Direct democracy: challenges for Bangladesh

NewAge, November

Bangladesh is at a critical crossroads in its democratic journey. Top-down reforms imposed, without the participation of the people or their elected representatives, by a military-backed government, which intimidates those it deems to be contrary to the national interest and has scant respect for the due process of law, are unlikely to deliver an improved democracy, writes Adilur Rahman Khan*

EVER since a military-backed government came to power in Bangladesh, on January 11, 2007, the authority of the constitution has faced a number of challenges. The extent to which the current regime is able to identify those challenges and how it responds to them will dictate the course of democracy in Bangladesh.

In an attempt to ensure that parliamentary elections are held free, fair and without undue influence from the incumbent party-political power, Bangladesh, which returned to democracy in 1991, has a system for transition of power from an elected party-political government to a non-party-political, independent, caretaker government shortly before the elections are due to be held. According to article 123(3) of the constitution, ‘A general election of members of Parliament shall be held within ninety days after Parliament is dissolved, whether by reason of the expiration of its term or otherwise than by reason of such expiration.’ The last elected regime, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, handed over power to a caretaker government on October 28, 2006. For the first time, the caretaker government was headed by the president, Iajuddin Ahmed (who was president during the BNP-led regime), as the two major political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Awami League, were unable to reach a consensus on the appointment of a former chief justice as head of the caretaker government.

However, the Awami League soon alleged that the Iajuddin-led administration was neither neutral nor entirely independent of the influence of the BNP-led alliance, and that it would not facilitate fair elections. Subsequently, the party announced that it would boycott the polls, scheduled to take place on January 22, 2007. The AL and BNP supporters launched a series of confrontational street protests, which became increasingly violent, prompting the army to step in, seemingly with the support of some development partners and a section of ‘civil society.’ A new ‘caretaker’ government, backed by the army, took over on January 11. Iajuddin was removed from the position of head of the caretaker government but retained as the head of state and an indefinite state of emergency was declared, suspending fundamental rights and freedoms – including the right to move the Supreme Court to enforce human rights.

The government declared that it had multiple mandates granted to it by popular support, including the holding of parliamentary elections – not within the 90 days dictated by the constitution but after completing a fresh voters’ roll. The head of the government, former Bangladesh Bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed, announced that the administration planned to prepare a new electoral roll to put the possibility of any controversy over vote rigging to rest. In addition, it announced that free and fair elections would not be possible until rampant corruption was tackled. The principle targets in the drive against corruption would be politicians and party activists suspected of illegal activities and their businessmen cohorts. The institutions that would tackle corruption such as the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were reorganised and retired or in-service army officers were installed to run those.

The current situation
Several months into the tenure of the Fakhruddin-led government, the Election Commission unveiled a roadmap for elections, which are supposed to take place before December 2008. There are serious obstacles in place. While launching its so-called anti-corruption drive, the government said democracy would not be possible while there was corruption within the political parties. Along with many senior staff, the top leaders of the BNP and the Awami League were accused of corruption and arrested; they remain in detention awaiting trial. Despite their detention, both remain extremely popular among the people. With a view to eliminating the influence of political leaders who were mired in a culture of corruption, the government has undertaken a series of reforms, both overt and covert, to minimise the influence of the political parties’ ruling cliques.

With plans to create a entirely new voter list in a predominately rural country of 150 million people; arrest, try and punish corruption suspects; begin institutional reforms – including reforms in the political parties and the separation of the judiciary from the executive; improve law and order through an anti-crime drive; and hold local and national elections all before the end of 2008, the government has a long way to go in very little time.

Trials of corruption suspects have not met international standards guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the administration has been accused of selectively choosing which corruption suspects to bring to trial based, not on the strength of evidence or severity of alleged crime, but on political expediency. This has created uncertainly among businesspeople, which, in turn, has led to a severe downturn in the economy. During the ten months or so that the government has been in power, extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies – common under the elected regimes – has continued; 162 people have reportedly been extra-judicially killed during the state of emergency. Furthermore, human rights defenders – including Odhikar’s acting director – have been intimidated by the intelligence agencies of the state. Torture of people detained on police remand continues.

The print and electronic media in Bangladesh, which has a reputation of freedom and impartiality, has been under significant pressure from the state to refrain from reporting news or comments critical of the government. Journalists report being regularly ‘reminded’, usually by telephone calls, that if they publish news critical of the government they may face negative consequences. This has reportedly led to a significant level of self-censorship by the media – a restriction on the freedom of expression. During the nationwide curfew in August 2007, journalists were assaulted, beaten up and injured by the security forces. Additionally, the government declared that it had the power to ban or attach conditions on broadcasting so-called ‘provocative news,’ documentaries, talk-shows and discussions critical of the government under powers given to it by article 5 of the Emergency Powers Rules 2007.

The government has also used the Emergency Powers Rules 2007 to quell protests by jute mill workers who have recently been made redundant and farmers who have demanded the distribution of fertiliser.

Under pressure to deliver results, supposedly independent agencies, such as the Election Commission, have taken decisions that are seen to be based more on conforming to the plans of the regime rather than adhering strictly to the due process of the law.

All the while, the state of emergency has outlawed public protest. Nevertheless, there have been sporadic demonstrations. In August, a seemingly small altercation between a student and a soldier on the campus of Dhaka University led to a rally and calls for an apology from the army and the government and for the army’s temporary camp to be removed from the university campus. The army quickly dismantled the camp and an apology was issued, but the students did not stop there. Rather, they began to demand the withdrawal of the state of emergency and for early elections. The demonstration spread to other university campuses throughout the country. Other groups, disaffected with the government’s policies – street hawkers and factory workers – joined the protests. The government responded with repression. Following three days of protest, it declared an indefinite, nationwide curfew. The media, already under pressure not to be critical of the authorities, was explicitly told not to broadcast ‘anti-government’ news. Television news channels were taken off the air, mobile phone signals were cut and, at the same time, it was not possible to access the internet. The authorities filed cases against 82,000 unnamed protesters. Students and university teachers were arrested and charged with breaching provisions of the Emergency Powers Rules 2007. Some remain in detention having been arrested, without warrants, from their homes in mid-night raids.

In such an environment concerns have been growing about who is controlling the levers of power within the administration. There are increasing reports of the military intelligence agency playing a progressively more influential role in decision making and policy implementation.

The one national institution that the military-government has not attempted to reform, an institution critical to good democracy, is the parliament – which has remained suspended since October 2006. Rather than investing time and resources to strengthen the parliament and parliamentarians, so that the representatives of the people can work towards a corruption-free society in the long term, the government has converted buildings within the parliamentary compound into sub-jails to hold high-profile, political corruption suspects.

The role of holding the government to account during this difficult time may then have been legitimately expected to fall to journalists. However, as mentioned, the government has tightened restrictions on news and journalists work in a climate of fear – constantly walking the tightrope between professional reporting and facing the wrath of the authorities. Intimidating telephone calls from intelligence agencies especially after controversial events mean that self-censorship is rife.

Civil society has divided into two broad camps. One group typically composed of people working in development organisations and backed by much of the international community, support this regime as they feel that, despite its faults, the military-backed government will deliver on promises to hold an election and ultimately bring good results for the country. The other group includes people from the human rights movement, academics and some journalists. They feel that the present government has gone beyond its constitutional mandate and is acting illegally – suppressing the fundamental rights of the people, pressurising the judiciary and controlling the media.

The risk remains that the government will not be able to deliver on its promises. In tackling corruption by punishing a small number of high-profile political suspects, the work to eradicate corrupt practices in Bangladesh may prove unsustainable in the medium and long term. The government has often approached institutional improvements by replacing the head of some organisations and branding that as ‘reforms.’ At times, such as in the case of reforms in the Dhaka City Corporation, this has been imposed by sending in soldiers. Short of arresting local government chairmen and mayors suspected of corruption, the administration has not invested in improvements at the local democratic level. As changes have been enforced by a military-backed government without engaging people in debate, discussion or decision making, it seems likely that the reforms are bound to fail when the state of emergency is removed.

Lifting the state of emergency itself will, therefore, prove to be a significant challenge to this regime. It will depend on two keys things: holding free, fair, participatory elections and ensuring that the elected government that follows will affirm the decisions of the current regime. The first of these is under threat on two fronts.

Preparing a new voter roll is a massive task that may not be achievable within the timeframe that the government has set for itself; without the new voter list credible elections are unlikely. Secondly, if the political parties believe they are not being genuinely represented in the elections – either because their leadership is in jail or because the Election Commission has been negotiating with a party faction that does not speak for the mainstream – they may choose to boycott elections, returning the country to a position similar to the one that the army stepped in to manage in January 2007.

As for affirming decisions taken by the government, especially decisions taken under emergency powers legislation, the ruling administration has a vested interest to ensure a group sympathetic to their actions takes over the reigns of power. The environment is, therefore, ripe for democratic rights to be further undermined.

Bangladesh is at a critical crossroads in its democratic journey. Top-down reforms imposed, without the participation of the people or their elected representatives, by a government, which uses fear to intimidate those it deems to be contrary to the national interest and has scant respect for the due process of law, are unlikely to deliver an improved democracy.

The government should lift the state of emergency and begin engaging the people in the changes that will be required to move beyond a political system characterised by corruption. The Election Commission should seek permission from the Supreme Court to hold elections after ninety days under article 106 of the constitution of Bangladesh, to hold parliamentary elections for the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh.

*Adilur Rahman Khan is secretary of the human rights coalition Odhikar.


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