April 3: When asked, what they perceive about democracy in Bangladesh, many participants, in a survey, initially declined to respond. A question, as complex as this one, might have put them in an awkward position. They expressed concerns that their candid responses, extolling the virtues of democracy, might as well be used as the seal of approval of the current state of political activities, which they do not endorse. But, when given options to assess democracy and performance of political parties and activities separately, the same group became more candid in expressing highly favorable view on democracy and freedom while disclosing highly negative views on the political activities in Bangladesh. The snapshot of the responses based on few questions predicts good news for democracy, but not so good news for the political elites of Bangladesh.
Good news for democracy
- The survey titled “Democracy Perception Survey” conducted in July 27-August 9, 2011 interviewed 669 individuals, randomly selected from the greater Dhaka Metropolitan City (DMC) areas, stratified into eight zones. The interviews used a questionnaire containing 53 questions structured in eight categories. The participation in the survey was voluntary and the respondents were not required to disclose their name, home and work addresses.
- At the time of the survey, about 97% of the participants were registered for vote and 84% of the registered voters stated to be likely to vote in 2014 election.
- As shown in figure 1, more than 76% of the respondents preferred democracy to military rule or other forms of government and 79% of the respondents were either very satisfied or satisfied with their experience with the democratic form of government.
4. More than 93% of the respondents indicated freedom as either very important or important to their lives.
5. Female were found to have more favorable perception of democracy (78.1% of female respondents) than the male (74.3% of male respondents).
6. Participants with more favorable perception about democracy are also found to have higher level of education, personal income, and more favorable perception about the quality of life.
7. When asked which of the following state of political-economic setup they would prefer (an idea drawn from Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom), as shown in figure-2, around 84% of the respondents choose “political freedom with economic freedom” as the most desirable choice.
Bad news for political parties
Despite having very favorable perception about democracy, the participants expressed highly unfavorable opinions about the performance of the political parties of the country. For instance,
8. In figure 3, only 31% of those who held favorable perception about democracy viewed political parties favorably.
9. As shown in figure -4, among the likely registered voters, 32% and 28% would have voted, respectively, for Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had the election been held during the survey period. Among 28% who opted for other parties, only 1% would have voted for Jamaat-e-Islami.
10. Worse yet, as figure -5 shows, among the likely independent voters, support for the AL government drastically fell to only 6% from 49% in 2008 election. Although support for BNP among independent voters slightly increased from 10% in 2008 to 12% during the survey, the 2% gain remains within the 5% margin of error. Large percent of the likely independent voters (68.8%) opted out for alternatives, simply suggests no confidence on the traditional political establishment.
11. Surprisingly, despite having negative views about political parties, as presented in figure-6, the respondents view performance of Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister and Khaleda Zia as the leader of the opposition more favorably with 64% approving the jobs Sheikh Hasina were doing with 49% holding similar views of Khaleda Zia.
Pressing crises causing inconvenience to everyday life
12. When asked, which issue(s) they perceive to be causing the most inconvenience to their daily lives, as reported table-1, more than 50% of the respondents indicated rising prices of the essentials with traffic congestion and electricity crisis each racking up 30% responses as being the number one inconvenience to their daily lives.
13. When asked, how they rank political crisis and corruption as issues of most inconvenience, many respondents mentioned that political crisis and corruption (included in ‘others’ category) were more of incidental problems with less bearing on their daily lives.
First, strong positive views about democracy combined with negative views on the activities of the political parties may suggest both good and bad news for the democratic process. The good news is that people want democratic process to continue. The robust support for democracy with negative views of the political activities suggests that the people are prepared to bring a change to steer the political process into right direction through the electoral process. But, the main concern is that other stakeholders of democracy such as civil society groups, intellectuals, media, business communities, professionals, who could act as catalysts, are either blatantly polarized across partisan lines or mostly pre-occupied with their group interests. This makes democratic process vulnerable to unwarranted intervention by the undemocratic forces in the pretext of saving democracy from unpopular and unaccountable democratic government. In the past, such interventions, which include power grab by General Erashed in March 23, 1982 and the military-backed CTG in January 11, 2007, did not only fail, but, in many cases, made matters worse.
Second, more favorable opinions of the female respondents about democracy suggest that democratic process may be helping promoting female empowerment, also a strong reason why democratic process must be upheld despite being infested by the influence of special interest groups. Only through the practice, democratic process will rightly weed out the unwarranted features from the governing process.
Third, high approval ratings of the leaders of two largest political parties with highly negative views of the party activities may appear puzzling. But, such perception either reflects the feudalistic mindset of Bangladeshi electorate (clan-based mentality) or emanates from the sympathies towards two late leaders of the largest political parties or both. Such affection may also explain why the dubious minus-two theory of the military-backed caretaker government largely failed to succeed in 2007-08.
ABM Nasir is an Associate Professor of Economics at the North Carolina Central University, USA.