Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Election, the good and the bad

Hasnat Abdul Hye
If democracy is a way of life, Bangladeshis have so far been able to enjoy it by fits and starts. It is not because of their fault or lack of interest but in spite of themselves. There have been abrupt interruptions at regular intervals in democratic dispensation after independence. The first came in the form of one-party rule in 1974 which was short-lived. It was followed by martial law that lasted for three years. In 1978 a semblance of democracy was restored to give legitimacy to the erstwhile military ruler. The fledgling democracy was replaced by another martial law regime in 1982. In 1992 democracy was restored with the re-introduction of parliamentary form. From 1991 to 2001 three general elections were held two of which were won by BNP and one by Awami League. Parliamentary democracy under these political parties did not flourish as was expected. Political stability became elusive and the confrontational politics often led to violence. Elections held during this period were challenged by the losing party with resultant political disturbance that became chronic. Governance under the rule of both the parties suffered due to pre-occupation with short-term and partisan interests. Parliament became dysfunctional because of frequent walkouts and prolonged boycotts by opposition parties.
As the major parties fought against each other tooth and nail, no space for compromise and bipartisan agreement was created. Adversarial relations between the parties made it necessary to maintain and patronise maastans who were allowed to extort money from various sources. Corruption spread its tentacles into every nook and cranny of government involving politicians and bureaucrats. The private sector obliged by becoming willing accomplice in exchange of favours. Though corruption was not unknown during previous regimes, it ballooned under the democratic political regimes. The difference in this respect between the two major parties was one of degrees only. Things came to such a pass that Bangladesh was ranked first in the international corruption index prepared by Transparency International. Political clashes, violation of human rights and rise of religious extremism led some Western observers to label Bangladesh as a ‘failed state’, though ‘failed governance’ would have been more appropriate.
The apogee in political violence and confrontation came towards the end of 2006 when general election was scheduled to be held under a caretaker government. Since the caretaker government itself became controversial due to its alleged partisanship, it was dissolved and a new caretaker government was sworn in under the umbrella of the emergency powers. The main goal of the new caretaker government, like its predecessor, was to hold a free and fair election but it also undertook several reform measures to make a clean break with the politics of the past. Reconstitution of Election Commission and preparation of electoral roll were on top of its agenda. Simultaneously, a vigorous drive was launched to bring the venal elements among politicians, bureaucracy and business sector to justice. The sweep of the anti-corruption drive and the dragnet used to apprehend musclemen and their godfathers led many to describe it as a silent revolution. The goal and strategy of the new caretaker government became clear; it wanted to restore democracy but after cleansing politics of the elements who had bled it white. The message that was sent left no doubt about its intention to turn over a new leaf in the political culture and governance of the country. Understandably, many politicians chafed at these reform measures, but the rational section among them and the public at large welcomed the move. Having become tired and frustrated over the subversion and abuse of democratic politics, the public mustered patience to have elections at a later date when the reforms would be over.
Unfortunately, the momentum of the reform measures was not maintained and as the general election approached it started to falter and was ultimately almost totally surrendered to ensure participation by all political parties. The agenda of ushering in qualitative change in politics and governance was replaced by the overriding imperative to hold election on time. As a result, some of the important reform measures undertaken by the caretaker government now remain unfinished and it is doubtful if these will be continued by a political government, though declarations are being made by political leaders in their favour. It is strongly felt that had the reform measures been initiated earlier and continued with determination the story would be quite different.
Holding of election after a hiatus of two years is unexceptionable. Neither the politicians nor the public wanted to have a political vacuum that resurrected memories of suspension of democracy in the past. There is no two opinions on the fact that election is necessary for democracy but it is also true that it is not sufficient. In the absence of a congenial environment and code of conduct among political parties there is every possibility of the bane of old-style politics to re-appear. It is contended by many that this could have been prevented by a thoroughgoing reform programme during the last two years.
The manner in which the parties are conducting the election campaign and the background of many candidates contesting, confirm the apprehension and concern that after the election it will be politics as usual. According to a news in a national daily, BNP has nominated 4 convicts, 16 accused, 12 loan defaulters, 7 relations of top party leaders and 1 corruption suspect while Awami League has nominated 10 accused, 1 convict, 8 loan defaulters, 2 relatives of top party leaders and 1 corruption suspect. The Jatiya Party has nominated 1 convict and 4 loan defaulters, while Jamaat-e-Islami nominated 3 accused and 1 corruption suspect. The other parties have nominated 10 loan defaulters ? (The Daily Star, 4 December). Though the Election Commission tried its best to enforce the eligibility criteria, loan defaulters and even convicts in corruption cases have submitted nominations papers after obtaining court orders. The commendable work of the Election Commission has been considerably whittled down in the process.
There was no justification not to hold election after 2 years. In fact, it could be held even earlier if the electoral roll with ID Cards were completed. There are many aspects in the manner that election is being conducted by the Election Commission. These differ significantly from past practices. Ceiling has been put on the amount of money that can be spent by candidates and various restrictions have been imposed on electioneering at the grassroots level. These are all welcome changes. Announcement of manifestos by the political parties, on the other hand, indicates change in the attitude of political parties; but, whether these will be implemented is a different question. The arrangement of law and order is also satisfactory. But it is the vitriolic attacks by political parties against each other and the bitterness created that have caused considerable concern. On the other hand, the participation of a good number of corrupt politicians and loan-defaulters is nothing short of shocking. It is as if no lesson has been learnt during the past two years when politics was on hold and was supposedly being overhauled. The caretaker government will be congratulated for holding election in time and for restoring democracy, handing over power to the people’s representatives. But its achievement will pale beside its failure to pave the way for politics that puts premium on democratic values, honesty and commitment to public service. Now the only hope rests on the judgement of the voters as they go to cast their votes. If they reject the discredited candidates, the last two years’ waiting would not be in vain. Democracy as a way of life has been denied to the people of Bangladesh again and again. Time to retrieve it is right now.

Courtesy: nation.ittefaq.com

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