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For sustainable democracy, the government and the opposition should cooperate in a meaningful way so that majority rules with the consent of the minority, political scientist Dilara Chowdhury tells Nahid Riyasad in an interview with New Age
In your view, what is the main crisis of democracy in Bangladesh now?
Dilara Chowdhury: The most immediate crisis Bangladesh is facing at the moment is, I would say, how to hold a free, fair and inclusive election that will be accepted by all stakeholders. Actually, in Bangladesh there are many crises. We have been leaping from one crisis to another crisis. Right after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the country started with a parliamentary form of government with a very popular leader, accepted by all, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, but within a few years, his regime was challenged by the left political parties — Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal being one . Then, you know, how we have drifted away from democracy. It is very sad, but the father of the nation himself made the first assault on democracy. Since then the crisis continued and many forms of government were experimented with. Like Ziaur Rahman, he established presidential form of government with a parliament. It was something like French systemn but not quite like that. The autocratic military leader HM Ershad supported similar government. Then, in 1991, we returned to parliamentary form of government. People in Bangladesh actually thought through participatory inclusive elections democracy will be institutionalized. But that is not the case in reality. Since mid 1990s the problem of how to hold a free and fair election is plaguing the country.
The political parties demanded a non-party caretaker government for holding general elections, which was installed and BNP came to power in 1991 through polls held under that non-party administration. Then the AL did not accept the regular form of electoral procedure and took to the streets for constitutional provision for supervising national elections under non-party caretaker government. The BNP accepted the demand in the face of ceaseless political agitation and incorporated the provision into the constitution. Thus the AL came to power through elections held under constitutionally mandated non-party caretaker government in 1996. The BNP returned to power in 2001 under the same constitutional arrangements while all stakeholders by and large accepted the electoral system. But a crisis over electoral system surfaced again over the formation of the caretaker government when BNP was in power in 2006 and subsequently a military backed government took power. Then the AL came to power through elections held under the military-controlled government in 2009 and unilaterally scrapped the provision of caretaker government. The BNP, therefore, boycotted the next elections held in 2014 and thus the AL retained power without approval of the people.
Evidently, after 47 years of independence, we have still been faced with crisis about the very first step towards any democratic transition – the ways of having an inclusive election for transfer of power.
Do you think that the ensuing general elections are going to be an inclusive one, with all political parties taking active part in the polls?
Dilara Chowdhury: If election takes place under the present government and structure, the question of the election being inclusive would remain uncertain to the last moment. The incumbents have arranged the governmental apparatus in such way that it has diminished the capacity of government officials to act neutrally. Besides, under the constitutional arrangements made by the incumbents, election will take place without dissolving the parliament, which is absurd in any weal meaning democratic system. In the United States, it’s different – it’s a presidential system. Should we consider any parliamentary system in the world, for example Australia, Canada or England, dissolving the current house before a national election is absolutely compulsory. When the parliament is dissolved, the lawmakers, the ministers are no longer elected representatives of the people. They seize to be our representatives. The talk about deploying army during election was on the table. In fact, army was responsible for the law and order in times of election, but AL has changed that provision when they came to power in 2008. So from then on, they were planning not to hold a free a fair election. It is not permissible to start election campaign before the election schedule is declared, but AL started asking for vote for a year now, the Election Commission supposed to act on these violations. Before the candidates were officially nominated, the AL’s aspirant candidates were found campaigning. And, I understand that in Pabna or in Rajshahi, I think, the potential candidate held feast in his constituency, more than 10,000 people attended it. The opposition, on the other hand, is harassed through lawsuits, crossfire killings and forced disappearances. In effect, the party in power is intimidating the opposition in such a way, even if the latter takes part in the election, they will be harassed and subjected to all kind of repressions. Moreover, reports have it, the government is deliberately targeting members from BNP who were on the list of becoming polling agents in the ensuing elections. They need somewhat a level playing field. It appears that the incumbents do not want to a free and fair election.
What are the primary pre-conditions for making the elections inclusive?
Dilara Chowdhury: I think the parliament must be dissolved prior to the election. Secondly, the Election Commission and the commissioners should be independent while the government has to comply with the every decision that the Commission makes to ensure a fair election. For example, should the EC demands deployment of military, the government is bound to do so because the military is a part of the law and order of the country and that is to be protected at any cost especially during election times. Moreover, the way government is using state apparatus, like using police to intimidate the opposition, it would be really difficult for them to stand any viable chance in the upcoming national polls. For example, whoever will contest against all-powerful Shahjahan Khan, s/he would not stand a chance. A credible election time government needs to ensure that all parties can participate in the election process on equal footing, which is the demand of the hour.
Five stakeholders — election commission, government, political parties, judiciary system and media — of the election must operate judiciously and they should be allowed to function without any intimidation or interference. In our scenario, not only the EC is subservient, but also the judiciary system has allegedly been under government pressure. The government must not interfere with the electoral process. How the other political parties want to see their country is also important. The media too needs to be absolutely transparent and truthful in their duties to ensure a credible election. During a recent city corporation election, media practitioners were seen campaigning for the ruling party candidate. This has to change for an inclusive, credible election.
Do you think that there would be a violence free environment in and around the polling stations, enabling the voters to exercise their right to franchise freely? What are the pre-conditions to create a congenial political atmosphere in which the people would feel free to vote their chosen candidates?
Dilara Chowdhury: We are already experiencing violence at different levels while the state apparatus is a party to it. Intra-party and interparty violence is not impossible. During a recent meeting between the EC and the members of the civil society, at least 80 per cent of the latter were apprehensive of violence and therefore wanted army deployment to contain the possible violence. We can presume, violence will be very rampant during the election time.
Elections are indeed the primary pre-conditions for democracy. What in your view are the other factors that make democratic practices meaningful?
Dilara Chowdhury: Firstly, I would say that our politicians and public administrators lack ethos and they do not comprehend the phrase ‘public servant’ that they actually are. Then, state should be authoritative, not in a repressive manner though, to ensure equality to all the citizens. We have managed to form a state, however, we are yet to be united as a nation. The state has failed to implement its authoritative power across the country, thus unruly and chaotic environment persists. The ethos that I have mentioned earlier should be practiced not only by the politicians but also by the ordinary people. Every citizen should be responsible for his/her actions, which will ensure ethos, which I prefer to term as Iman.
Political culture of our country should also be taken under serious consideration. Even in the smallest unit of the state — family — practices a patriarchal authoritative rule of the father, where the mother has minimum to no voice. From the childhood, we are being introduced to undemocratic practices. Through this, we are not getting accustomed to take decision on our own, for ourselves. Lack of a democratic political culture in the psyche of ordinary people is evident from the very basic level, which is in fact advocating an undemocratic political atmosphere to prevail in the long run.
Also, the government and the opposition should co-operate in a meaningful sense that majority will rule with the consent of the minority. Important parliamentary committees like budget related ones should be headed by opposition members, which would help the committees maintain a transparent image. Through such measures democracy can be institutionalized and sustainable.
Bangladesh’s constitution allows ‘electoral autocracy’ in that it provides the scope for a single person to be the heads of the state’s Executive as well as Legislative branches and thus enable him/her to influence the Judiciary. Don’t you think that just credible elections are not enough, under such constitutional regime, to move towards democratic governance?
Dilara Chowdhury: In order to make our system democratic, we need to amend our constitution. The present constitution places the Prime Minister at the center of authority and power. This creates an imbalance of power. In this scenario, the PM’s power must be checked through constitutional provisions. The state and the parliament must have the mechanism to do so. The office of the auditor and comptroller general must be empowered to regularly scrutinize the entire monetary transactions of the government. And, of course, the effective separation of judiciary is a must to make the government accountable. This intricate system to check and balance the actions of the head of the government should be established to put a cap on monopolization of power. So, you see, our constitution lacks these check and balance, which must be ensured through effective amendments. We need to reform the entire constitution from top to bottom; otherwise, no free and fair election could ensure sustainable democracy in Bangladesh.
What kinds of constitutional reforms would you propose to democratize the state’s constitution and governance?
Dilara Chowdhury: Firstly, we have to introduce a constitutional equilibrium in power. Within the constitutional authority of the president, there should be tool to put cap on accumulation of power of certain person or organization to prevent centralization of authority. Power needs to be decentralized. Also, judiciary system and media, though this not a constitutional interest, rather a question of governance, need to operate within their own periphery, independently and without any intimidation form the powerful quarters. The constitutional amendment is needed to introduce for elected women’s representation, rather than keeping a certain number of reserved seats for women lawmakers. Instead, women candidates should compete with their male counterparts to claim their seats. Most importantly, women empowerment should reflect in the policy, not in numbers.
The successive governments – elected, half-elected or unelected – are always seen busy making all kinds of efforts, legal and extra-legal, to make the people accountable to the state and the government. How could the state and the governments be made accountable to the people?
Dilara Chowdhury: To make the state and government accountable to the people, the parliament must be effective and functional in the first place. To do so, the presence of an effective and constructive opposition, who will engage in dialogue and criticize the government closely.
They will make the government accountable for their activities, to the people. Should there be an effective opposition, they would force the government to take steps against financial fraudulence, question paper rigging or poor road safety. A constructive opposition would compel the government to formulate their policies in favour of the ordinary people, rather than certain privileged quarters. That is the key to make the government accountable to its citizens.
Nahid Riyasad is a staff writer at New Age
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