Talking Polls and Beyond 'Our two former prime ministers have become monarchs'

Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar was born in Comilla in 1946. After obtaining his master’s degree from Dhaka University in 1968, he obtained PhD in Economics from Case Western Reserve University, USA and a Master of Business Economics from Claremont Graduate School. He was lecturer at Dhaka University, and also taught at Seattle University, Central Washington University and Washington State University from 1976-91. He became the Country Director of The Hunger Project-Bangladesh in 1993 and was made vice-president of The Global Hunger Project in 2003. He is on the advisory board of Transparency International Bangladesh and is Secretary, SHUJAN. He now hosts a popular show, Janatar Katha, on BTV. Shamim Ashraf took the interview.
What advancements have been made in political reforms?
Changes have been brought in the legal framework to make political parties’ registration compulsory, and to make the practice of democracy, electing of leaders, transparent financial dealings, and candidates’ declaration of certain information necessary to let people make informed choices.
The Election Commission has also been empowered to cancel any nomination for violation of code of conduct. These are enabling for sound democratic practices. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing our politicians and parties practicing good judgement or having any sense of responsibility. They’re demanding that the convicts to be allowed to contest in the elections. If they think this way, all the expectations and exercises for reforms will be in vain.
Is the EC playing its due role?
They didn’t scrutinise the candidates’ information and enforce the rules properly in the city corporation elections. Had they done that, many of the candidates facing corruption allegation could have been disqualified. If the candidates make a wrong or false disclosure or hide information, the EC must act strictly and neutrally.
Do you see any change in the mentality of politicians towards democratic practice in their parties?
Unfortunately, we can’t be hopeful. We haven’t seen any change in the utterances of our politicians, or in the rivalry and the blame game. There must be some sort of understanding among the political parties. The parties strongly opposed the idea of the national charter.
In 1990, the parties formed three alliances and had agreements about the things they would do after the elections. Now there is no consensus among the parties on key national issues, or agreement on what they’ll do following the elections. So, the whole thing is uncertain.
People see 1/11 as a result of the failure of the parties. Do you see any realisation among politicians?
Our democracy is an ineffective election-only system, which has turned into “lootocracy.” I haven’t seen any instance of soul-searching or real repentance for the mistakes. They should apologise to the people, who elect them to look after their lives and run the country in the interest of the general people.
Unfortunately, many of the elected representatives were busy serving their own interest by plundering state wealth, and got involved in criminal activities. Now, without repenting for those, they are doing the opposite, claiming that they are not convicted.
They’re now coming out from jail…
The government has failed to convict many of these people in two years. It’s not easy because the looters always try to hide evidence, and those dealing with graft cases don’t have the expertise to unearth the evidence. Besides, so many people were arrested that the task became unmanageable.
Should exemplary cases be taken on priority basis without going after so many people?
I’m not sure whether that would make much difference. We also failed to unearth corruption information about some high profiles. The task became difficult because institutional capability wasn’t there.
Those who were in these institutions earlier were beneficiaries from such looting, and might have hidden some evidence. Besides, these criminal elements spent a lot of money to influence the investigations. However, the decision to go after so many people because of people’s demand and the government’s immaturity, and trying to do so many things including some irrelevant things, was wrong.
After the CTG came such influence was expected to decrease…
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Some analysts have said that the EC spent too long in consultation…
I would also say the EC put itself in a hole by prolonging the process. When the new election commissioners took office, they said political parties were their main clients. Being a constitutional body, the EC is not there to serve political parties. Its overriding goal is serving the people and, though it can take recommendations and ideas, it must take decisions on its own.
It shouldn’t allow anybody to force the decisions on it. At the beginning, it could have asked for proposals on changes in the RPO and welcomed any kind of talks with anyone. But taking the dialogue as a must and a formal thing, and having several sessions and spending such a long time, was unnecessary. Even after they sent the draft, it took several months for the RPO to be promulgated.
Don’t the parties have any share in the delay?
They are even more responsible; they didn’t take any initiative for change. Had they felt that what happened must not go on, they could take unilateral step to stop them. It became an us-and-them game, with the EC and political parties on the two sides. It should be the concern of all — political parties, EC, government, and the civil society — because our democracy has become ineffective.
What was the civil society role?
We don’t have a civil society as such. What we have is partisan intelligentsia who are beneficiaries of the parties and speak for them. The number of people with independent minds, who can speak for public interest, has declined to an alarming level.
What major mistakes by the CTG, EC and political parties do you see?
I feel that everybody is responsible for the government’s failure. The CTG has done few things, which can’t be supported. It intervened by creating reformists and non-reformists in the political parties, giving rise to serious suspicions. These eroded government support.
The EC did not show the required determination, and wasted time. The socio-economic environment, natural disasters, and price hikes eroded support for the government and were used by vested interested groups and politicians to discredit the CTG. Most importantly, the political parties were not willing to really make changes.
Were reforms imposed on parties?
The political parties themselves should have come up initiatives to stop the sale of nominations, extortion etc., in the interest of the democratic system. They should keep the corrupt away from the electoral arena. After an ordinance was promulgated in 2001 on parties’ registration, the parties forced Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed to cancel it.
There was widespread public demand on political parties, the government and the EC for reform before 1/11. Now, when the government moved to take steps to meet the public expectation, the parties opposed those just to discredit the government, though they themselves demanded these on different occasions earlier. This can’t be termed imposition.
Do you think the parties will totally follow the changes in their constitution?
I don’t see any sign that they’ll practice those at all.
Do you see any attempt by political parties to regain people’s trust?
Our two former prime ministers have become two monarchs, and political leaders have become patrons of the people. Since the people of our country don’t get rights from the state they need patrons, and elect those who, no matter how corrupt they are, will stand beside them. This is why questionable people came out victorious in the local bodies elections despite the campaign for honest candidates.
There has not been any effort to educate citizens about their rights, as well as the responsibility to elect representatives who will work for the country. People need emancipation to become the owners of all power.
Do you see any uncertainty over the parliamentary elections?
I am convinced about the government and the EC’s intention and sincerity for holding elections. The court has removed the last hurdle regarding delimitation; and the EC has announced the schedule. Now, the only uncertainty comes from parties. If they don’t want to contest they’ll find one pretext after another.
There is a question among people as to why Khaleda Zia is demanding resignation of all the election commissioners, and the parties want the convicts to be allowed to contest in elections. If this is just to put additional pressure on the EC, it is not desirable and may be counterproductive.
Will the Anti-Corruption Commission be able to work independently after withdrawal of emergency?
I hope they’ll be allowed to. The political parties are strongly opposing the drives and if any of these go to power, the hope will get dimmer. The watchdog institutions were politicised and destroyed over the years. The drive fizzled out also because the court interfered and stayed the investigation and trial of many cases. The political parties should have demanded trial, and asked for punishment of the guilty people.
Should emergency be withdrawn for polls?
There was no problem in the local election during emergency. People voted freely. The convicted criminals will benefit if emergency is withdrawn. Is that in our interest? We want our fundamental rights back and at the same time want the government to take action so that the criminals elements can’t participate in the elections and musclemen and black money holders cannot influence the election.
Reference: by The Daily Star, 7 November 2008

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