Assalammalai Kum. Let me begin by saying that I come here today not as an expert on Bangladesh and its history, but as a longtime observer and analyst of the democratic process, who now lives in Bangladesh. What I shall do is apply concepts of democracy and politics developed in other countries to the current situation here in Bangladesh. Doing so is both a strength and a limitation.

I draw on two streams of analysis. The first is the “New Institutionalist School.” This name refers to a group of scholars who have sought to explain political, historical, economic and social institutions in terms of liberal (neoclassical) economic theory. The New Institutionalists can be thought of as “economic imperialists” – economists using economics to explain areas of human society normally considered outside the discipline’s scope. Many in this tradition are associated with the University of Chicago. The work of Ronald Coase, Armen Alchian, Oliver Williamson, James Buchanan and Douglass North has earned them Nobel Prizes in economics.

The second branch of analysis may surprise some. The tradition of pragmatism developed in late-19th-century America by, among others, the philosopher William James, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes and the educational and political activist John Dewey may seem dated and by now well out of the academic mainstream. Their ideas arose as an intellectual reaction to the American Civil War (1861–65), and over time they provided, if not the content, then the reformist tone of the Progressive movement embodied by President Woodrow Wilson and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The question I address today is: how can Bangladesh overcome its democratic deficit? Let me start by addressing the assumptions behind that question.

By a democratic deficit I mean the inability to fulfil not just the letter of democracy – for example contestable elections – but also the spirit of democracy, meaning the mutual consent of contesting parties to uphold the civility and stability of a neutral political space where adversarial political speech and debate thrive, yet remain within the bounds of nonviolence and the rule of law. When politicians fulfil the spirit of democracy, they may still hate their opponents and what they stand for, but the verbal and physical expressions of conflict remain within the “rules of the game.”

14 IMGP0220The history of Bangladesh since liberation from Pakistan in 1971 demonstrates that the two major political parties have yet to delineate any meaningful neutral political space. To clarify: the leaders of the Awami League and Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have failed to develop a political culture capable of accommodating the legitimacy of the other. Instead of neutral political space, a no-man’s-land exists between troops in opposing trenches. Each side claims a monopoly on legitimacy: those in the Awami League trench from having led the war in 1971, those in the BNP trench from having instituted major reforms after 1975.

I am referring here to the nature of political culture in Bangladesh, not to the political or moral judgement of the country’s leaders. The causes of Bangladesh’s democratic deficit predated the tenure of the two current paramount leaders, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, both of whom have served credibly as prime minister. Moreover, unless fundamental change occurs, Bangladesh’s democratic deficit will continue after both have retired.

The partisan struggle to assert legitimacy and deny it to others can be traced to the tragic events of 1971 and, before that, to those of 1947. The fault lines of Bangladesh’s legitimacy conflict are among the most complex and intractable of any in the world. They include conflicts over the choice and role of language, particular cultures and particular religions, and over delineation of borders.

Consider this contrasting situation. In the United States in the 1860s, the sole discord capable of propelling the nation into civil war was slavery. Though other conflicts arose concerning states’ rights, slavery was the primary and overarching conflict. Starting in 1947 and culminating in 1971, however, all four fault lines – language, culture, religion and territorial borders – intersected and divided Bengali society.

As long as the political struggle is one of contested legitimacy, neither the performance of the government nor the policy alternative of the opposition have much relevance. Mythmaking and symbols assume greater political significance than actual policy action or inaction. This may explain why successive governments have seemingly paid greater attention to the content of textbooks than to the dropout rate of students. As long as both parties contest the founding of the nation, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that each considers the other guilty of treason. Historical analysis only rarely achieves consensus. I recall an old Czech Communist telling me, “The future is easy to predict. It’s predicting the past that’s difficult.”

Though Bangladesh suffers a democratic deficit, it is not alone in that condition. Pakistan has yet to come to grips with the legitimacy of elected officials vis à vis the military. Nepal faces a crisis in which a hereditary monarch claims sole legitimate power. The junta of Myanmar continues to imprison the country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite its partisan confrontation, Bangladesh remains a relative political success story within the region.

The parties, no matter who the leaders

are, appear constrained by history. They call general strikes, hartals, because hartals have worked in the past, and they cannot conceive of other tactics that might work better.1 Bangladesh averages up to 20 hartal days a year. Economists talk of path-dependency, a situation in which initial choices remove options by making change too difficult and expensive. To borrow a metaphor from the economics of games, the political leadership in Bangladesh has found a stable institutional equilibrium in noncooperation. If one party cooperates with the other, then it risks conceding the opponent’s claim to legitimacy and calling into question its own. Political survival appears to demand noncooperation, a denial of any political space to the other side.

14 AlexPictures 128Let me qualify this rather stark point of view. The optimist will rightly insist that political analysis based on theory often misjudges. Events may turn out better than the theory implies. There are reasons for optimism. For example, I continue to find many midlevel party leaders, particularly in communities outside Dhaka, who have working political relationships with leaders of other parties. They measure one another favourably or unfavourably on what they do for the community, not on what they were doing in 1971 or 1975, now a full generation and a half in the past. In Bangladesh as elsewhere, good people are struggling to make life better.

The most visible symptom of the democratic deficit in Bangladesh is the marginal role of the parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad, as a forum either to debate policy choices or to enforce government accountability to the public. However, just because the Jatiya Sangsad does not function well does not make it unimportant. To the contrary, election to the Jatiya Sangsad continues to bestow the primary sign of political authority. Party officials and advisors may have important influence on the leaders, but they cannot act on the fundamental political equation of power – a majority in the parliament.

Responsibility for the Jatiya Sangsad’s marginal role lies with both major parties which, over the last 15 years, have rotated between forming the government and the official opposition. This responsibility extends beyond the rather theatrical opposition boycotts. Few can sort out the claims and counterclaims as to whether the speaker has failed to provide “space” to the opposition or whether the opposition uses boycotts to undermine the legitimacy of the government.

More seriously, the responsibility lies with the fact that both parties, when in government, have ceded control of the policy agenda to the permanent civil service. Far too many policy decisions are taken within the ministries and, in particular, within the Prime Minister’s Office. The basis for ceding this control is that authority is delegated from largely obsolete legislation. There is a serious problem of accountability when colonial-era legislation still provides the basis of the regulation for large swaths of the Bangladesh economy and society. More than the issue of who attends parliament or not, the lack of substantive legislation has undermined what should be the central role of the Jatiya Sangsad in the nation’s governance.

To the outside observer, it is hard to grasp the reason why the parties have largely abandoned the policy process to the bureaucracy. The parties bear the brunt of criticism when policy and administrative decisions prove unpopular, and certainly when overly complex and opaque administrative structures lead to wholesale rent-seeking – to use a polite phrase. MPs do not enjoy lifetime job security, and yet they have ceded control over the instruments of governance on which their political fortunes rest. The question arises: why such a bitter contest for political power when the prize of policy power remains largely locked within a coterie of senior civil servants?

The explanation sometimes offered is that MPs are themselves engaged in corruption and need favours from the bureaucrats, and are thus willing to overlook the latter’s activities. This accusation is not entirely accurate. Markets that trade in political influence tend to restrict participants and are notoriously imperfect. Such markets favour a “winner-take-all” or a highly inequitable distribution of returns. Political rent-seeking is more or less a pyramid scheme. For all but the few at the top of the pyramid, participants face serious difficulties including flawed information, high transaction costs and the risk of lost opportunities, all of which can reduce or nullify any returns.

Simply put, the price paid to enter the political market (the cost of obtaining a major party nomination, of winning election and so on which can reach C$500,000) has risen and may roughly equal the bulk of expected future rents. As a result, the participants in political rent-seeking, unless they go to extraordinary lengths, may never recoup their initial investments. Nonetheless, even a small number of politicians whose interests lie in political rent-seeking can cause serious distortions and losses to the nation’s economy.

The problem is solvable in the abstract. If MPs assumed greater control over the national policy agenda, then they would have to focus on the pressing problems of the present rather than the symbols of the past. While truly engaged with national problems, they would have fewer reasons to involve themselves in local government and businesses, with their attendant temptations for low-grade rent-seeking. If the cost of nominations and elections were reduced, these positive developments would be bolstered. In short, the cure to the democratic deficit is to allow MPs to debate vigorously and to be the authentic decision-makers about the policy and administrative actions of the central government.

While the internal dynamics of the problem and the solution may appear self-evident, the pathway leading from problem to solution is not at all clear. There will be no one magic solution. There will probably be a series of small steps, some doomed to fail while others succeed. As with any experiment, the hardest part is drawing lessons from errors and moving on.

Any serious reform of the democratic deficit will require the leaders, in both government and opposition, to reach out and include their supporters in critical decision-making. For those in power, reform may well entail a short-term static loss in exchange for a long-term dynamic gain. The existence of such an exchange may not be apparent to the average person, let alone to political leaders. Leaders in power at the time of reform cannot reasonably expect to harvest the long-term rewards, whereas they know that they will suffer any short-term loss. Sadly, reformers often have far shorter political careers than autocrats. The consolation for reformers is that they garner respect and are remembered long after the autocrats have been forgotten.

The intractability of reform – where current political leaders, having paid dearly to enter politics, reject reforms that prevent their collecting anticipated rents – has led to speculation that genuine reform can only happen at times of “regime change,” when an old order collapses as a result of internal decay or external pressure. I am sceptical of this argument, largely because it is unrealistic to expect that newly emerging leaders will somehow be immune from the rent-seeking habits of their predecessors. Lasting reforms arise from a background of incremental improvement and a broad genuine political consensus.

A traditional approach to major change in developing countries has lain in urging mass mobilization of the “people” where political and social actors combine to form “popular fronts” outside of the legislature to reorder the foundation of the state. One example is the pre-independence Congress Party of India. Denied a meaningful legislative or executive role, the Congress Party sought to replace British colonial rule with an Indian constitution, and succeeded. Unfortunately, mass mobilization for independence has a much more powerful popular appeal than mass mobilization over the intricacies of democratic reform.

14 AlexPictures 067Mancur Olson was a prominent contributor to the New Institutionalist tradition. An American of Scandinavian origin, he was a senior administrator in Washington in the 1960s. He later founded a major policy institute devoted to economic development. Olson argued that mass movements designed to reorder power relationships often fall short because of “free riding.” Free riding occurs when people pledge initial support to an uprising, then change their minds when the moment of truth arrives – either thinking somebody else will take their place or having negotiated a better and more immediate return from the government in power.

In reaction to Olson, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has pointed out that plenty of people and groups do behave in trustworthy ways and keep their promises. Putnam has drawn attention to the marked difference between the political cultures of north and south Italy. Since the city states of the Middle Ages, groups of Italians in the north have come together and worked out democratic political compromises. Northern Italy is among the most prosperous regions in Europe. On the other hand, no comparable culture of mutual trust has emerged in southern Italy, where politics continue to turn around competition for loyalty among political “families” and rent-seeking in Rome. Southern Italy is among the poorest regions in Europe.

Putnam’s point is valid: many groups do support reforms for their own sake, and are not guilty of free riding. The belief that Putnam-type groups can outweigh Olson-type groups has led the donor community to give massive support first to the NGO movement and, more recently, to advocates wanting to decentralize power from the capital to local governments.

Since the end of World War II, there have been several fashionable theories about how to create functional democratic states. They all shared one characteristic: democracy depends on developments external to the democratic process itself. Some argued that democratic practice would arise if financial assistance stabilized the country. Some argued that it would flourish as a result of economic development, or that it depended first on improvements in health care and education. These arguments may hold truth. Yet improvements in all these areas have not consistently led to any betterment in democratic practice.

If only by a process of elimination, the development community has struck on a new perspective, one advanced principally by economists concerned with public policy. A 1998 World Bank document neatly summed up the approach in its title, Beyond the Washington Consensus: Institutions Matter. The work draws on the insights of scholars such as Oliver Williamson, Douglass North and Avinash Dixit who provided both arguments and evidence that economic development and democracy depend on stable, transparent framework institutions such as legislatures, courts and regulators. In short, functional democracy requires the enforcement of the Rule of Law. There are many definitions of the procedural content of the Rule of Law, but they boil down to one point: elites in power cannot act arbitrarily without paying compensation. Accordingly, a great deal of donor attention and support has shifted to improving legislatures, courts and regulators.

The new focus has helped clarify the challenges and attracted new champions of political reform, particularly in the legal community. Yet the “Institutions Matter” approach has only recently addressed an important part of the democracy equation. If institutions matter and political parties are institutions, then parties matter. Without the reform of party institutions, the institutions of democracy will remain stunted. The challenge lies in convincing political leaders not just to loosen control over their supporters, especially over MPs, but also to limit their arbitrary exercise of power when in office.

We have revealed a paradox that the New Institutionalist approach to public policy has yet to confront and resolve: if incentives matter to the point that self-interest directs much of public policy, then what reason do elite politicians have to surrender any control or authority when the political consequences of the short-term loss likely ensures they will not personally benefit from the long-term gains?

This is the point where the professional, well-paid speaker produces a dazzling answer and the crowd toss their hats in the air and shoot bullet holes in the ceiling. Unfortunately, this is the point where I confess I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that such situations have frequently arisen in history and people have found workable resolutions.

Historical comparisons are inherently risky in that they usually violate the facts or oversimplify. Oh well, here goes.

The current situation in Bangladesh bears some resemblance to post–Civil War America, often called the Gilded Age. The name comes from a novel by Mark Twain published in 1873 describing the corruption of the U.S. Congress in awarding railway contracts. Congressmen were openly selling influence and receiving bribes from railway owners. Though many political and business leaders condemned the corruption, they did not question the system, seeing it as part of the dominant “laissez-faire” approach to politics and business. According to a leading historian of the age,

The politics of the Gilded Age were fiercely partisan and largely devoid of any policy content. In the years following the Civil War, both the Democratic and Republican parties were equally beholden to special interests. Furthermore, neither party could gain control of American government. On the one hand, Republicans dominated the presidency, winning every presidential election between 1868–1912, interrupted only by the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland. Democrats, on the other hand, controlled Congress and most state legislatures. Each party thus struggled to find political issues to distinguish it from the other and to try to seize government power. From 1868 to 1880, the most common Republican campaign tactic was to wave the “Bloody Shirt” to remind voters of the South’s dishonor of seceding and causing the Civil War. This tactic painted all Democrats as traitors to the Union.2

The most potent retort of the Democrats was to highlight the Republicans’ corruption while, of course, ignoring their own. Still, the reform rhetoric did require something more than lip service. In his first term (1884–1888), President Cleveland initiated several reforms with the support of an independent Republican faction known as the “Mugwumps.” Despite Cleveland’s initial steps, the more lasting reforms of the excesses of the Gilded Age grew out of a consensus for the need for change formed first among an educated elite, then later by the business elite. Together, they created a higher intellectual and civic standard that ultimately compelled the political elite to reform.

In drawing this comparison, I would mention the Populist experience of the 1890s which preceded the Progressive movement by a decade. The Populists were small farmers and tradesmen who, in response to worsening economic times, aimed their frustration at the icons of the Gilded Age such as railway barons and were able to organize massive rallies. The Populists were never able to sustain their political force, but did spur more pragmatic and able middle-class reformers to initiate discussion of political and economic reforms. Bangladesh does not yet possess a genuine populist movement. While many claim to speak “for the people,” the rural and increasingly the urban poor and working people remain fairly docile, surprisingly so.

The post–Civil War intellectual movement for reform had many origins. The intellectual root most relevant to the change in political polarization was arguably Pragmatism. Philosophers such as William James and Charles Pierce advanced Pragmatism in reaction to believers in all-encompassing and dogmatic ideologies – such as laissez-faire economics, social Darwinism or racial segregation. James and Pierce’s critique was timely, but hardly novel. James subtitled his seminal lecture “Pragmatism” as “A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking.” Simply put, Pragmatism cautioned that even though some “theory of everything” may claim to work, the test is in practical reality. If it fails to work or produces unintended ills, society should consider simpler, more incremental initiatives regardless of their theoretical purity.

Pragmatism had a discernible effect: it appealed to and expressed the characteristic common sense of the American people. Pragmatism turrned intellectuals away from unquestioned laissez-faire economics toward the values of responsible corporate management. It pointed toward public oversight of specific business interests and the need for political neutrality in public administration. Pragmatists did not reject capitalism, but they refused to accept businessmen’s claims to be exempt from scrutiny.

Pragmatism proposed a “marketplace of ideas” in which different values would compete on the basis of empirical results. Pragmatism renewed the ideal of pluralism in American politics, an ideal expressed ably a century earlier by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. Pragmatism told ideologues and politicians alike, “Show me.”

Two key figures of the early 20th century, John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes, helped translate Pragmatism into political pluralism. In the entry for “Pluralism” in the 1902 Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, Dewey, an education reformer, wrote, “Pluralism creates the ‘possibility of real change … the possibility of real variety … and the possibility of freedom’ because pluralism considers individual human beings, not as partial aspects of greater metaphysical wholes, but as complete in themselves, free to enter into relations as they choose or as life unfolds.”3

Dewey’s Pragmatism led him first to pursue education reform. “Learning by doing” is his phrase. His pluralism led him to campaign against other forms of exclusion, including racial discrimination. “The dangerous thing is for each factor to isolate itself,” wrote Dewey, “to try to live off its past, and then attempt to impose itself upon other elements, or, at least, to keep itself intact and thus refuse to accept what other cultures have to offer.”

Holmes took Pragmatism into the Massachusetts, and then the federal, Supreme Court. He pioneered the idea of the “reasonable man” rather than simply the “black letter of the law” as the guide for judicial decision-making. This measure enabled judges to address economic and social ills formerly defended by an exaggerated legal interpretation of the rights of property. Holmes’s Pragmatism came to fruition in his defence of freedom of speech, particularly political freedom of speech. He wrote in his dissent in Abrams:

When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of that thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.4

Holmes sought a judicial justification for pluralism that would encourage political tolerance. He sought to mollify the “Bloody Shirt” style of political rhetoric – not because he thought it illegal, but because it undermined the search for practical answers. As a twice-wounded veteran of the Civil War, he well knew the cost when the emotional symbols of treason and patriotism run ahead of reason.

14 IMGP0465The point of this comparison between post–Civil War America and contemporary Bangladesh is that the spirit of pragmatism and pluralism that helped America overcome its polarized and corrupt politics may help Bangladesh as well. The impetus to reform lies with intellectuals and opinion leaders. They can bring to bear on political leaders the expectation of a higher, more democratic standard of conduct. In order to move the political debate beyond legitimacy and to concentrate instead on government performance and policy, the educated community should engage political parties in civic education. It need not be adversarial. It should, nonetheless, spell out for political leaders the political cost to be paid of failing to address public issues with either creativity or practicality.

Both intellectual arguments and cold political calculations are needed to move the political leadership’s strategic question from “Will it make my opponent look bad?” to “Will it improve matters and thereby attract and earn the voters’ support?” Political leaders need to perceive that their continued political legitimacy rests on making difficult choices that favour future opportunities over immediate gains. Such decisions cannot be made in the vacuum of a “regime change.” They are far more likely to be built on a foundation of forceful community support for democratic change.

The democratic deficit arises not so much by the actions of immoral individuals; it arises when moral people do not challenge political leaders to translate the idea of democracy into practical democratic behaviour. Political leaders can only connect the idea and practice of democracy if educated individuals such as you have made the link. I hope that you take up the challenge of adding your voice to achieving genuine political tolerance and reform.

Thank you for your time and your interest.


1 A hartal is a general strike enforced by political party activists, sometimes violently, to ensure that shops do not open and people do not go to work.

2 Stanley K. Schultz at

3 Quoted in Louis Menard, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 407.

4 Quoted in Menard, Metaphysical Club, p. 430.