December 31, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
Recently, I was involved in a Club election that to me demonstrated that with proper conditions for a free election, it is possible to achieve democratic change in an organization that had fallen into the hands of a coterie that wanted to remain in power much beyond traditions or propriety. More importantly, the coterie was using the Club for the personal interests of a few where the majority was kept ignorant through entertainment and special events.
This Club has a time honoured tradition that its members would elect its President annually who would then be given another term uncontested or would return to his/her post through election. Only three times in its many decades of history of the Club has a President remained in office for more than two terms. Of these, one who had got elected for a fourth term breaking the Club’s traditions was later dismissed from the Club’s membership because by remaining in office for four terms, he had lost his hold on reality. He had begun to think of the Club as its proprietor.
In this year’s election, the President sought a fifth term! Last year while seeking an unprecedented fourth term, he had announced at the Club’s AGM that he would not contest again. The President had also allowed a great deal of undesired activities in the Club. There were murmurs among the general members that the Club had fallen into undesirable hands. Tradition and custom that were time honoured principles of governance of the Club were sacrificed insensitively. Outsourcing was extended indiscriminately and funds from patrons were used for transparent and not transparent events and improvement of the Club’s infrastructure.
It looked like there was no way to stop the President from another term. It was then that some members rallied around one member who showed the courage to stand against the incumbent and the coterie running the Club. A few letters were written to the general members in which the failings of the incumbent and his executive committee were highlighted. The impact of the letters was dramatic. The letters touched the right chords among the general members.
They came to the AGM of the Club knowing the facts. They were further assured of their authenticity when members spoke on the issues raised in the letters to which the President had no answer. By the end of the AGM, the general members were able to establish a simple fact; that no matter how powerful a head of an elected organization may think he is or how much money he spends to get re-elected, he simply cannot have his way if the election is free and the general members have knowledge of facts.
The result of the letters and the AGM was a humiliating defeat for the incumbent who had boasted that he could only cease to be the Club’s President if he chose not to contest. Thus by very simple efforts, the Club was able to bring itself literally from the doors of doom. This Club’s election made me reflect on elections that are held on a much larger canvas. In nations around the world, political leaders everywhere are always reluctant to give up power in the same way as this Club’s President.
In a system where the country’s top political post is elected by a system of election that is neither free nor fair, the problem of overstaying is often not a good one. People under such a system have to take matters into their hands to move such a leader from making the post his proprietorship. We have all seen the consequences in the Middle East where the Arab Spring brought people together to force over-stayers out of office. In fact, a suicide of a youth in Tunisia a year ago set into motion a domino effect that brought down Ben Ali in that country, Hosne Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, leaders who had stayed on in power for many decades and showed no intention of leaving.
Political systems with free and fair elections have also faced the problem of political leaders at the top political posts showing the human tendency of staying in power as long as possible. In USA, the Constitution initially did not set term limitation. Nevertheless, as the first President, George Washington made his intentions clear by refusing to contest a third term in order to set precedence. A few of his successors however attempted a third term but failed. Only Franklin D Roosevelt was elected for a third term and died in office in 1945. His third term encouraged the 22nd amendment to the US Constitution that prohibits a President from seeking a third term.
In a parliamentary system, setting term limitation for the top political leader is not easy. Nevertheless, such a system is also concerned with its top political leader who often than not shows the tendency to stay in power too long. In Great Britain, such political leaders are removed in the party. After Margaret Thatcher had stayed in power for 11 years and was not showing the intention to leave, she was removed as the party leader thereby stopping her from carrying on as Prime Minister.
In Bangladesh politics, all past top political leaders had shown the mindset of the Club’s President. The incumbent Prime Minister is no different. At her initiative, the ruling party has abolished the CG system that had ensured four free and fair elections. It is putting into place, in the name of holding a democratic election, a structure that would ensure its return to power. In such a situation, a lot of people are apprehending serious trouble. The opposition is beginning to show restiveness and the inclination to move from peaceful politics to politics of conflict.
One of the positive developments in Bangladesh in the midst of the politics of conflict is the emergence of a pro-active and responsible media, particularly the electronic media. A glimpse of it was shown in the Narayanganj elections. Recently, a group of well known individuals from public life have come together on bipartisan basis to highlight the negatives that dominate Bangladesh’s politics at present. They have not identified themselves as the civil society conscious of the latter’s role during the emergency when its members were caught with their pants down, hobnobbing with the military.
The private TV channels have taken politics into the doorsteps of people who matter in politics. In recent times, those who talk in these channels have shown a paradigm shift in representing the failings of the mainstream parties. Thus today, the public that matter are better informed about the strength and weaknesses of the mainstream parties. Their efforts and those of individuals who are grouping themselves on bipartisanship on political issues could play the same role as those who wrote the letters in the Club election and participated at the AGM.
Many reading this piece would of course dismiss any comparison between the Club election and the national one as fantasy. They should spare a moment and consider that the 29 years of oppressive autocracy of President Mubarak was destroyed in 2 weeks by people of all shades of opinion getting together where Twitter and Facebook played a significant role. Let us not underestimate the dramatic strides the media has made in Bangladesh in recent times and the power of technology.
To achieve the desired result, a free and fair election without interference from the incumbent must be first assured. The media and bipartisan groups without political connections could play the role the members played at the Club, bringing to the surface the facts about politics and the mainstream parties without taking sides. Their efforts could not only give the public better information on which party or candidate to vote for; such efforts could also force the parties and candidates to take the voters seriously.
The Club election reminded me of a lecture that Mr. AK Brohi had given to us at the Civil Service Academy, Lahore in Pakistan times. He had said when a society slides towards rock bottom, few in that society stand against the slide to lead a moral resurgence. Invariably, the society responds to these few to help it to regain the moral and ethical contents it had lost. It happened to the Club and one wishes it would happen to the country.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.