Monday, August 18, 2008

Will Democracy get a fresh Start in Bangladesh?




When the Caretaker Government assumed power one and a half years ago it promised a free and fair election devoid of the power of money and muscle. A drive on corruption has subsequently been launched; some corruption suspects have been arrested. The government has made some institutional reforms to make democracy more participatory and transparent. With the general election only seven months away, the government has invited different political parties to a dialogue. Issues like the election and carrying out reforms once the elected government takes over are expected to dominate the dialogue.

It is indeed under extraordinary circumstances that the caretaker-government (CTG) has assumed power on January 11 last year--politics reached a new height of anarchy; lawlessness was rampant in the country; a general election was going to be held in which the opposition had, at the end, refused to participate. The arrogance and personal dislikes of the two leading politicians touched an all-time high, the country would have faced a civil war-like situation if the general election scheduled to be held on January 22 had been allowed to take place.

The voter list was flawed, a huge number of fake voters made their way into the list thanks to the partisan election commission, which the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leadership had handpicked to rig the election. In fact, the President himself had sown the seeds for a flawed election when he appointed himself the head of the first caretaker government on October 30, 2006. The system of having a neutral government to hold the general election stumbled further as Prof Iajuddin Ahmed did not let his Advisers function properly. Four senior and respected Advisers subsequently resigned, protesting President Ahmed's partisan roles in running the government.

When democracy was restored in 1990 through a mass upsurge we expected a vibrant and accountable democratic system to take root, instead we saw a dysfunctional democracy where, instead of becoming the first among the equals, the office of the Prime Minister has been used in the most tyrannical manner. Her wishes remained command for her party MPs; a coterie was formed around her inner circle, which manipulated government tenders, gave shelter to killers and earned millions through extortion and selling nomination papers. Politics became synonymous with plundering of the public office. In the last 16 years, we have witnessed the birth of Al Capone-like mafias in the country. It is little wonder that within a few years, Bangladesh has earned the infamous title of being the most corrupt country in the world. This problem was more acute in the last five years, when Hawa Bhaban, an alternative centre of power was created, making Tariq Rahman, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia's son, as the successor to the Zia dynasty. From manipulations of international tenders to appointment of police officers, the long hand of Tariq and his men were stretched afar, creating a parallel administration. An ever-pervasive culture of corruption and impunity was born and spread its tentacles.

After assuming power, the caretaker government led by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed has taken the right step of bringing alleged corruption suspects to book. In the last one and a half years we have witnessed the arrests of two former prime ministers and other political leaders and businessmen who had thought themselves above the reach of law. The three stooges of the previous government have been replaced by three new neutral election commissioners; the Anti-Corruption Commission has been revamped; the Public Service Commission has been overhauled; the judiciary has been separated from the executive; the Right to Information Act is in the offing; an ordinance has been promulgated to form a Human Rights Commission (HRC), although it is not clear what is dissuading the government from forming the HRC. To make reforms complete we expect that the government will also set up the office of an Ombudsman.

The rule of the CTG has been an experimental one; it has had both positive and negative repercussions. The fruit of the structural reforms that it has initiated are now near and the only way to attain this is in the form of a good election. The participation of all the political parties is necessary to have a good election. The upcoming dialogue that the CTG has initiated is a long overdue step to bring a national consensus so that the country does not slide back to the days of anarchy and lawlessness. All the political parties must participate in the dialogue and the issue of freedom of both the leaders of the two big political parties must not hinder it. The boycott of the parties will jeopardise the road map for democracy and, worse still, will put us in a situation we will regret to find ourselves in.

Even though leaders of all the major parties have talked of reforming their rank and file, in reality, they have so far stubbornly refused to materialise them. While it is not the job of the government to force the parties to bring reform, the leaders of the BNP, Awami League (AL), Jatya Party (JP) and others must rise above their petty interests, and, for the sake of the country's democratic future, must seriously think of bringing democracy to their folds. In the BNP and AL Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have always run their parties in a dictatorial manner. The less said about HM Ershad and his JP the better. Ironic, it is though that the leaders who talk of democracy with every breath they take will nurture tyranny at home. This must change, and none but the leaders of their parties should take the responsibility to bring it about. The parties must have elections in every tier, and the Election Commission can help them by sending in observers to monitor these elections.

Another issue that has remained unresolved is the funding of these parties. How the BNP, AL and other political parties fund themselves is a mystery. It has been alleged that the parties take a huge amount of donations from crooked businessmen and criminals in exchange of giving advantage to them when they get elected. In fact, the scrapped general election of 2007 has witnessed such shameless displays of nomination buying and selling: dedicated and loyal leaders were ignored and criminals and shady businessmen were given nominations. The next general election will not bring true democracy if such incidents repeat themselves.

The government and the EC must also take steps to make the upcoming elections more free and transparent. Another issue that should be discussed in the dialogue is the way politics is run in the country. Calling general strikes every now and then and burning down public and private properties are not the democratic way to make one's voice heard. We have seen it time and again that, contrary to the democratic norm that prevails in other societies, the losers always cry foul no matter how free and neutral the election is. Khaleda Zia has done it, so has Sheikh Hasina. This undemocratic behaviour has resulted in the boycott of parliament, which the BNP and AL have done in the last 16 years wholeheartedly, making the parliamentary system ineffective and dysfunctional. There are times when the opposition has not been allowed to talk on the floor, which, along with the personal hatred that Khaleda Zia share with Sheikh Hasina have brought politics to the streets. It cost the country dear. Our economy suffered, in our social life, we have seen the birth of a culture of thuggery and violence. The dialogue must address the issue. It will be unfortunate if the parties cannot come to a general consensus about it.

During the mass upsurge of 1969, under a vile military dictatorship, our students revolted, joining hands with the workers, which changed the map of the South Asian sub-continent: Pakistani dictator Field Marshall Mohammad Ayub Khan had to resign, two years later, people united with the workers, peasants and our valiant students led our great Liberation War that saw the birth of Bangladesh. It was long ago, and since then, especially since the fall of Ershad's dictatorial rule, student and labour organisations have become too involved with national politics. The student organisations of both major parties are full of leaders, who had long passed their studentship; some even have known to have private businesses, and head of big families and who are more thugs than anything else. It is natural that students will raise their voice about issues of national and international interests; student life, after all, is about preparing oneself for the future life as a politician, businessmen, civil servant; students, there is no doubt about it, are the nation builders of tomorrow. Having said that, it is necessary to save student politics from the clutches of the family based, narrow minded, corrupt partisan politics, which use the students as cannon fodder. The same is applicable to our labour organisations. The front organisations, as they are known, must be freed from their mother organisations. In fact, our economic growth would have been much higher if Chittagong Port were not closed for so many days and if the Universities did not have to be shut down because two gun-toting factions of a certain student organisation had tried to capture dormitories at the university for their respective parties.

The parties should also decide to carry on the reforms when they get elected. It will be unfortunate if the new government fails to do the reforms it is expected to do after the next general election. There will be a lot of things at hand to do for the government, which, we expect, will take office in the beginning of January next year.

Besides the issue of economic and structural reform, the next government has to think of ways to make the country more governable. Local government bodies must be strengthened; they should have independent budgets. The local government bodies have to be armed with more power so that everything does not remain Dhaka-centric, which alienates the people's participation in governance. Given that Bangladesh has a population of 15 crores, which makes it a country bigger than France or Spain, demands the need for decentralisation. In this way development will be more homogeneous and the fruit of our economic growth will trickle down to those who need it the most. Proposals for multi-tired local government have been prepared long ago. In fact, local government legislation should have come into force a long time ago. Only the vested interests of the local MPs, who do not want to let go of power, have prevented the creation of local bodies.

It is true that ours is a Parliamentary Democracy, where the Prime Minister is the head of the executive branch. There may be certain provisions in our constitution which may have landed us in the present crisis--In our form of government the Prime Minister's power remains unchecked, and, more dangerously, unbalanced. There is a need to make the PM more accountable. There should be a system of checks and balance. Both the parliament and the office of the President may be empowered to check the PM's unlimited power.

This is not to bring the offices of the President and the Prime Minister at loggerheads. The ultimate accountability of the PM should lie with the parliament. Important legislations should be passed before consulting with the leader of the opposition; in this spirit, vital standing committees should be chaired by opposition MPs to make the system more functional. It must be mentioned here that the President should not be put as a rival to the Prime Minister, if this happens, the whole idea of Parliamentary Democracy will fall apart.

The demand for forming a war crime tribunal to try the Razakars and other collaborators who perpetrated genocide against the unarmed civilian population of Bangladesh has gained momentum. There is no doubt that the whole nation is united behind this demand. Some recent comments made by the Chief Adviser, the Army Chief and the Chief Election Commissioner have made us think that the government does not want to see the war criminals in the next parliament. As it does not have ample time to form a tribunal, the government must consider forming a commission, which will eventually indict those who have committed one of the worst atrocities of the last century. The very national unity that we have talked about can start from here. The government and its backers have so far taken initiatives that no other government in our country has thought of taking before: As it has taken some commendable steps to reform our politics, the government must not shy away from dealing with the issue of forming a Commission to probe war crime.

Bangladesh is at a crossroads. The upcoming dialogue is of outmost importance for the future of our democracy. All the political parties must participate in the dialogue, in which, we hope, different stakeholders of our country's business, politics and media will reach a consensus on the burning issues Bangladesh is facing today.

While we understand their concerns about their leaders and hesitance about participating in the dialogue without them, yet for the sake of democracy, which will come through the election, the political parties must join the dialogue. It will be unfortunate if any political party boycotts the general election that is scheduled to be held at the end of this year. Before the parties make any decision they should keep in mind that any boycott is going to jeopardise democracy and will throw us into an abyss we have been in before January 11, 2007. The State of Emergency should be withdrawn before the general election. If the government cannot do that, it must show the people valid reason for it.

All the stakeholders of the upcoming dialogue must show brinkmanship and come out of their petty personal interests. The situation demands them to rise to the occasion and show tolerance and mutual respect for the greater benefit of the nation. The CTG, for its turn, must earn the trust of the stakeholders. The dialogue must not be allowed to fail. If properly guided, it will pave the way for a free election in seven months' time. A bright new beginning lies before us; history will not forgive us if we try to revert its wheel in the wrong direction.