussed. At last in the conclusion, we try to depict an ideal scenario of interaction between civil society and political parties for an effective electoral democracy. All the discussions are mainly focused here in the context of Bangladesh.

Key Concepts Defined – Civil Society

Civil society is a conscious part of society. It encompasses the entire range of organized groups and institutions that are independent in the state. It forms voluntarily and to some extent is self-generating and self-reliant. This type of groups could be any association, professional group, and pressure group. These groups such as non-governmental organizations, independent mass media, think tanks, university teachers, and other social groups could be permanent or organized temporarily on any issue. They can express their views on related with education, health, employment, games, elections, and so on. Overall they can express their opinion on any national issue on behalf of the interest of citizen. Even they can talk about any international issue. But, when a group or association, functions by the order of government, or advocates on behalf of government then it can not be considered as civil society such as, bureaucrats – civil and military. Apart from that civil society must meet some other conditions as well.  This society must have respect for the law, the rights of individuals and the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions.

Collins English Dictionary defines civil society as 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government. Sometimes the term is used in the more general sense of the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society. Larry Diamond points out that civil society is made up of a vast arrangement of organizations, both formal and informal. There are ethnic, religious and communal institutions; commercial associations; interest groups representing workers, professionals, pensioners and others. Civil Society is issue-oriented groups that promote environmental, human rights, and other causes; developmental organizations that work to improve the quality of life of the community; and nonpartisan civic groups that work to make the political and economic system more accountable and transparent.

There are several different concepts of the civil society in Bangladesh. According to B. K. Jahangir, “Civil society is to be understood in opposition to the military society, which they create after having seized the state power and established themselves in it (Khan and Kabir: 2003).” The values of the military, he writes, are anti-democratic, their logic and legitimacy is force and not mediation and peoples consent, and their motive is to suppress popular politics and political supremacy in the conventional sense (Khan and Kabir:2003). Rehman Sobhan comes up with a view on civil society that is diametrically opposite to Jahangir’s concept. Both parties and civil society organizations mediate between the individual and the state, but they do so in different ways and have different functions. Former President of Bangladesh Justice Sahabuddin Ahmed indicates both the unorganized masses as well as the professional groups as members of civil society. Thus, he has broadened the concept of the civil society (Ahmed: 1997). However, ideally civil society is a group that may establish ties among political parties and the state, but they must retain their independence, and should not seek political power for themselves. The roles of civil society can be summarized as:

  1. to limit and control the power of the state;
  2. to raise public concern about any abuse of power;
  3. to promote political participation;
  4. to develop other values of democratic life such as tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for the views of others;
  5. to spread democratic civic education into the masses;
  6. to establish a dialogue with relevant government ministries and agencies to lobby for their interests and concerns and
  7. to play an important role in mediating to resolve conflict between the ruling party and the opposition (Diamond: 1994, Mirsky: 1993).

A democratic state cannot be stable unless it is effective and legitimate with the respect and support of its citizens.  Civil society is a check, a monitor, but also a vital partner in quest for this kind of positive relationship between the democratic state and its citizens (Roduetal: 1976

Political Party

Generally political party is defined in terms of its purpose, characteristics of its membership, and its structure or functions it performs(Roduetal: 1976). There are several popular definitions exist in scholarly literature about political party, like R. J. Gettell, Leslie Lipson, Edmund Burke, Joseph Schumpeter and others. Among all, the Gettell’s one is widely accepted as “A political party consists of a group of citizens, more or less organized, who acts as a political unit and who, by the use of their voting power, aims to control the government and carry out their general policies (Gettell: 1950).” Apart from this, we can also summarize some salient features related with a political party as:

  1. it has a common interest to organize (Lipson:1964);
  2. it operates upon some particular principles (Burke:1907);
  3. it mostly struggles to attain political power by constitutional means through periodic elections (Schumpeter: 1961, Ashraf:1995);
  4. it may try to achieve political power either singly or in coalition with other political parties (Ball:1994);
  5. 5.       it maintains a continuous connection between the people and those who represent themselves either in the government or in the opposition and
  6. 6.       it has to  endeavor to promote national interests and national welfare.

Political parties are indispensable part of an electoral democracy. In the absence of political parties, it is difficult to run the government in a parliament and a presidential system of governments (Ball: 1994).

Electoral Democracy

The concept of electoral democracy is derived from the broad concept of democracy. The aim of electoral democracy is to ensure a free and fair electoral process to choose the representatives of people who assume the task of governance. The election is the lifeline of democracy. Though election is an important step towards attaining congenial democracy, it needs to be emphasized that electoral democracy does not necessarily mean full-blown democracy. There is hardly any country in the world today that does not practice some kind of electoral democracy. Even the most oppressive of the autocracies stage-manage shows of electoral processes at regular intervals to legitimize their stranglehold on power. A common mandate for all the electoral bodies is to hold free and fair elections. For an electoral process to be considered free and fair, it must be taken place under the conditions that will permit to vote freely, equally, directly and secretly. The following conditions must be guaranteed for electoral democracy:

  1. each and every eligible citizen has the right to participate as a voter and as a candidate;
  2. freely asserted democratic rights and freedom of expression, especially related to the will of the people;
  3. electoral processes should be held regularly and periodically ;
  4. neutrality of the authority administering elections and
  5. procedures that ensures votes will be cast freely and counted accurately and an independent control system ensuring honesty of the process (Hussain: 1994).

Role of Civil Society in Electoral Democracy

Civil Society, democracy and election are closely interconnected. Civil societies play their role to build smooth democratic environment. It has been observed that the civil society played rational role in all the elections that took place in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the parties in power could not utilize that support of the civil society to build up a democratically oriented civil society.

To achieve democratic consolidation in Bangladesh, it is important to discuss the combined effect of four major interacting factors that are essential for the development of democracy: political institutionalization, stable economic growth, formation of a democratic culture and a participatory civil society. It has also been identified that a participatory civil society has four main tasks to realize democratic consolidation. These are civic education on political and human rights, interest aggregation, monitoring of state apparatus and economic society, and ensuring better participation and representation of all segments of society in political decision making. However, such activities have been found to be performed at a far low rate than the CSOs’involvement in service providing functions like education, economic empowerment etc. It is to be noted that compare to other service providing functions, raising political awareness has become a part of the grass-root projects of civil society organizations, particularly among NGOs as the donors have put emphasis on such activities (www.academic.edu). The high rate of voters’ turn out (over 70%) during the 1996, 2001 and 2008 elections due to such awareness programs of CSOs (Jahan:2008). In the result of such awareness, the high percentage of voters participation encourage by CSOs has made democratic environment in Bangladesh. But, it has been seen that in the various national elections, members of civil societies took a stance for or against the government. In Bangladesh, most of the civil society members belong to two major political parties in accordance with their political beliefs. Theoretically, members of civil society should not have such a belonging. They belong to political parties for their self- interest, that is to say, to get a better position in government when their desired party will win in the election.

Role of Political Party in Electoral Democracy

Political parties are the indispensable part of an electoral democracy that links between the people and their representative machinery to the government. One of their main roles is that they perform when the election is held. This role is very much obvious to make a democratic system effective. They select candidates for the upcoming election and direct the election campaign. Theoretically the candidates should be selected democratically inside the party from the party members, who are popular, experienced, and honest. Democratic countries like UK, USA, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands and France follow these norms in selecting their candidates. On the contrary, in Bangladesh, the nomination process is not very much transparent. Here the decision comes from the head of the party or from a small higher committee that does not follow the rules and regulations of a democratic system. So, democratic process is completely absent here. Sometimes nominations are traded in exchange of substantial amount of money to party fund. As a result, dishonest unpopular and inexperienced people enter into political arena. Even both muscle and financial ability are considered as principal criteria in selecting candidates. Apart from the candidate selection, the political parties also pollute the election campaign by allowing their candidates to violate election code of conducts. Politics has been snatched by the bad evils of politics day by day due to money and muscle power. These type of people up playing an instrumental role during the election campaign in the name of donations to the political parties and they are destroying the whole democratic political culture.

The parliament is the focal point of all national activities in the electoral democracy. It would be effective with the active participation of both ruling and opposition parties. In the Jatio Sangsad, legislation should be passed after a lively and constructive debate between the contending parties. Opposition party generally criticizes the act of ruling party, and the ruling party respects opposition’s their views and try to correct themselves accordingly in the line of democratic norms and manner. All disputes are settled here on the basis of compromise. But, in Bangladesh, this ideal scenario of parliamentary democracy is mostly absent. Opposition usually boycotts the parliament and mostly abstained from the business session. During 2001-2006, the parliament went about its business for 373 days while main opposition AL boycotted the parliament for 223 days and they walked out from the parliament 74 times out of 150 working days. Like the same, till June 2011, BNP has boycotted the parliament 122 out of 135 working days (Jahan:2008). Not only that, the opposition party often criticizes the ruling party, without any acceptable logic and argument. They are doing such a type of work just for the sake of opposing. They never find any good deed done by the government. At the same time, the ruling party never pays any attention to opposition’s views. So the opposition starts protesting against the government through hartal and strike, demonstration, public meeting, human chain and others programs. On the other hand, government tries to suppress the oppositions with strong hands and brutal. As a result, the country becomes a hotbed that makes the whole political system unwanted.

A sound financial base has an utmost importance for any political party of any electoral democracy. In ideal case, the political party maintains its fund from members’ fees and donations. But experiences suggest that there is no clear-cut and transparent financial system of the political parties in Bangladesh. Here, they obtain their funds through improper and unethical manner. Party members are engaged in different unethical activities to collect funds for party. Political party condones such offences very conspicuously.

One of important roles of political party is to establish a link between the government and the people. It is responsible to establish a channel of communication. But in Bangladesh, it only communicates with the masses during the election, after that they become completely isolated because they cannot penetrate into the people’s mind of their constituencies.

Conclusion

Both the civil society and the political parties’ role are very much important for en effective democracy. There must be a mutual respect and trust between them. Civil society would appreciate the good deeds and also criticize the wrong doings of political parties. On the other hand political parties would appreciate both criticism and appreciation, and act accordingly. Even sometimes they may take suggestion from civil society in related with some important issues. But these are very much absent in Bangladesh. The civil societies are biased toward a particular political party. They even support and defend the wrong doing of that political party. On the contrary they criticize the works of other. They sometimes backed the political party in election openly. For example, the city corporation election 2013 (Five city corporation: Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet, Barisal and Gajipur) where we see that the major political parties of Bangladesh are backed by civil society groups like ‘Nagorik Committee’ and ‘Nagorik Forum’. Under their banner political parties took part in elections.

The rights of the members of civil society are also have to be maintained. But in Bangladesh, it has been violated by both the civilians and the government officials very often who are backed by political parties. To establish law and order as well as peace in the society is not only the function of the state, but also it is the responsibility of the civil society and the political parties. But the civil society does not have the capacity or the power to force the political parties and the state apparatus to maintain civility in the society of Bangladesh. On the other hand, the political parties and their leaders very often choose to solve any disputes by the course of strike, demonstration and even violence by ignoring the rights of others in the society. Even the behavior of political leaders in the parliament sometimes embarrasses the common people. Use of abusive and indecent language, rush towards the speaker and damage the camera are the examples of such behavior. The way they acted cannot be justified as democratic functions.

In the conclusion, it is fair enough to ask that what kind of behavior did the civil society members and political party leaders learn from each other in Bangladesh? But it should be remembered that the potential of civil society and political party to contribute to democracy is not determined not by any single factor. It can be achieved through the combination of different factors such as history, culture, external influence, regulatory framework and so on. Though the nature of democracy and political structures influence both the civil society and the political party, but the strong civil society necessarily facilitates capable political parties, so as capable political party lead to consolidated electoral democracy.

References

Ahmed, Moudud, Democracy and the Challenge of Development: A Study of Politics and Military Interventions in Bangladesh (Dhaka: The University Press Limited, 1995), pp.47-49.

Alam, M. Badiul, “Democracy and Authoritarianism in New States: The Case of Bangladesh” Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis ( New Delhi: Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, 1985), Rounaq Jahan, Ibid, pp. 134-139.

Asharf, Ali & Sharma, L. N, Political Sociology (New Delhi: University Press Ltd. 1995) , p. 89.l

Ball, Alan R., Modern Politics & Government (London: The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1994), p. 79.

Burke, Edmund, Thought on the Cause of the Present Discontents, in works– II (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), p. 82.

CSOs means Civil Society Organizations.

Gettell, R G, Political Science (Calcutta: The World Press Private Ltd. 1950), p.289.

http://politics.myjoyonline.com/pages/news/201209/93873.php [Accessed on 21/02/2013]

http://www.academia.edu/2321086/The_Role_of_Civil_Society_in_Contributing_to_Democracy_of_Bangladesh [Accessed on 24.03.2013].

http://www.ned.org/about/board/meet-our-president/archived-remarks-and-presentations/031704        [Accessed on 21/02/2013]

http://www.stanford.edu/~ldiamond/iraq/Develop_Democracy021002.htm [Accessed on 24.03.2013].

Hussain, Syed Anwar, “Challenges of Democratic Governance in Bangladesh” in S.R. Chakravarty (edi.) Society, Polity and Economy of Bangladesh (New Delhi: Anand Publications, 1994), p. 112.   

Ibid.

Jahan, Rounaq, “The Challenges of Institutionalising Democracy in Bangladesh”, ISAS Working Paper, Institute of South Asian studies (Singapore City: National University of Singapore, 2008) & Jenny Pearce, “Building Civil Society from the Outside: The Problematic Democratization of Central America”. Global Society, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1998, pp. 177-196., The Daily Star, 1 July 2011.

Jahan, Rounaq, “The Challenges of Institutionalising Democracy in Bangladesh”, Ibid.

Jahan, Rounaq, Bangladesh: Promise and Performance (Dhaka: The University Press Ltd., 2000), p.123.

Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 283.

Lipson, Leslie, The Democratic Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), p.120.

Quoted in Mizan R. Khan and Muhammad Humayun Kabir, Civil Society and Democracy in Bangladesh (Dhaka: Academic Press and Publishers Limited, 2002), p.23.

Quoted in Mizan R. Khan and Muhammad Humayun Kabir, Ibid, p.167.

Rodee, C. C, Anderson, T.J. & Green, Thomas H. (ed), Introduction to Political Science (New York: McGraw- Hill Book Company, 1976), p. 317.

See for President Justice Sahabuddin Ahmed’s Inaugural Address at the Asia- Pacific Civil Society Forum held in Dhaka on 24 July 1997.

See Larry Diamond. “Rethinking Civil Society: Toward Democratic Consolidation”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1994, pp. 4-17; Yehudah Mirsky, “Democratic Politics, Democratic Culture”. Orbis, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1993, pp. 567-580.

 

 



*   Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Rajshahi University, Rajshahi-6205, Bangladesh.

** Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Rajshahi University, Rajshahi-6205, Bangladesh.

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