Published in the Weekly Holiday
M. Serajul Islam
The Prime Minister’s recent announcement that the next general election would be held under the Westminster model confused most ordinary folks of the country. They did not know that the name Westminster is derived from Westminster Palace, the seat of the British parliament for which the British parliamentary system is also known as the Westminster system after which most 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 wide array of reasons. For one, the Prime Minister wants to follow the Westminster model of election where the country follows little else of the Westminster parliamentary system. 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 customs/conventions related to holding national elections in Great Britain under the Westminster model are sacrosanct that no power in the country can violate.
In Bangladesh, the Prime Minister is insisting upon the Westminster model election without democracy to back it. She is thus insisting upon the 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 have been 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.
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 all 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 simply cannot feel that it is being forcibly kept out from contesting by the party in power; not even in a nightmare.
In Bangladesh, the absence of what makes the Westminster model work –laws, customs/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 Westminster model because of the same reason; it does not trust the Westminster model 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 would no doubt understand the BNP’s insistence for the CTG.
The issue here of course is a simple one; a matter of trust. In Great Britain, the Westminster model works because trust is the essence of the model in relationship among the political parties; a matter taken for granted. In Bangladesh, we must have a un-Westminster type election because the element of trust between the ruling party and the opposition is non-existent and the possibility of that trust being established in Bangladesh’s politics anytime soon is not even in the realm of possibility. Another slight digression would make the point why a Westminster model cannot work in Bangladesh a little clearer to the readers. In Great Britain, the voters rejected Sir Winston Churchill in the 1946 elections for a number of reasons among which were their concerns that he had been allowed too much power during the war to head a democratic government after the war was over. The voters thus 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 moral of this short digression is a simple one; 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 present 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.
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 the name of Begum Khaleda Zia 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 is no better but to give credit where it is due, she does not abuse or insult her adversary the manner her adversary 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 between the two parties, that trust has deteriorated many tomes for the worse thus making the BNP’s demand for CTG today more acceptable than what the situation was when the AL had demanded it.
There is more to this debate that the Prime Minister has introduced between the Westminster type of election and the CTG, her out of context representation of the system notwithstanding. The public has sent the message to the ruling party on the issue quite clearly. Thanks to the advancement these days in the IT sector, most newspapers today have online versions of their papers. These papers carry online polls all the time. In these polls, one favorite question is on the CTG issue. Without fail, public responses have been overwhelmingly in favour of the CTG system. One of these papers, the most widely read Prothom Alo carried a survey on the issue. 90% people responded in favour of the CTG!
The recently concluded city corporation elections were local only in name. It was fought on national issues. Of these issues, one introduced by the BNP was the CTG issue. The BNP candidates won these elections comprehensively. The comprehensive victories of the BNP candidates have added force to their demand for the CTG. In fact, with the BNP substantially strengthened by the city corporation victories and the manner in which they won these victories, it will not be a push over if the government moves ahead and attempts to introduce Westminster model of elections for Bangladesh. It would be an attempt to implement a system for which the country’s politics is simply not prepared. It would by assessment of most political analysts, 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 made while she was on a recent visit to Great Britain has highlighted the inadequacies in Bangladesh for such a system. It brought to focus the serious imperfections in Bangladesh’s politics for following the Westminster type of parliamentary democracy of which the Westminster model of elections is a part. 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.
The AL and the BNP must come to a compromise. As the party in power, the ball is in the court of the Awami League. The BNP has made it clear it would not participate in the next national election with Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister of an Interim Government for the same reasons as she had declined to participate in an interim government to be headed by Begum Khaleda Zia in 1996, only the reasons for BNP not doing so has been strengthened by deterioration in the trust element between the two parties. Thus the ruling party should take a serious look at the current nature of politics and help the country move forward based on its history as the party that helped the country achieve its independence.
There is no alternative to an “inclusive” national election. To achieve that the first step could be to have someone other than the incumbent Prime Minister to head the Interim Government to assure the 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 Prime Minister 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 the parliamentarians where BNP could be given preference in choice of the Ministries having conceded on the issue of the Prime Minister of the Interim Government. Given the Jatiya Party’s number of parliamentarians, it too could be given a share in the distribution of Ministries in the Interim Government.
Bangladesh is at a historical cross road. A recent World Bank report about the country’s economic advancement has indicated that in the last one decade, between 2001 and 2010, the country 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 the way required for unhindered socio-economic development, it was not as threatening as it has been since 2010. Dark, threatening clouds have gathered in the horizon that are threatening to not just take away the positive advances in the country’s socio-economic development but to push the country into protracted clashes and civil disturbances that could be the beginning of a long winter of discontent.
National elections, models apart, are for betterment of a country. Unfortunately, the thought of the next national election in Bangladesh without the opposition brings with it grave foreboding. The ruling party must consider that the conditions of holding a Westminster type of election do not exist in Bangladesh. It must also consider that if the opposition does not participate, such a system of election would be rendered meaningless. If the ruling party ignores these facts and still pushes the country to a Westminster model national election, it will send the country on way to national disaster. Thus the country begs of the ruling party to give the country a un-Westminster type election and wait for politics to improve for introducing such a system in Bangladesh. It may help the ruling party to do the right thing if it considers that Great Britain achieved the Westminster model of election by perfecting the Westminster type of parliamentary democracy that took it a very long time. Westminster model election without Westminster style democracy would be like putting the cart before the horse.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador