Declining role of political parties

Published: 00:05, Jan 03,2018 | Updated: 23:02, Jan 02,2018


THAT we expect the Election Commission to ensure fair polls and not the political parties is a good indicator of what the locus standi of conventional politics is in Bangladesh. It is largely managed by the bureaucrats — civil and military — and the politicians as a whole are not the primary players. ‘Post-politics’ exists when governance is functionary rather than driven by politicians who depend solely on public support. In Bangladesh, it is largely a matter of the head of the party and the government combining with trusted officials and political loyalists to govern. This could be one reason why internal party democracy is low as its need is limited.
Conventional mass politics is very weak in Bangladesh. When political parties cannot agree how elections and power transfers are going to be conducted 47 years after independence, that means it is not functional any more. It is ironical that the war of independence was triggered by an election result and fought in the hope of endless quality mass based elections.

Who are the power players?
IN THE first phase, from 1972 to 1975, power was largely in civilian politician hands, a legacy of the pre-1971 political imagination and nationalist movements. The benefits of the state went largely to the civilian elite politicians who had led the war.
However, as several participants of the 1975 coups have pointed out in different interviews and books, they had also participated in a political war taking a personal political decision to commit themselves to a nationalist struggle. For many of them, the situation was a continuation, not a new start. So, they felt left out after 1971 and the grumbling inside the army was high among various politicised 1971 veterans of various shades.
When ultimately Zia took over, the military regime, in effect, meant that the army as an institutional force had became a part of the governing elite. Subsequently, to continue ruling, a civil military combo was launched as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Civilian political power groups led by the Awami League had to compete with the civil-military combo group like the BNP. However, over the years, the BNP became inevitably more civilian and the relationship with the institutional army became weak. This saw the rise of Ershad as a representative of military interests, who took over power and later formed the Jatiya Party as a new version of the old BNP, which is military-inspired civilian politics.
But the civilian parties, the BNP and the Awami League, mounted resistance to the new cousin of the armed forces in civilian politics showing that the equation of power sharing had shifted, civilians had become stronger and exclusive one ruling group days were over.

The balance of power in 1990
WHEN the military did not bail out the ex-army chief Ershad’s Jatiya Party as he had expected and civilian parties like the BNP-AL and the Jamaat-e-Islami won by standing together, the civil-military alliance was more firmly established as the both began to realise that they needed each other. From 1990 to 2001, we see a relatively low political conflict as the major contradiction between civil and military forces appeared settled.
However, the BNP’s fiddling with the system in 2006, from which it benefited the most, created an internal conflict with the Awami League and, thus, within the civilian power group.
Meanwhile, a new entrant, the civil society’ group, which represented non-political party elite, had emerged on the scene. It became a new entrant challenging the old guard of the BNP-AL-JP-JI by aligning with the military power group. This conflict and new alliance led to the para-military takeover of 2006.
The 2006–08 Moeen–Fakhruddin combo also showed that a civil face on a military takeover was by then necessary or end of exclusive ruling by any group. The civilian agitation which the military failed to suppress or the civilian political parties it sponsored led by civil society elites also failed to take off confirmed this. It meant that both the civil and military political forces had grown and there was a need for balance of political power between the two. One could not ignore the other even if they wanted to.
The need was for a new alliance with systemically designated roles for each to ensure least conflict. Beginning with the 2008 elections, it has been in place and has worked well.

Decline of the need for mass politics
AS A result, the space for traditional politics has also reduced because of lack of need/demand of the earlier civilian political elite model. Civil and military bureaucrats are the primary governance elite and politicians are next to them. The civil service has become the main civilian governance power while the military elite provide backing to ensure stability. As the scene after the 2014 elections shows, the legislature has a limited role to play and not always needed like before. A new governance arrangement is in place now where mass electoral politics is less necessary.
When voters play a rather small role in a post-mass politics scenario, the space for mass politicians is low too. In this new governance arrangement, power belongs to various groups and institutions not voters and is exerted more by state employees than mass public representatives. The coalition of course is led by civilian led political parties but it is a coalition with prescribed roles for each. It is governance through maintaining of power balances among various groups. Political parties are part of that consortium but not the sole group. Governance is led by the coalition not by participatory political arrangement. Hence, its status as post-mass politics based state.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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