A year on, no closer to democracy

NewAge, October 30, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

If the government is really committed to the democratic process, it must refocus its energies on bringing about real administrative and electoral reforms and exit the stage as early as possible. The longer it stays on to try to carve itself a convenient exit strategy, the more complicated will become the transition itself and more uncertain will become our country’s future, writes Shameran Abed

A FULL year has now passed since the last elected government left office in late October 2006, a year that has been arguably the most politically significant in our country’s history since the twelve months that began with the adoption of the fourth amendment to the constitution in early 1975 leading to the creation of BAKSAL. The year that followed that event over three decades ago saw the declaration of a state of emergency by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the subsequent brutal assassination of Mujib along with members of his family by a section of the army, the short tenure of Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed, the jail killings of four national leaders also by members of the armed forces, and ultimately the formation of the first martial law regime of the independent Bangladesh. There have been years since that have witnessed events of great political significance – the year that began with the assassination of General Zia in 1981 and culminated in the usurpation of power by General Ershad the following year and the year following the ouster of the autocratic regime of General Ershad in late 1990 that saw the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991, to mention a couple. This last year, like those years of the past, symbolises a political turning point for Bangladesh, even though the direction in which this nation will now proceed as a result of the ongoing political reorientation is yet uncertain.

The last few days of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance government’s tenure, marked as they were by unprecedented political violence and bloodshed, should have been warning enough for the unsuspecting public that a quick and peaceful transition to the next elected government was not likely. The row over who will head the caretaker government and the subsequent confusion, both legal and political, left the door ajar for the BNP to place its trusted Iajuddin Ahmed at the helm of the caretaker administration, the primary responsibility of which was to undo the electoral machinations of the BNP-led alliance government. By this point, any chance of a systematic transition following free, fair and credible elections had already evaporated into the air. Yet, the Iajuddin government was given the benefit of the doubt, not only by the people at large but also, and more importantly, by the Awami League, lest the man confounded his critics by levelling the electoral playing field and helping the Election Commission to hold general elections that would be contested by all major political parties and be acceptable to all. That was not to be.

The president-cum-chief adviser stuck very loyally to his script, becoming, for all intents and purposes, an extension in government of the party that put him in office. His actions and that of his government pushed the country towards a period of sustained political confrontation with many predicting a civil war between the feuding political alliances. Such a situation was avoided by the military intervention of January 11 which ousted the caretaker regime of Iajuddin, forced him to declare a state of emergency and to form a new interim government under Fakhruddin Ahmed. The people, fed up as they were with the senseless political violence and the shutdowns that continuously disrupted their lives and anxious about the violence that was to come, breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the new interim government, even though a state of emergency was now in effect that suspended their fundamental rights.

The instant calm that followed was only the calm before the storm. Having wrested power away from the self-serving political parties that have governed our country in the past decade and a half, the military-driven interim government went on overdrive, promising a whole range of administrative and electoral reforms as it gave itself an open-ended invitation to rule. The government told us that it would root out corruption and misuse of power, contain crime, bring qualitative change in the nature of politics, ensure the rule of law, separate the judiciary from the executive, empower the Election Commission and strengthen democracy. It also began in earnest, arresting high-profile politicians and businessmen on allegations of corruption, breaking down illegal structures and evicting hawkers from the footpaths of Dhaka city. It also reconstituted the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Public Service Commission and took necessary action to give final effect to the long-awaited separation of the judiciary from the executive. The early actions of the government consolidated the public support it had enjoyed immediately following its formation.

However, like all unelected governments, this military-driven government began to lose its way as soon as it shifted its focus from bringing about real administrative and electoral reforms to interfering in and trying to manipulate the political order. A government that continuously preached the democratisation of state and society ought to have realised that real democratisation would only occur when the people would be able to assert their rights under a democratic framework, which in turn would require the democratic institutions of the state to be properly functional. Yet, instead of fixing the rules of the game, the government’s efforts switched to manipulating the game itself. Instead of first bringing about necessary changes to electoral laws to make registration of political parties with the Election Commission mandatory for contesting in elections and regular leadership elections within parties mandatory for registration, the government embarked on an ill-conceived ‘minus-two’ scheme to liquidate the political careers of two former prime ministers, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and Awami League president Sheikh Hasina. The paradox in a government preaching the democratisation of the political parties on the one hand and trying to force out the top leaders of the two biggest parties by sending them into exile on the other was not lost on the public.

Once the efforts to send Khaleda and Hasina into exile failed, the government tried to take them out of the political equation by promoting factions within the parties that worked to change their leadership in the name of bringing about intra-part reforms. This, of course, led to further complications. On the one hand, the perceived use by the government of its anti-corruption drive as a tool to compel politicians in both parties to revolt against their leaders eroded the credibility of the anti-corruption drive itself, as the people wondered why certain politicians were hauled off to jail along with ailing wives and teenaged daughters while others, perceived to be as corrupt, if not more, were allowed to do politics at a time when all political activity was banned. On the other hand, the government’s efforts to impose ‘reforms’ on the parties from outside called into question its true intentions, as such an approach could not and would not ever lead to the real democratisation of the parties, if that is really what the government was after in the first place.

Once efforts to oust the two leaders by fuelling mutinies within their parties also proved futile, the government put both leaders in jail following highly dramatic late-night arrests on charges of corruption. However, instead of the decapitation of the two parties making it easier for the government to impose democratic reforms within the parties, as is apparently its intention, the arrests of the two leaders have only made the position of the ‘reformist’ sections of the parties weaker as the majority of the rank and file of the two parties have rallied around their beleaguered leaders.

If the interim government was really intent upon bringing about positive change in the nature of politics by making the political parties more democratic internally and behave more democratically in respect to each other, it has gone about its task very poorly. Instead of compelling the parties to alter their style through reforming the political and electoral process, the government has pushed them into a corner through the overenthusiastic and at times arbitrary use of its anti-corruption crusade and forced them to fight back.

On the other hand, if the government is actually looking for an exit route through bringing to power a political party that will consequently ratify its actions and give constitutional and legal legitimacy to the changes brought about by it, the government is no further along that path, if not a few steps back, than where it had been at the start of its tenure. Had the government taken the more measured and sustainable approach of restricting its activities to reforming the system and processes and allowing for political change to take place on its own as a result of its reforms, it would not have currently found itself in the midst of a political and constitutional mess. Had the government led by example in proving its commitment to the rule of law through strict adherence to due process in all of its activities, including the anti-corruption drive, instead of circumventing the due process wherever possible in its zeal to give exemplary punishment, the government’s position would not have become as untenable as it is now.

As far as governance in concerned, this government’s biggest folly has been in thinking that all problems can be solved through the use of force and by spreading fear. Whether it is in curbing corruption, maintaining law and order, containing tax evasion, keeping prices under control, controlling the flood and post-flood situation, preparing a fresh voters’ roll, stopping drug use or for any other issue thus far faced by this government, it has viewed everything from a purely law and order perspective and the answer has invariably been the use of one or several of our paramilitary or armed forces to scare people into compliance. The army, the BDR or the joint forces together have been arresting the corrupt, patrolling the streets, going through people’s tax files, monitoring prices at the city markets, distributing relief and preparing the voter’s database among other additional tasks and responsibilities.

A country, however, cannot be governed through fear-mongering. Whereas the political stability brought about by this government ought to have spurred investment and given a new dynamism to the economy, investment levels are dwindling with fears of a slowdown in the economy. Yet, faced with a problem that cannot in any way or form be reversed through the use of the joint forces, this government is unsurprisingly at a desperate loss for answers. Such pervasive fear has this government instilled in the people that it now feels the need to establish a truth commission through which it hopes to pardon businessmen for their past crimes so that they can go back to doing business and get the economy moving again.

In trying to find answers to the myriad of political and governance problems faced by this government, its initial enthusiasm for bringing about electoral and administrative reforms has all but gone away. The Election Commission, though reconstituted by this government, is still under the chief executive’s office and has not been given full administrative and financial autonomy. The problems inherent in our system – the administrative tangles and bottlenecks that facilitate corruption and other irregularities, the lack of transparency in government, poor checks and balances between the institutions of the state – have not been addressed. Most unfortunately, on the eve of the separation of the judiciary, the government has compromised separation itself in the face of pressure from the administration by giving judicial powers to administrative magistrates.

As things stand today, one year on from the time the last elected government left office, the country’s democratic credentials have only gotten weaker, and not taken firmer roots, thanks to the complete loss of focus of the current government. The problem stems from the fact that the government sees neither its tenure nor its role as being one defined by the constitution. Although the government continues to call itself a ‘caretaker government’ by dint of being sworn in under article 58, it has not only refused to restrict its actions within the confines of article 58, but has given itself, with no popular mandate whatsoever, an open-ended agenda. At the urging of certain quarters, which were worried that the people might start to feel anxious if the government does not limit its time, the government, through the Election Commission, has brought out an electoral ‘roadmap’ that gives it till the end of next year to hold parliamentary elections. However, given that truly free and fair elections leading to the return to power of the BNP or the Awami League, which are inevitable in the present political context of Bangladesh, are contrary to the interests of this government, at least as far as a dignified exit from the scene is concerned, doubts linger about whether free and fair elections will be held, that is if parliamentary elections are held at all.

As the government reflects over the events of the last year, and especially of its time in office since January, one can only hope that it will realise that its actions have pushed the country towards greater uncertainty rather than bringing it closer to its democratic and constitutional moorings. It isn’t that the government has not done anything right but that it has got its priorities mostly wrong in its haste to do everything during its tenure. Fighting corruption, like America’s war on terror, will be an ongoing struggle as long as Bangladesh exists as a nation-state, and cannot be won by an unelected interim government, no matter how long it holds on to power. Similarly, real political change will come only when the democratic institutions are allowed to function properly, not under duress and through fear of a military-driven government. As a matter of fact, spreading fear through prolonging a state of emergency and keepings people’s fundamental rights suspended are totally contrary to the democratisation of the state and society. Therefore, if the government is really committed to the democratic process, it must refocus its energies on bringing about real administrative and electoral reforms and exit the stage as early as possible. The longer it stays on to try to carve itself a convenient exit strategy, the more complicated will become the transition itself and more uncertain will become our country’s future.

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