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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

Bangla ready for an Occupy Wall Street type movement

Occupy Wall Street protesters march through Times Square in New York on Monday. REUTERS

o disenchanted has the population become with the government's performance in recent months, that as the Arab Spring was unfolding earlier this year, there was much speculation in Bangladesh as to whether we too might see some similar sort of uprising before long.

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof helped the meme along outside Bangladesh with a blog entry suggesting that Sheikh Hasina could be compared to Libyan strongman, Muammar Gaddafi.

It was a poor comparison. For all her grandiosity and authoritarian inclinations, Hasina, our democratically-elected Prime Minister, is no Gaddafi. Bangladesh is no Libya (or even Tunisia or Egypt, for that matter). And we are unlikely to see a mass movement such as the ones that have toppled despots all over the Middle East this year.

That is not to say that people in Bangladesh are not fed up and that the time is not ripe for a people's power movement. However, bearing in mind that Bangladesh is a democracy, and that the public would like to make the democracy more accountable and responsive to their needs, the apposite parallel is not Tahrir Square but Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street is not about trying to force anyone from office. It is not about demanding democracy per se, but it is about demanding one's democratic rights. This is because the US is a democracy, but a flawed one, which is beholden to special interests and no longer serves to protect the interests of the masses.

The argument of those who are occupying Wall Street and involved in other similar protests across the US is that the democratic process has been captured by the moneyed classes to such an extent that both political parties are beholden to them and that neither party can or will redress the problem, and that as a result the voices of the people are not being heard.

This is, almost to a T, the exact complaint that the public has in Bangladesh. No one is arguing against democracy and no one is trying to force the government from office. But what people are fed up with is the dysfunctional nature of our democracy.

They are fed up with both the political parties. They are fed up with the influence of money and muscle in politics, and how both parties have been hijacked by a small coterie of special interests. They are fed up that money and muscle-power have so disfigured the electioneering process that it is almost impossible to change things at the ballot box.

For the protesters occupying Wall Street, the Democrats are almost as bad as the Republicans. It is meaningless to tell OWS protesters to take their complaints to the ballot box or to try to effect change through normal democratic channels.

In the first place, the democratic process has been so subverted that it is almost impossible for a third party candidate to win an election or for an insurgent candidate to win a major party nomination. Finally, once elected, the politicians are free to simply ignore the wishes of the electorate, safe in the knowledge that the money they receive from the special interests they support will keep them in office.

Apart from a few right-wing blowhards who no one takes seriously, no one is accusing the OWS protesters of subverting democracy or being anti-democratic. Agree with them or disagree, it is easy to understand that they are motivated by a desire to make democracy more functional and representative, and that they are exercising their fundamental democratic right to do so. What could be more democratic?

This is the kind of movement I can see taking hold in Bangladesh, not any kind of Tahrir Square movement, which would, in any event, be illegitimate, as there is a world of difference between forcing a dictator from power and forcing a democratically-elected government from office.

But with public discontent on the rise, I would not be surprised to see something along the lines of OWS begin to come together.

Politics disfigured by money (and muscle-power)? Check. Major political parties beholden to a small coterie of special interests? Check. No way to change things at the ballot-box due to capturing of the political process by the two major parties? Check. Government tone-deaf and disinclined to listen to the voice of the people? Check.

n point of fact, there is really no comparison between the performance of the US government and the Bangladesh one, and no comparison between the functionality of their democracy and ours. If Americans are fed up, we ought to be incandescent with rage. And if people unhappy with the status quo start to make their unhappiness heard, nobody should dare call them anti-democratic. Such a protest movement would be democracy in action.

 
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