Thursday, September 26, 2013

Elections: To be “inclusive” or not is the question

Friday, 27th September, 2013

M. Serajul Islam

The thought uppermost in the mind of almost all Bangladeshis at present is whether or not they would be able to cast their votes to choose the party of their choice to form the next government. They are swinging between hope and frustration. When they see and hear the Prime Minister in her usual mood, the thought that they would have an “inclusive” general election vanishes from their hope with a lot of apprehension. The vision of the Prime Minister raising her finger and unequivocally stating she would not “budge an inch” from holding elections under an Interim Government that she would head leaves them deeply concerned and equally deeply worried.
However, when they watch and hear the Prime Minister meeting her party supporters and activists at the PMO or addressing public meetings in the big cities of the country, they see hope that she would ultimately give the country what it wants; a national election where all the political parties would be able to participate. In these party and public meetings, she speaks of the achievements of her government over the past five years to seek votes in the next general elections so that the work that her government has undertaken for the people in this term would be completed in the next term. In these meetings she warns the people not to vote for the BNP because that would take the country back to days of terror, corruption and lawlessness.

These meetings make people hopeful that the Prime Minister has not ruled out “inclusive” elections for is she had she would not be seeking votes the way she is. More explicitly, she would not be asking people not to vote for the BNP. In fact, in the recent public meetings, the Prime Minister has left no one in doubt that she sees the BNP as her party’s adversary for the next general elections in the country. Otherwise, why would she be talking about the BNP, albeit negatively, when the later has said clearly that it would not be participating in elections under Interim Government and has given no other hint to the contrary?

Rizvi’s positive spin

Thus the people who are praying on their knees to the Almighty for better sense to prevail upon the politicians are finding hope in the Prime Minister’s recent public meetings. The Prime Minister’s International Affairs Adviser Dr. Gowhar Rizvi has also given a positive spin to the Prime Minister’s stance in her recent public meetings. He said very firmly that the national elections would be held and all political parties would participate. He of course also said that the “inclusive” elections would be held according to the Constitution. That is not a serious obstacle to the “inclusive” elections because all the Prime Minister would need to do is to hold “inclusive” national elections under the Constitution would be to amend the Constitution once again to let the BNP participate by making the playing field level. 

The matter of constitutional amendment is as simple as the Prime Minister just wanting it. In fact it is so absurdly simple that someone not aware of the realities of Bangladesh’s politics, a foreigner for instance, would never be able to contemplate how simple it is. It is as simple as the Prime Minister asking for a cup of tea because the much revered 1972 Constitution gives the Prime Minister that power if her party had a 2/3rd majority in parliament! In 1974, the fundamental character of the “democratic” constitution of 1972 was turned on its head into a one-party dictatorship in a matter of minutes. The same happened with the 15th amendment that has caused the present controversy over elections. In both instances, the simplicity was derived from the unbelievable powers given to the Prime Minister in the 1972 Constitution. The Prime Minister could therefore make the next elections “inclusive” and yet do so within the constitution simply by asking for another amendment.

Thus the constitutional argument against holding an “inclusive” election is not at all a serious one. The other argument made by the ruling party that unelected people cannot hold democratic elections to reject the BNP’s demand to make elections “inclusive” by holding it under non-party government is likewise not a serious one. If it were so, it would straightaway render the past 3 governments “undemocratic”, a question that no one in the country or abroad has raised of those governments. In the literature of the science of government, it is not written anywhere that only elected people could hold democratic elections. In most developed countries that do not have to waste time on such an argument, elections are the function of unelected election commissions or similar institution/s. Laws and conventions make it impossible for any other institution, even the elected individuals holding power during elections, to even think, except in a fit of insanity that they could interfere with elections. 

Polls conducted by UN

The UN conducted the referendum through which East Timor attained its independence from Indonesia in 1999. The United Nations has supervised and observed plebiscites, referenda and elections worldwide. Its efforts these days are mainly in “providing technical assistance to help Member States build credible and sustainable national electoral systems.” However, since 1991, the UN has assisted over 100 member states in other efforts to hold credible national elections. No one has questioned these elections as undemocratic although the UN is not an elected body. Whether an election is democratic or not depends not on who conducts it but whether it has been free and fair. If elections are free and fair, the question under what authority it is held is redundant. Conversely, there is no guarantee that elected individuals always deliver democratic elections!

In fact, there is a great irony in the stand of the AL on this issue. All elections held in Bangladesh under elected governments have been far from free and fair, some outright fraudulent, while those held under unelected caretaker governments have been free and fair, attested to be so by national and international observers. History of elections in the developing countries is replete with instances where ruling parties have openly and blatantly interfered in elections to turn results in their favour. In fact, the AL had this argument to force the BNP Government in 1996 to amend the Constitution to ensure elections under the non-party caretaker government in place of the Interim Government under the ruling party! In South Asia, Pakistan and Nepal have used the caretaker concept for their national elections and even in Greece, the cradle of democracy; this model was recently used to hold its national elections.

Sheikh Hasina is no ordinary politician. She comes from an illustrious family in which she has grown with politics in her blood. Her father, the Father of the Nation, led the country’s independence movement by uniting people like few leaders in history and pursued the movement for independence, the democratic way. Therefore it is difficult to believe that she would want to lead her party to power again through elections where the BNP would be unable to participate, the reasons for it notwithstanding. This is why she is reaching out to the people to elect her party to power for a second successive term through “inclusive” national election and not a one party election.

Hasina’s dilemma

Unfortunately, Sheikh Hasina finds herself in a difficult political predicament with elections at the door. She is facing an electorate unhappy with her party over the a whole range of issues, from misdeeds of the Chatra League the Jubo League and her party activists to charges of corruption related to the Padma Bridge, Hallmark, Destiny; and the share market scam and humiliating, for no good reason, Dr. Mohammad Yunus. As a result, the ruling party’s prospects of returning to power through national elections participated by all political parties are not at all bright. The point has been driven home too obviously by the city corporation elections. But then, no election can be said to be lost unless fought. That is what Sheikh Hasina is trying to prove by the public meetings that she has been addressing. She is rejuvenating her party to fight an “inclusive” and not preparing her party for an election where it would have no competition.

The options before Sheikh Hasina are clear. Deep in her heart, she knows it like she is seeing the future with a crystal ball. If she went for elections without the BNP, two things would certainly happen. First, there would be widespread disturbances where law and order would simply become non-existent making it impossible for her to govern the country. Second, when elections would be held eventually as it must, after an intervention of extra-constitutional forces, the AL as the party and she as its leader would be held responsible for the sufferings of the people and the country and for pushing the country into the hands of the extra-constitutional forces. That would tarnish the memory of the person that she holds to be and rightly so, the only thing in her life worth living for, the memory of her father. It would also make the chances of her party returning to power in the next elections when it is held, even more difficult.

Therefore, Sheikh Hasina will eventually opt for the democratic way out. She will hold “inclusive” national elections. Her public meetings allude towards that. As the quintessential politician, she will opt for that but only after deriving maximum political benefit. For instance, she will not go outside the Constitution. She will make the necessary amendments for “inclusive” national elections so that she can claim that she has held elections in accordance with the Constitution. She will try to get a few more concessions like choosing who will head the next head of the Interim Government. Perhaps she is playing in Bangladesh’s current politics the role of Hamlet. She knows that either way, she will have to make the choice between the hard rock and the sea. She will opt for “inclusive” elections because in it her party will have a chance of winning. She will reject the other option, a one-party election, because she knows that has no chance of succeeding and will malign her party and the memory of her father. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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