Muhammad Q. Islam

Thailand and Bangladesh: A tale of two countries

December 29, 2013
Photo: bdnews24.com

Photo: bdnews24.com

Recent events in Thailand bear some parallels with events in Bangladesh. In both countries, the party out of power demands an interim caretaker government. In Thailand, the ruling majority, confident of its support from the majority of the voters, has called for new elections. The opposition, supported by the urban well to do, and some say, the military, is campaigning against holding elections, and instead, has proposed a “peoples council,” with only 100 of 400 people directly elected by voters. The remaining 300 would be selected, who and by what means is not clear. So, the opposition demands a caretaker government, an unelected Peoples Council, to reform politics.

To press their demands, the opposition in Bangkok has called for a siege of the city, and invited its followers from across Thailand to march into Bangkok and occupy every inch of the city. But as an astute observer commented in the Bangkok Post, “Democracy:- Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system. I’m having a difficult time understanding how occupying an entire city and preventing your opposition parties from being able to conduct any business could be considered as democratic, the same as obstructing others from registering could also be. As an outsider looking in with many friends in Thailand it appears to me that Suthep (opposition leader) is simply a bully who is throwing a tantrum because he is isn’t getting his way.” And the observer is correct because all indications suggest that the opposition is unlikely to win elections, and hence, they call for extra-constitutional caretaker government.

The caretaker system of government worked quite well in Bangladesh. But  the interim government formed in 2007, with an unelected set of advisors with support from the military, stayed on much too long, with the promise that they too will reform politics (’minus two’ solution) and stamp out corruption in Bangladesh. In the end, they failed; elections had to be held, and power transferred to elected representatives of the people. The finding that the 13th Amendment was unconstitutional gave the ruling party the opportunity to declare future elections will be held with interim government formed with elected representatives only. The PM has repeatedly said that Bangladesh, like in other countries with the parliamentary system of government, has the ability to hold fair and credible elections without a government formed by non-elected advisors. The opposition leader declared in 2011 that only a non-partisan caretaker government would do, and she has stuck to her guns.

Photo: ReutersSo, the lines were drawn early, and neither the PM nor the opposition leader has moved to reconcile differences. Unlike in Thailand, in Bangladesh, all indications are that the ruling party may not fare so well if free and credible elections are held, and the opposition could very well win. So a not so popular ruling party rejects the idea of a non-partisan government calling such a caretaker government extra constitutional, even though the highest court said that the 10th and 11th parliamentary elections could be held under a non-partisan caretaker government. So, in two countries, two realities: In Thailand, a not so popular opposition is in favour of a caretaker government to deny those who have a popular mandate; and in Bangladesh, a not so popular government rejects the idea of a caretaker government, perhaps in fear of losing their mandate.

The problem for the ruling party is that the voters in Bangladesh did not believe the PM that a credible election can be held with the ruling party at the helm. Even offers to form an all-party interim government, not a bad idea on paper, was not sufficient. Perhaps the offer came too late. By then, repeated polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of the people, above 3/4ths, believe that a non-partisan government is necessary to hold credible elections. Her arguments for holding elections has failed to convince even her coalition partners, some of whom now have abandoned her, multiplying her problems manifold. And the reaction of the ruling party to their election problem has been truly abysmal. The PM, instead of leading from the front to diffuse the crisis, has instead knit herself into a tight shell from which she cannot move. The ruling party has now embarked on a path of wholesale harassment of the opposition. Hubris, some might say, and they would not be far off. But this assault has convinced nobody, and with voters disenfranchised with more than half of the 10th Parliament elected unopposed, the call for abandoning this election has grown stronger than ever.

The PM is correct that mature democracies do not need a caretaker system of government. But what the PM has failed to recognise is that mature democracies also have mature and strong institutions, foremost among them an independent body, such as the Election Commission, that can plan and hold elections without interference, an independent bureaucracy that can assist in holding of such elections, and an independent judiciary that can freely adjudicate disputes that arise in elections. None of these are present in Bangladesh. But even more consequential maybe the fact that neither the PM nor the leader of the opposition truly believe in democratic rights.

While speaking of democracy, the PM has shown she will use extra constitutional means to silence her opposition. While the leader of the opposition has called for the March for Democracy, her track record going back to 1996, and the more recent attempt at manipulating the caretaker system of government for the benefit of her party does not inspire confidence. The PM and the leader of the opposition have ruled this country for long. But their collective failure is that between them they have not seen the need to reform and strengthen the very institutions that form the backbone of a democracy. And when out of power, they simply refuse to show up in parliament, the very body that exemplifies democratic rule.

They thrive in chasm. Common people are deprived of livelihoods, and common people are burned to death, and the brand that we call Bangladesh suffers immensely, all because allure of power and its spoils trump decency.

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Muhammad Q. Islam, is an Associate Professor of Economics, John Cook School of Business, Saint Louis University, USA.

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9 Responses to “ Thailand and Bangladesh: A tale of two countries ”

  1. Mohammad Zaman on December 31, 2013 at 6:22 am

    NY times is quoting you Qamrul Bhai.
    I just shared the link with your FB.
    Cancel visiting home – ha ha …

  2. EXPat on December 30, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I agree with what this author has stated. I would also add that in all the times I have come back to the country of my birth the only time I felt it was safe and less affected by corruption was during the last caretaker government. I would say that democracy has failed in B’desh and will fail as long as these to incumbent women and their families rule. Also, while there was widespread corruption during the last BNP rule, I feel that the AL has taken the biscuit and decided to eat the goose that laid the golden egg rather than just take the eggs.

    • Muhammad Q islam on January 1, 2014 at 8:09 am

      Agree. Ultimately, they will have difficulty digesting the goose. Problem is the alternative we have does not promise much better. Could be worse if JI raises its head.

  3. Politically Austere on December 30, 2013 at 6:34 am

    Bangladesh’s perception of Democracy is a paradigm and a deluded metaphor. And we believe this article portrays this paradigm and the delusion quite admirably. Although the parallels drawn between two emerging/developing nations is also quite splendid, the astuteness of our politicians and their overall intellect begs one to question whether they even possess such qualities.

    • Golam Arshad on December 30, 2013 at 4:01 pm

      India is deeply involved in the current “Political Crisis in Bangladesh”. First Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh and now Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid makes it crystal clear, that India wants to return Sheikh Hasina in the “Controversial and Farcical Election’ of January 5th 2014. Our Big Brother has thrown their “Gauntlet to make Bangladesh Sikkim”! Prove me Wrong if I am not Right!

      • Khan-Niazi on January 3, 2014 at 10:32 am

        India is concerned beacause Bangladesh used to help the militancy against India which Sk. Hasina has successfully curbed down. When there is a crisis in Bangladesh, India is always badly affected, we should not forget 1971 war where India had to accomodate more that 20 million rafugees from Bangladesh. But sadly, this bloody AL is using this advantage and trying to stay in power illegally. 99% people of Bangladesh including me do not want to see such one-sided election in Bangladesh. This will be the last nail to the coffin of “Democracy.” We should get rid of these two bloody ladies in soonest possible time.

  4. Mohammad Zaman on December 30, 2013 at 1:38 am

    Qamrul Bhai,

    After we talked yesterday, I was writing a blog on the nature of our current government.
    Are is the first two paragraphs. As observed by you, the unpopularity of AL and it’s commission of infinite misdeeds has lead the party close to fascist mentality.

    God save us from these two LADIES!!

    MZ

    “Fascism denies, in democracy, the absurd conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective responsibility ….” Benito Mussolini.

    Even after a decade of Mussolini’s pronouncement as to the basic tenets of fascism, the word rapidly suffered a massive interpretative inflection, that George Orwell in his 1944-essay “What is Fascism” could not come up with a good definition of what fascism is and wrote in desperation: “all one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to a level of a swearword.”

    In the today’s miasmic milieu of Bangladeshi Politics, in addition to the swearword “razakar” the word “fascist” is also being thrown around in random by both the quarreling parties. In this blog, I would like expound the situation a little further.

    “Fascis” (an Italian word) means bundle or unit, while “fasces” (a Latin word) is a symbol of bound sticks used as a totem of power in ancient Rome. These two roots aptly describes the basic tenets of fascism: unity and power. However, the nature of fascism espoused by Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy or Franco in Spain is not exactly the same, still there are some basic features than characterizes any fascist movement:

    1. Absolute power of sate: “the fascist state organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question can not be the individual, but the state alone” – thus goes Mussolini to encapsulate the fact that there is no law or other power that can limit the authority of the state.

    2. Authoritarian leadership: A fascist state requires a single leader with absolute authority who is all-powerful and lords over the totality of the state affairs with no limits whatsoever. There also can be a cult of personality around the leader.

    3. Strict social order: To eliminate the possibility of chaos than can undermine state authority, fascism maintains a social order in which every individual has a specific place that can not be altered.
    4. Nationalism and super-patriotism with a sense of historic mission.

    5. Jingoism: Aggression is felt to be a virtue while pacifism a cowardice. This is how Mussolini writes – “fascism ….. believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace….. war alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the people who have the courage to meet it.”

    6. Dehumanization and scapegoating of the enemy.

    CONCLUSION IS YOURS…

    • Muhammad Q islam on January 1, 2014 at 8:04 am

      Just hoping it does not come to that. Our people stand for moderation. Think efforts to go to extremes will ultimately fail.

  5. Golam Arshad on December 29, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    Good, solid observation. Democracy short circuits at the “Dome of Power and Arrogance”. It is NOW in “UTTER LIMBO”; BNP AND AL LOCKED in a “Bloody Confrontation”. The Weeping Willow in “Bloody Mess”!

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