Bangladesh Makes Democracy Work

A constitutional change unshackles the electoral process

Bangladesh recently went through an extraordinary political transformation that has great significance for democratic values and practices not only in that country, but in many others as well.

During the past year, and particularly during the first few months of 1996, the main opposition party spearheaded a people's movement to change a system that gave the sitting government undue influence over elections - a situation typical of many developing countries. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, demanded that future elections be held under a caretaker government in order to ensure a free and fair vote.

After considerable political turmoil and in the face of an almost complete national consensus behind the opposition, the government gave in. At the last minute, it agreed to a constitutional amendment. Under that new law, a caretaker government took over at the end of March for a period of 90 days.

Elections were held on June 12 and 19. The Awami League party won a majority in the parliament, and on June 23 Sheikh Hasina formed a new government.

The election was observed by more than 100 international observers drawn from all parts of the world, including a team under former US Congressman Stephen Solarz, who testified the elections were held in a free and peaceful atmosphere. Voters exercised their right to back the candidate of their choice. The caretaker government idea was thus vindicated.

During the days of political turmoil that preceded the constitutional amendment and the election, there were disruptions of civic and economic life. Friends abroad expressed concern about this. But while the country may have suffered some loss of production and investment, the political gain far outweighs such setbacks.

Because of the caretaker-government provision, the people of Bangladesh are now assured that future elections will be as free of fear and threat as this one was. In the long run, this new system will consolidate the country's democratic process and allow for peaceful transfers of power. Democratic institutions will be put on a firmer footing. The resulting political stability will be essential to accelerated economic development and sustained interaction with the outside world in matters of trade, investment, capital flows, and technological advancement. Bangladesh will thus be in a position to share in global prosperity.

By introducing the caretaker concept in its parliamentary system, Bangladesh has made a significant contribution to the practice of parliamentary democracy. Many countries are looking at this step as a way of enhancing the transparency of the democratic process.

The voter turnout in Bangladesh in June was 73 percent - a level of participation that underscores the country's commitment to democracy. In many areas women voters outnumbered men, indicating that the empowerment of women in rural Bangladesh is an ever more significant factor.

Finally, it must be emphasized that while some in the foreign press had earlier characterized Bangladesh as a country inclined toward Islamic fundamentalism, the pro-fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islam party won only 3 seats this election. In the previous parliament it held 23 seats. This is further evidence of a commitment to democracy, freedom, and secular politics.

Bangladesh typically makes news in the United States because of natural disasters. The US news media should also note the achievement the people of Bangladesh in consolidating democracy. The new Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, deserves congratulations and good wishes as she takes Bangladesh into the 21st century.

*Humayun Kabir is Bangladesh's ambassador to the US.

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