Sunday, March 4, 2012

Democracy Bangladesh style

The Holiday
March, 2, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr. Shamsul Huda’s statement on the quality of democracy in Bangladesh made at a BEI Seminar recently has attracted widespread news coverage and attention. Dr. Huda is well known for his matter of fact way of talking on some of the most sensitive issues of our politics. At this seminar, he took the floor at Dr. Kamal Hussein’s urging so that the Seminar could benefit from his 5 years experience. Incidentally, the Seminar at BEI was organized on democracy and development in Bangladesh.
Dr. Huda’s submission that democracy in Bangladesh is hostage to the ruling party’s vulgarization was not made in the context of the Awami League alone. It was a generalization about the political reality in Bangladesh. His comments applied to the BNP as well that too has shown the same attitude and mindset while in power as the AL now. In democracy “Bangladesh style”, the ruling party uses black money and “mastaans” or muscle power to sustain its hold on power instead of law and order for governance.

The former CEC also accused the ruling party of destroying institutions instead of strengthening and building institutions that are indispensible to sustain democracy. He named the Election Commission and the Judiciary as institutions that the ruling party destroys. He also mentioned that the ruling party tries to politicize the administration, police and “dangerously the military.” He made a damning comparison in all he said. He said that what “democratic” Bangladesh is doing was “not even possible in the Pakistan period.”

Dr. Huda’s comments were acknowledged by all who participated at the Seminar as realistic assessment of our politics. In fact, despite all the tall claims that our politicians make all the time about how far democracy has gone in Bangladesh and their sacrifices for establishing it in the country, outside the circle of the professional politicians, the consensus in the country is Bangladesh is still far from becoming democratic. Often, from the civil society, we hear views supporting the professional politicians about how well democracy has taken roots in the country. They talk of the free and vibrant press as a major argument in support.

It is such a pity that those who argue in favor of democracy as having taken roots in the country do not see what Dr. Huda has placed rather bluntly. Yet Dr. Huda has not said anything that the public does not know; that when either of the mainstream parties has gone to power, it has made serious attempts to make the administration and the police an extension of the party. Such attempts have weakened both the civil bureaucracy and the police as institutions so substantially that today it is badly affecting good governance. The deterioration of rule of law on one hand and strengthening of the muscle power with political links have encouraged one Minister who has emerged as the public face of the ruling party to demand legalizing extortion in road transport! This underscores that those who speak of strengthening of democracy from among the civil society have themselves become a part of the vulgarization of politics. A largely free media is no guarantee for democracy when institutional guarantees are being taken away from the people one after another.
In fact, up to the last general elections, Bangladesh fulfilled only one basic criterion albeit a major one for its claim to be a democratic country. Up to that election, Bangladesh had achieved a change of government peacefully through four free and fair national elections. Three governments elected through these elections completed their terms and the current one also expected to do the same. The non-party caretaker government has been the main reason that has helped the people of Bangladesh exercise their democratic rights to change governments freely and fairly and has been a significant achievement in their tryst to establish democracy. Unfortunately, it is their only achievement for once the new government has taken power; the ruling party has unfailingly destroyed the institutions and foundations fundamental to sustaining democracy. In addition to destroying the administration and police, they have also made the Parliament that is the heart of a parliamentary democracy, an extension of the ruling party.
It is now on our only achievement for democracy that the attention of the ruling party has fallen. It has already, using its brute majority in parliament, ended elections under neutral non-party government by a system of elections under a party government. In its hurry to abolish the people’s only guarantee of electing the government of choice, the ruling party did not wait for the Court’s judgment, that while recommending the abolition of the CG, has also recommended that the next two elections should be held under such a system. In making the case for abolishing the CG, the ruling party and its supporters have said that it is a shame that in a democratic country, elections for changing the government were conducted by non-elected individuals. They even went to suggest that a democratic election cannot be held under a CG comprised of unelected individuals.

It is a pity that no one cared to ask a few fundamental questions. First, where has it been written that it is only elected people who can elect democratic governments? Second, on the issue of shame, was it not the politicians who had argued that they could not be trusted to hold free and fair elections because of the lack of trust among the parties and that the country needed to get politicians out of the process of holding the elections to make them free and fair? Third, is it not a fact that under a non-party government, the people were able to elect the government of their choice 4 times in succession, a fact attested by national and international observers? Finally, has politics improved to the extent where we can believe in the politicians to hold free and fair elections?
On the first question, democracy is not practiced by any text book. The litmus test to prove whether an election is democratic or otherwise is whether people have voted freely and fairly and whether their votes have been reflected in the results. On all the other questions, Dr. Huda has given us the answers. Politics has deteriorated substantially where all the institutional guarantees of the people to be able to elect to power a government of their choice have been taken away from them. The administration and police today are politicized in favour of the ruling party; so are the other institutions such as the judiciary that could have protected people’s right to vote.
The people backed the clarion call of the Father of the Nation to establish a democratic Bangladesh. They got very little of it except the right to vote once every few years and have the satisfaction of electing to power a government of their choice. They have deep regrets that after electing their government, that government very much ruled the country as it wanted with very little regard to the wishes of the people. The freedom to vote freely and fairly in a national election under a non-party government is now about to be taken away. If it is, then there would be very little left to call the country democratic. Hundreds of thousands of our people who gave their lives for democracy in 1971 would start to turn in their graves.

Nevertheless, we are not friendless abroad in our tryst for democracy and they may be of help to us. The EU delegation that recently came to Dhaka has urged the government to make efforts for a consensus for holding the next general elections. That message was voiced by the US Assistant Secretary of State Mr. Robert Blake. The US Ambassador in Dhaka has made strong statement in the media for a “participatory” election. It is for the people now to voice their views strongly for if they do not, their one and only democratic right would be taken away from them. Dr. Huda has flagged the message and the apprehensions clearly for them.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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