Balancing act

Tazreena Sajjad

Published in Daily Star (July 2007)

With a roadmap to elections to be announced by the caretaker government on July 15, the country is rife with conjecture on the form of this handover. This also opens up a space to contemplate on the existing and future possibilities of civil-military relations in Bangladesh.

What is critical to remember in these speculations is that 2007 is not a new phenomenon and neither will the prospective handover, necessarily, break new grounds. In the history of regime transitions, Bangladesh is another nation attempting to reach a balance between the will of the people and a dire need for stability through other means when political leadership has proved to be anything but satisfactory.

Transitions from military-backed unelected regimes to democratically elected governments are nothing new. Such transitions have taken several forms in other countries throughout history. In Brazil, Peru and Turkey, authoritarian elites in power made (albeit half-hearted) attempts to “restore” democracy.

In Greece, Argentina, and in Bangladesh, opposition groups led the transition process, ousting the authoritarian regime. More interesting examples of transition come from South Korea, Uruguay and El Salvador, where authoritarian elites and opposition groups worked jointly to bring about a democratic transition.

If the much anticipated roadmap is indeed institutionalised, what Bangladesh is looking at is a form of democratic transformation as was experienced in Turkey. In the absence of elected democratic officials who could work alongside the caretaker government to ensure a healthy transition, this is perhaps the most effective means of relinquishing power. Nevertheless, when the military-backed government leaves power, several questions can arise.

What measures will the new civilian democratic government take to control the military? What prerogatives will the military retain as the transition is made? If there is disagreement between civilian and military authorities over these questions, the path to democracy can be highly contested.

In general, the route to a new government is dependent on the degree of acquiescence demonstrated by any civilian regime to military demands for fear of provoking the military to re-enter the political arena and can set the precedent and parameters for future civil-military relations.

In Bangladesh, it may continue a contentious relationship where the military looks at the civilian regime with a certain amount of disdain and the latter evaluates the former from a position of fear and suspicion.

When there is a return to the democratic process, at least in theory, there are certain provisions that will have to be met both by the military and the civilian government. The following are considered the true tests of a credible and strong democratic system of governance:

  • Military subordination where military autonomy is limited and where civilian leaders are responsible for articulating the missions of armed forces.
  • The military budget is under the control of democratic leadership.
  • Civilian institutions are legitimate and supportive to ensure that a democratic administration can exercise control over the military.
  • The military remains outside the confines of domestic politics. In weak democracies, high levels of corruption and ineptitude leadership create the legitimacy and scope for military intervention in civilian affairs.

Common sense dictates that if civilians remain committed to democracy, there is an automatic rejection of knocking at the barrack doors for support. If, however, the grounds are created for military involvement, the military becomes less compliant to notions of civilian control if they have been in power for any length of time and have grown accustomed to the privilege of power.

Consequently, suspension of political rights that may have been accepted for a brief period of time becomes a norm. Under such circumstances, civilian supremacy may be unlikely to assert itself overnight especially if torn apart by internal conflicts. Conversely, a critical point of tensions may be reached when the population becomes hostile to military involvement in politics.

If Bangladesh is looking at a transformation as discussed above, it is possible that the military can retain a share of its prerogatives. Civilian authorities can seek to assert control girded by a fear that implementing policies that the military finds objectionable could provoke its return to power.

The challenge therefore lies in strengthening the foundations of institutions that need to be in place to achieve such control as and when the opportunity arises to do so.

Democratic culture flourishes from entrenched democratic structures and is not contingent on charismatic leadership alone. In the absence of credible leadership and weak institutions, the prospects of a continued trend in military intervention in the political affairs of the country can never be fully eroded.

Neither can the military relinquish its perceived duty of “clearing-house” and enforce law and order when the top echelons of politics fail the constituents repeatedly. The time for reckoning is now.

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