Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bangladesh: The Roadmap for Democracy


When the caretaker government led by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed assumed power one year ago it promised to liberate democracy from the clutches of money and muscle power; in his first speech to the nation the newly appointed Chief Adviser laid out his vision for a free, liberal and democratic Bangladesh. To materialise that plan the government has launched a war on corruption, hordes of alleged corrupts have been arrested, many of whom had thought themselves beyond the reach of law. It has also revived core institutions needed for a functioning democracy like the Election Commission, Public Service Commission and Anti-Corruption Commission, which were rendered dysfunctional by sheer nepotism and mismanagement of the previous Four-Party Alliance government. But the question that boggles everyone's mind is how far away are we from bringing the train of democracy back onto the track that was derailed one year ago? The road to democracy may be steep, there may lie hindrances at its every turn, but history has taught us that it is a journey worth taking. Democracy, after all, means empowering the masses, creating a society based on freedom, equality and economic justice. There is no denying that the country does not want to go back to the politics of factionalism and conflict we were kept hostage to by some political parties before January 11, 2007: it is, however, equally true that an unelected government cannot run the country for long, the people of this country deserve a government elected through their vote. So far, the major political parties have shied away from reforming their rank and file, the undemocratic nature of which has made the 1-11 a necessity. The Election Commission is set to pass electoral laws to make the electoral process more democratic and transparent. As the government celebrates its one year in office we try to find ways to make the next general election meaningful. How should the big political parties, which do not have any internal democracy, start the process of democratising themselves? What should the EC do to make sure that people have the choice to elect among clean and competent candidates, unlike the previous elections when crooks fought with crooks, criminals with criminals? How will people be given back the power to change their fate? Where should the beginning of our new journey towards freedom start?


In all the three general elections that have been held after the restoration of democracy in 1991, muscle and money power played a decisive role. We have witnessed the birth of the so-called 'cadre culture' where young men, most of them students, have been used as cannon fodder by the big political parties. Student politics, which has such a glorious past of vanguarding our war of liberation, have become a mere tool in the hands of the politicians. To fund themselves, the student and youth organisations and their leaders turned to mugging, extortion and manipulation of government tenders. The politicians themselves, especially the coterie that ruled the country in the last five years, and turned a blind eye, have given shelter to these goons, some even have made their way to the top leadership of these political parties. So a criminalisation of politics has slowly taken place in the country where for some crooked politicians and businessmen general elections have become an easy way of earning a few quick millions. Politics has become a moneymaking venture where an investment of a few crores during the elections will yield 100 times more, to make that happen, to get their money back, some politicians have resorted to nepotism, on which thrives corruption and abuse of power. The parliament remains dysfunctional, the quasi-dictatorial democracy in the last 16 years have bred a politics of confrontation, opposition MPs are not allowed to talk in the parliament, street agitation, and politics of confrontation have become the order of the day.

No internal democracy exists in the big political parties. Even though both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have led the great democratic revolution of 1990, inside their respective parties they have remained two incorrigible autocrats. The top tier of their parties is accountable to no one but the party chiefs who handpicks them. The party-chiefs' wishes remain a command for the central leaders, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party is a case in point: according to the party constitution the party chairperson can hire and fire anyone, even the party secretary general, she can give nomination to anyone she deems fit, she is accountable to no-one. Sheikh Hasina, too, has never tolerated dissent: honest, competent leaders like Dr Kamal Hossain had to leave the Awami League for challenging Hasina's leadership.

How both the parties fund themselves remains a mystery. Gone are the days when, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was at the helm of the AL, the parties depended on the donations of the masses to run its day-to-day activities. Now the parties rely on extortion, donations of enthusiastic criminals looking for favours, and huge 'nomination fees' before the elections. Most of the major political parties do not have a bank account from where its running costs are funded, the party chief's personal account is the party's bank account; it is as feudal as it can get.

To begin with, the major political parties must realise that, in the changed scenario, they must reform themselves, and reform has to take place from within the parties, with sincerity and efficiency. They must ensure free and fair elections in various tiers. Leadership should be elected by the ordinary members of the parties, and it has to be held in a transparent manner. The parties must disclose the statement of its income and expenditure and should make the names of its patrons public.

The EC needs to set a ceiling to the amount that the parties can receive from its members and ordinary people as donation. Rules or regulations are not enough to change a culture of criminalisation and unaccountability that has taken root in the country in the last couple of decades.

The political parties should keep this in mind that for democracy to thrive it is imperative that a democratic society is established. In a true democratic society political parties work as agents of change, as harbingers of equality and justice. The glorious tradition that we had in our politics, where political leaders worked truly for the people, the life of sacrifice that leaders like Bangabandhu, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, Tajuddin and Comrade Moni Singh had led should be revived. Politicians themselves have to shoulder the responsibility of bringing about a change in politics and the beginning of this change should start soon.

The so-called dynastic politics, the practise in which sons, daughters or widows of the chiefs become the de facto leader of the party should be dropped.

History teaches us that when leadership is imposed from the top, it causes problems, even though it may seem right and convenient in the short run. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have tried to lead the nation in the last two decades, and events in the run up to the gory days of October, November and December 2006 suggest that these two leaders are not capable of bringing any positive change in politics, instead their arrogance, their mutual dislike for each other, not to mention their ideological bankruptcy have pushed us to a situation where an artificial, suffocating prospect like the state of emergency we have to make do with to save ourselves from further anarchy. On top of it all, the level of corruption and nepotism that we have seen in the last five years, has revolved around an alternative centre of power called Hawa Bhaban that Tarique Rahman, Khaleda's firstborn, and his cronies had made for themselves. The situation that this symbol of corruption and abuse of power has created, along with the then opposition's relentless persuasion of a politics of confrontation have taken our country to a newer and grimmer level of anarchy and lawlessness. The feudal loyalty that the two Begums used to generate is waning and it is time for the honest and efficient leaders of the BNP and AL to rise up to the occasion to bring about a change in politics. Politics in the new century must be based on ideology, the days of opiating the voters in the name of two late leaders or leading ladies should be done away with; we, as a nation, will not be able to move forward, if, instead of the parliament, politics remains in the streets, if getting elected translates into having a license to plunder people or sending a bunch of dishonest thugs to the parliament. The parties have to break away from the culture of non-accountability and impunity that they have been immersed in for so long.

The caretaker government has taken the firm and commendable step of reconstituting the Election Commission, removing the three stooges of Election Commissioners who were bent on holding a farcical election in January 2007. The newly formed EC led by ATM Shamsul Huda has decided to introduce national identity cards for the voters, which, with the help of the armed forces, is going on in full swing. A long-overdue step though it is towards holding a free and fair election, the introduction of national identity card is not enough for making the electoral process transparent and free from the vile power of money and muscle.

The EC should set a guideline for the political parties, which they must follow to register with the commission. Registration with the EC should be made compulsory, and no political party that preaches hatred and religious intolerance should be allowed to participate in the election.

The EC needs to make the personal information of the candidates public; yearly it should also check the audited income and expenditure account of the political parties, the submission of which has to be made compulsory. The commission should give an efficient effort in informing the voters about the past performance of the candidates and the political parties, a booklet containing this, along with a summary of the party manifestoes can be mailed to the voters. The EC must also encourage a mass voter awareness campaign. In countries like Bangladesh educating the voters is the key to good elections, and the EC should take all-out measures to make each voter participate in the electoral process.
The war criminals, against whom there is documentary evidence, must not be allowed to contest in the elections at any level and the government must initiate the process of identifying the war criminals to bring them to the book. Our new journey towards a democratic future will remain flawed if those who indulged themselves in killing, looting and raping during our war of liberation make their way to the parliament, which has happened in the past, and we can see what has happened to the country and it is politics because of this. Recent comments made by some leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami make it obvious that the party and its leadership does not feel any shred of remorse for actively opposing Bangladesh's birth by forming death squads in 1971. That we have failed to bring these criminals to justice is indeed a burden on our conscience and it is time to relieve the nation of this unfinished legacy of the past.

In the three previous general elections, from the very outset of the day of campaigning, election laws were violated, government funds were used to lure voters, and yet the EC remained an apathetic bystander. Even though several citizens' groups raised their voice for electoral reform, the issue was addressed until this government assumed power. Electoral laws must be strictly enforced to make sure that campaigns do not turn into a display of money and muscle power.

The number of street processions should be limited for each candidate; political debate and accountable electioneering like door-to-door campaign must be encouraged. In order to be eligible for becoming an MP a person should at least be a graduate, we must not forget that a member of parliament is, after all, a people's representative employed by the people through their mandate. In this complex world of globalisation, to lead a country like ours one needs be educated to a certain extent and it should be made into a law.

We also need fresh blood in politics: we need young men and women who will be able to meet the challenges that the 21st century has thrown at us, shunning paths of violence and confrontation that we have witnessed in the last two decades, a new leadership must grow, and it should grow from the bottom of our grassroots politics. The EC should think of disqualifying those who have already been elected to the parliament more than thrice so that the room for new leadership grows.

The commission has already earned the trust of all the major political parties. Now is the time it should concentrate on finishing the voter list and launch an awareness campaign to educate the ordinary voters, it can also consider electronic voting in selected centres. The EC secretariat has to be separated from the prime minister's secretariat. Its full independence as a constitutional body must be ensured.

To consolidate democracy we need to strengthen democratic institutions like the Anti-corruption Commission, bureaucracy needs to be depoliticised, the government must also put more emphasis in creating a culture where honesty and sincerity is rewarded and rule of law is established. This cannot be done in a few months; neither will it be possible to bring all major corruption suspects to book. But the process that Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed has started, the precedence that it has set, needs to be continued after an elected government takes power in December. The Right to Information Act is a catalyst in the journey towards a truly transparent democracy, an empowering instrument for ordinary citizens to question the discrepancies associated with red tape, something that is key in the fight against corruption. The office of an ombudsman, moreover, must be set up to create access for the ordinary citizens.

The government should also sit with all the major political parties to reach a consensus on issues of national interest, before the next general election takes place the parties must vow not to take the country back to the bleak days of 2006. Every political party has emphasised on political reform and there is a national consensus on the trial of war criminals. The train to democracy should start moving now, and it should move faster, a bright new democratic future is staring at us in the face; history will not forgive us if we miss this opportunity to build a truly democratic Bangladesh.

First published in The Daily Star on January 11, 2007. It can also be read at: http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2008/01/02/cover.htm

© Ahmede Hussain