Saturday, August 3, 2013

Prayer for an agreeable general election for Bangladesh

M. Serajul Islam
The Prime Minister’s recent announcement that the next general election would be held under the Westminster model confused the country’s most ordinary folks. Perhaps they don’t know that the name Westminster is derived from Westminster Palace, the seat of the British parliament. The British parliamentary system is known as the Westminster system after which parliamentary systems worldwide are modeled. The type of election the Prime Minister wants to hold in Bangladesh is a part of the Westminster type of parliamentary system. If the people knew these facts, they would have liked to request her in bended knees and folded hands to make an exception for the sake of the country and hold the next national election under a ‘un-Westminster’ system instead.
Such a request would make sense for a variety of reasons. For one, the Prime Minister wants to follow the Westminster model of election where the country follows little else of the Westminster style democracy. The Westminster system has evolved over centuries as the structure for ensuring and sustaining Great Britain’s democratic governance. The Westminster type election is the icing on the cake of British democracy. Electoral laws and conventions related to holding national elections in UK under this model are sacrosanct that none in the country can violate.
In Bangladesh, the Prime Minister is insisting upon the Westminster-type polls without a democratic system to back it. She is thus insisting upon icing without the cake. Further, she is also forgetting that her party had forced the BNP-led Government in 1996 to reject the Westminster model in favour of the caretaker government (CTG) and that 3 elections were held under this un-Westminster type election through which the people have voted freely and fairly and the party they favoured went to power. Furthermore, her party used its 3/4th majority in the current parliament to reject the CTG for the Westminster model only when it no longer served its interests against the wishes of the main opposition political party, the BNP.
Change of heart
In rejecting the Westminster model for the CTG and now rejecting the CTG for the Westminster model again, the Prime Minister has failed to grasp what makes the Westminster model work for sustaining democracy. The Westminster model takes for granted two fundamental elements in the process of holding elections. First, voters must be free to elect the party of their choice based on universal adult franchise. Second, political parties must be assured beyond an iota of doubt a fair and level playing ground where they not only enjoy equal rights and opportunities; the question of any party even considering anything to the contrary must be eliminated by laws, customs and conventions. In the Westminster model a political party can’t even dream of being forcibly kept out from contesting by the party in power.
In Bangladesh, the absence of what makes the Westminster model work–laws, customs and conventions related to elections - has been established twice already; once by the AL and now by the BNP. In 1991-96, the Awami League demanded a un-Westminster like election because it did not trust that a Westminster model would work with Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia as the head of the Interim Government. Now the BNP is opposing the model because of the same reason; it does not trust it would work under Sheikh Hasina. If the Prime Minister spared a moment and considered what motivated her and her party to bring governance to a halt by over 170 days of hartal for establishing the CTG in place of the Westminster model, she is no doubt understand the BNP’s insistence for the CTG.
The issue here of course is a simple one: a matter of trust. In UK, the Westminster model works because trust is the basis in relationship among the political parties; a matter taken for granted. In Bangladesh, we must have a un-Westminster type election because trust doesn’t exist between the ruling party and the opposition. In Great Britain, the voters rejected Sir Winston Churchill in the 1946 elections because they were concerned that he had been allowed too much power during the war to head a democratic government after the war was over. They voted the Labour Party under Clement Atlee.
Nevertheless, the British are wise by experience and cultured by history and tradition and as a nation not ungrateful. They thus voted Sir Winston back to power in 1951 after a term of Clement Atlee to express their gratitude for his war efforts. Sir Winston eventually retired from politics in 1955 while still in power. On his departure, his parliamentary colleagues wanted to build a bust for him in recognition of his contribution to the war efforts in the premises of Westminster. Sir Winston said he could accept the honour if one was built for the leader of the opposition Earl Atlee too who he thought had made equal contribution to the British Government’s war efforts! Although political rivals, each respected the other to a fault! The point is simple: in the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, in addition to trust between the party in power and the opposition, there is respect between the two. In the British parliamentary system, government comprises the party in power and the opposition. This is why in the British parliamentary system the opposition is called Her Majesty’s opposition!
The element of trust upon which the British parliamentary system is based of which the Westminster model of election is a part has deteriorated substantially in the Bangladesh context between 1996 and now that makes the BNP’s demand for the CTG more acceptable today than when the AL had demanded it to replace the Westminster model. In 1991-96, the Prime Minister (then Leader of the Opposition) did not believe the country could have fair and free elections with Khaleda Zia as head of the Interim Government. She did not trust Begum Zia. The Prime Minister should know better why Begum Zia today does not trust her now. The deterioration in the quality of politics apart, the Prime Minister could consider the way she has made it a habit to speak of the leader of the opposition in public to better understand why the opposition has little trust in her to head the Interim Government.
On a less personal level, after claiming that the local government elections were free and fair to dismiss the opposition’s demand for the CTG, the Prime Minister said in public that the voters have elected corrupt and terrorist elements! Thus one really cannot blame the BNP as a political party for feeling that they cannot have a fair deal with the Prime Minister heading the Interim Government.
No love lost
It is now a fact that everybody acknowledges that there is no love lost between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister in particular should know this better because she just cannot mention Begum Khaleda Zia’s name without words that speak for themselves. Even her body language changes when she speaks of her in public. Begum Khaleda Zia also has shown publicly that her feelings for her nemesis are no better; but to give credit where it is due, she does not insult her adversary in the manner the PM does. Therefore, if there was any element of necessity for accepting the CTG when the AL had demanded it in 1991-96 based on the lack of trust, that trust has further deteriorated thus the BNP’s demand for CTG today is more acceptable than in 1991-96.
Meanwhile, the public has sent its message to the ruling party on the issue quite clearly. Thanks to the modernisation of the IT, most newspapers today have online versions of their papers and carry online polls all the time. In these polls, one favorite question is on the CTG issue. The public responses were overwhelmingly in favour of the CTG system. The most widely-read daily Prothom Alo carried a survey on the issue. Ninety percent people responded in favour of the CTG!
The recently concluded city corporation elections were fought on national issues. The CTG issue became prominent and the BNP candidates won comprehensively. This has added force to BNP demand for CTG. In fact, with the BNP substantially strengthened by the city corporation victories and it will not be a push over if the government moves ahead and attempts to introduce Westminster model of elections for Bangladesh. But astute political analysts say that it would be a prescription to push Bangladesh to the edge and perhaps a green signal to the extra-constitutional forces to step in.
In fact, the Prime Minister’s sudden emphasis of the Westminster model was made when she was on a recent visit to London has, in fact, highlighted the inadequacies in Bangladesh for such a system. It brought to focus the serious imperfections in Bangladesh’s politics to adopt the Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has to find and fast, a compromise between the Westminster model and the CTG-based on realities in Bangladesh’s politics for its survival.
Compromise a must
The AL and the BNP must come to a compromise. As the ruling party, the ball is in the AL’s court. The BNP has made it clear it would not participate in the next national election with Sheikh Hasina heading an Interim Government as Hasina did in 1996. Thus the ruling party should take a serious look at the current nature of politics and help the country move forward based on its own history and politics.
There is no alternative to an “inclusive” national election. To begin with politicians must agree to have someone other than the incumbent PM to head the Interim Government to assure BNP’s participation. If the Prime Minister is willing to make this courageous move, she could then demand a few concessions from the BNP. She could as the outgoing PM nominate someone from amongst the elected members of the outgoing Parliament from her party as the Prime Minister of the Interim Government after consultation with the Opposition. That would satisfy the AL contention that unelected people cannot elect a democratic government. To further that contention, the two parties could then decide to share the 10 Ministers (could be increased if necessary) between them from among the MPs and BNP could be offered to chose the Ministries for the concession it gave. The Jatiya Party too could be given a share in the Interim Government.
Bangladesh is at a historical cross road. A recent World Bank report on the country’s economy has indicated that in the last one decade, between 2001 and 2010, it has made significant progress in areas of economic development and poverty alleviation. The GDP growth rate has averaged over 5%. The decade has been shared 5 years by the BNP (2001-2006), two years by the last CTG (2007-2008) and 3 years by the AL (2008-2010). Although politics has been far from being helpful for unhindered socio-economic development, it was not as threatening as it has become since 2010. Dark clouds have gathered in the horizon threatening not only to ruin the country’s socio-economic development but to push it into protracted clashes and civil disturbances that could be the beginning of a long winter of discontent.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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