Bangladesh's democracy in danger

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Badiul Alam Majumdar
DESPITE considerable opposition, elections to the 10th Parliament are finally over. The just completed elections remind us of the old saying that “the operation is successful, but the patient is dead.” That is, the January 5 election, although ‘successfully’ held, could unravel our democratic system. Now only the surgeon’s self-realisation of the missteps and skills to undo them can save the system.
Elections were held on January 5 in the name of constitutional compulsion. It is true that due to the 15th Amendment to our Constitution, national elections are required to be held during the last 90 days of the term of the Parliament. Our Constitution mandates democratic governance (Article 11). Elections are the very first essential steps toward such a system. However, elections for their own sake do not ensure democratic governance. They must be quality elections — elections where voters have real choice — and the process and outcome are generally acceptable. More specifically, to be acceptable, elections must be free, fair and competitive, that is, genuine. Thus, our constitutional obligation is to create democratic polity through genuine elections.
International laws and treaties also oblige us to hold genuine elections. For example, according to Article 25 of The International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights, a treaty we signed in 2000, “every citizen shall have the opportunity … to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” Similarly, per Article 21 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are required to hold genuine elections, and “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” It goes without saying that elections where voters have the opportunity to vote, and are free, fair and competitive, can be called genuine and credible elections.
Article 119 of the Bangladesh Constitution empowers the Election Commission to hold parliamentary elections. The Constitution gives the Commission ‘reservoir of power’ to ensure such elections (Afzal Hossain vs. Chief Election Commissioner, 45 DLR). Article 119 also empowers the Commission, according to the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court, to even “add to the statutory rules” — an authority normally preserved for the legislature — to ensure free and fair elections (Altaf Hussain vs. Abul Kashem, 45 DLR). Thus, the Election Commission is obliged not only to hold elections, but to hold genuine and credible elections.
Unfortunately, in the recently held elections, 52% of the voters were denied ‘free expression of their will’ as 153 persons were ‘elected’ as their ‘representatives’ without their going to the polling booths. In the remaining 147 seats, there were only 390 candidates, which was even lower than the much maligned February 1996 elections. Among the 41 registered parties, only 12 participated. On election day, voter participation was also very low.
Consequently, January 5 election did not meet the requirements of genuine and credible elections, and our Election Commission has clearly failed to fulfill its constitutional and international obligations to do so. Thus, the legality of the recent election is not beyond questions, and it should perhaps more appropriately be looked as election held to save face rather than to meet constitutional requirements. And we are afraid that the election would not gain acceptability both within and outside the country.
January 5 election was marked by widespread violence. The violence is likely to continue as the opposition BNP called it an illegal election and rejected the results. In addition, at the grassroots level, those who voted would be targeted by the opposition and those who did not vote would invite the wrath of the ruling party. Unfortunately, minorities would be the easiest targets, which must be stopped at any costs.
Another reason for the continuing violence is the agenda of Jamaat and Shibir. Jamaat-Shibir are opposed to the war crimes trials and they are determined to stop them and free the ones already convicted. Thus, they are likely to continue with their violent activities. However, the war crimes trial is a national priority and there is widespread public support for it. If the government now expeditiously settles the political disputes relating to elections with BNP, Jamaat-Shibir would not be able to get away with their violence as the public themselves would resist them.
Since the will of the people is the basis of the authority of government, the moral authority of the newly elected — elected through election which was not genuine and credible — would be weak at best. In such a situation, the Hon’ble Prime Minister has three options open to her.
First, she could follow the footsteps of BNP and unilaterally amend the Constitution to include provisions for the nature and scope of election-time government. After amending the Constitution, she could dissolve the Parliament to immediately hold elections to the 11th Parliament.
Second, she could initiate dialogue with BNP and other stakeholders to come up with a negotiated settlement of all the outstanding issues, including the election-time government, and frame and sign a ‘National Charter.’ Such a Charter, fashioned in the pattern of the ‘Joint Declaration’ of the three alliances of 1990, could lead to sustainable solution of the political and election related problems we face as a nation. For this to happen, BNP will have to renounce violence and come to the negotiating table.
Third, she could take a hard line, as she appears to have already taken, and use force to stay in power. Such a course is unlikely to be successful as history shows that no government, with its legitimacy in question, could stay in power by using force for long. However, this could make the situation more complicated and unstable, with disastrous consequence for the entire nation. In fact, this could push us into uncharted waters.
I hope our leaders would show courage and wisdom to amicable and immediately settle the disputes, for people want and deserve peace and tranquility and go on with their lives.
The writer is Secretary, Citizens for Good Governance (SHUJAN).
Published: The Daily Star, 9 January, 2014

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