Monday, July 4, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
I am not so sure if the Awami League is aware of its own history of agitations over the past four decades. I sometimes even suspect if it is even aware of the history of the country that it so proudly claims to have written.
If it did, it would not have claimed that elections are fair only when it is conducted by elected representatives of the people. It would also not have so summarily rejected the concept of the Caretaker Government by misusing its 3/4th majority which is only in the four walls of parliament and not so in the country.
The fact of history is in all the elections that have been held in Bangladesh, those that have been conducted by the elected representatives have been almost all abjectly fraudulent. Take for instance the 1973 elections. It was well known that in the 1973 elections, the government machinery interfered in the election process in a manner that made it look like that only Awami League candidates were contesting each other where those of opposing parties contested only to lose their security deposits. In fact, many did. Ballot boxes were stuffed in favour of ruling party candidates outside polling centres and counted as legitimate votes by polling officials in league with the party in power.
President Ershad also held elections in 1986 in which Awami League contested in the same manner. That election was also one that showed how easily those who conduct elections can interfere and win without the opposition even having a slight chance of making a contest out of it. In that election, even number of the seats was decided before the elections and Awami League received exactly as many seats as was negotiated ahead of the elections.
The case of by-elections under elected governments is even worse. Magura will forever remain in the history of elections in Bangladesh as the limit and the extent to which a party in power can influence the election process. In the by-elections in Bangladesh, only those seats have been won by the opposition party where the government “decided” not to win.
The reasons why the party in power wins elections it conducts so easily are manifold. First, in our political culture, political parties have not learnt to accept defeat as a part of the inevitable process of election. They believe only in winning at any cost. Second, in elections in Bangladesh, those involved in conducting it, like the polling officers, the police and civil administration have immense powers to influence outcome. Third, the Election Commission can take action in case where the polling officers/police and civil administration take sides in favour of one candidate or another only in theory in Bangladesh. In practice, as a body, excepting its Commissioners, the EC is subordinate to the executive. Even where the EC has intention to interfere on side of fairness, they are almost always unable to take action because they cannot fight an entire administration. In fact, the EC has no known record in Bangladesh of ever exercising its powers in favour of a candidate who lost an election by fraudulent means where there has been large number of such cases.
In contrast, all three elections held in the country under the CG have been free and fair. It has been so attested by national and international observers that included teams from the Commonwealth, International Democratic Institute of Washington and SAARC, institutions that had no subjective interest in favour of any of the contesting parties. In fact, in 1996, it was BNP that was unseated from power by the first CG that unseated AL in 2001. In 2008, again under the CG, it was BNP that was unseated. Therefore except in the minds of AL and the Judges, there was no apprehension in anyone’s mind that elections under the CG have been anything but fair and free that allowed a peaceful transition from one democratic government to another.
What is dangerous for democracy and Bangladesh’s future is the way AL is moving towards the next elections under its administration. First, it has totally politicised the civil bureaucracy. Thus by the time the next elections are held, all officers in civil bureaucracy who would be directly involved in the elections would be AL activists. Second, the entire police administration has been likewise politicised where all police officials to be involved in maintaining law and order during the next elections would also be ruling party activists. The EC that will be crucial to holding a free and fair election would have new Commissioners well ahead of the next elections. AL has left no one in doubt that it has no intention of placing anyone in public office not overtly and covertly loyal to it.
Thus the interim AL administration that will hold the next elections will have a civil bureaucracy, police administration and EC manned by its party activists. Going by the mindset AL has shown the people of Bangladesh over the past four decades, only someone in mental paralysis should expect that AL would in any way put its re-election in
It is indeed a cruel irony that all this is being done in the name of democracy! Nevertheless it is not new what AL is doing. In history, many of the worst anti-people moves by political parties in power have been done in the name of democracy. Indian history of the 1970s is one notable example. Thus AL that had put a gridlock on government during BNP’s tenure from 1991-96 to force BNP to introduce the CG system to protect democracy in place of elections under an interim government has forgotten its own past. It has now done a flip-flop, abolished the CG system as un-democratic and has introduced elections under the Interim Government as a democratic way to change government!
There is a major problem in what AL is doing even if one overlooks all the contradictions in the way AL is playing politics these days. It is true it enjoys a 3/4th majority in parliament. Unfortunately, in the country, its support is way short of it. Today AL does not even have a simple majority in terms of support in the country; it never had and won the last elections with 48% of the total votes cast and that too, with 13 other parties! In fact, today its support would be anything in the upper 30% of the people of Bangladesh leaving staggering 60% or more opposed to it.
With such a support base, it is inconceivable how AL hopes to carry home its plan for holding the next elections under an interim government that is not even a veiled blue print to return to power. If AL gets its way, history would be proven wrong for the minority has never been able to win the manner AL is proceeding.
What will happen instead is the country will slide into chaos. BNP and its allies have already made that clear. Given the opposition’s strong return in local government elections, AL can only ignore its strength at its and the country’s peril. It is high time that AL came out of the four walls of parliament where its 3/4th majority without the opposition in attendance have made it totally oblivious to the reality in the country.
The writer is a former Ambassador