Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Long March and Democracy

As I See It
The Independent
December 3rd., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The BNP has just completed the third of its Long Marches. This one was in Khulna and has passed by peacefully. The two previous ones at Rajshahi and Sylhet too were peaceful.

There were widespread speculations before the BNP came out with its decision on the Long Marches that the country would slide to a long period of political instability when the dreaded hartals would again return to make our lives hell. The fear of the return of the hartal was encouraged by a series of actions of the government that were to say the least, provocative. Among these was the annulment of the system of caretaker government and the introduction of the system of interim government to hold the next elections.

The introduction of the interim government as the mechanism to replace the caretaker government has been put in the Constitution through the 15th amendment. Under this new system, the incumbent Prime Minister would be heading the administration as head of an interim government under which the next elections would be held. The interim Prime Minister would have a smaller cabinet but the Ministers of that small cabinet would be chosen by him/her and obviously would be from his/her party.

The fact that the first interim government under the 15th amendment would be an Awami League administration under Sheikh Hasina is not all of the bad news for the BNP. The administration has been turned into an institution meanwhile where it is now headed by bureaucrats loyal to the Awami League. The blue print of a district and police administration at the district level and below headed by those loyal to the ruling party has already been laid.

The Election Commission (EC) upon which a major part of the hopes of a free and fair election has been placed, in theory of course, is about to be changed at the top level of its administration. The incumbent Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and his two Commissioners would be completing their terms early next year. There is news in the media that the choice of appointing new faces in their places would not be taken in consultation with the Opposition. Thus soon, the EC would also be manned, in all probability, by those whose loyalty to the ruling party would be above any doubt.

The implications of all these have recently been laid out clearly by the CEC. In a recent speech he made at the American Chamber of Commerce, the CEC felt that a free and fair election would be impossible under the system that has been put into place by the 15th amendment. He very clearly and unequivocally put it on record that the next general election must be held under a system of neutral, non-party caretaker government for it to be free and fair.

The CEC, by what he said in the speech, destroyed the arguments that the ruling party has been making in favour of the next election under the interim government. He did not feel that the free and fair elections of the local government under the EC were enough for a free and fair general election by it under the interim government. He felt that the element of distrust in the mainstream parties for one another ruled out the possibility of a national election under a government where one of the mainstream parties would have the control of the entire administration and in a position to influence the EC. He felt that the culture of accepting defeat in the elections has not evolved in our politics. A party in a position to influence results in its favour cannot be expected to do otherwise.

The CEC’s assessment of the mainstream parties, of the ruling party and the opposition BNP in particular, is extremely pessimistic. Nevertheless, he may not be entirely correct in his sweeping assessment. If he was fully correct, then the BNP would not be acting as it has so far in opposing the interim government for holding the next general elections. The BNP has said categorically that it would not go for elections under an interim government headed by the ruling party.

Yet the BNP has not gone for hartal that would have been natural from the assessment of the CEC to be correct and the way the mainstream parties have done politics. It has instead held meetings and demonstrations for opposing the Interim Government. It has arranged the Long Marches for articulating their opposition and public support against the Interim Government and in favour of the Caretaker Government.

In the past, the BNP as well as the AL have both resorted to hartals for flimsy reasons. In fact, in the past BNP Government, the AL had resorted to hartals for trivial reasons on so many days that no one was counting. During the final days of the last BNP Government, the AL added to the hartals, mahashamabesh and brought to a standstill not just the political life of the country but also the day to day lives of the people. They did so as they felt that as the BNP was conspiring to return to office by having a Chief Justice of its liking as the Head of the caretaker government. In the end, the AL succeeded in its objective but the hartals and the mahashamabesh eventually led to the emergency that pushed back the country decades in its development efforts.

To stop Justice MA Hassan from becoming the head of the caretaker government for which the AL indulged in “lagatar hartals” and mahashamabesh, the BNP is being asked to go to next elections under an administration where not just the head of the interim government would be an Awami Leaguer; everyone in the election process would be Awami Leaguers, AL supporters, activists and loyalists. Against such an eventuality that at this stage looks assured as it has been enshrined in the Constitution, the BNP’s decision to opt for demonstrations and the Long March must be welcomed as a sign of victory for democracy. In this context, the Prime Minister’s statement that she would ask the law enforcing agencies to find out the owners of the cars who participated in the Long March is unfortunate. As a champion of democracy, she should have welcomed the BNP’s option for the peaceful Long March instead of hartal.

The BNP’s decision to go for Long March is a victory for democracy. However, it would be not entirely correct to give the BNP all the credit for it. The BNP has simply taken note and paid heed to the sentiments of the people who have finally succeeded in communicating to at least the BNP in opposition that they consider hartal as anti-democratic and harmful for the people and the country. Only when we see the Awami League acting the same way with hartal when it goes to the opposition can we the people feel that we have been able to bury hartal for good. The country has paid too heavy a price with hartal. The BNP’s option for the Long March in place of hartal is at the moment the only bright spot in a dark political sky.

There is a postscript to the Long March. A major political faux pas by the government on dividing Dhaka city has created widespread and bipartisan anger and anguish in the capital and the country that has tempted the BNP to call a hartal in Dhaka on Sunday, the 6th. This is a hartal that the people of Dhaka may not entirely disapprove because the decision to divide Dhaka has been taken arrogantly and without consultation. It just took just 4 minutes to pass the bill in parliament where none of the representatives the people of Dhaka elected to parliament, numbering close to a dozen, even spoke! The 4 minutes to divide the 400 year old city reminded people that the BAKSAL amendment had taken the same time to adopt in the parliament!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

No comments: