Vol. 4 Num 244 Fri. January 30, 2004  

Ethics of political leadership: What the leaders need to do

Political life in contemporary Bangladesh suffers from a deep and inescapable element of tragedy. Political leaders act mostly for personal and party interests. The actions they undertake in the name of people or country often violate our most valued moral principles. No wonder, people are increasingly questioning the political leader's motivations and moral integrity. Men and women of high moral calibre find politics messy and compromising. They do not seek positions of political leadership, because they are unwilling to do the wrong thing in order to achieve the right thing. Hence, in practice, politics is left to morally questionable people, further degrading political participation, and leading to the kind of distrust and abstention we see in contemporary democratic societies, in general and Bangladesh in particular.

The dilemma of political leadership shows up clearly in party politics. For instance, what is the correct response to politically motivated killings? In many countries around the world including Bangladesh, party activists murder political opponents. This happens in dictatorships and in weakly consolidated democracies. Colombia, for instance, has held elections, but political violence is extreme. What should fellow party members of the victims of political violence do? Should they respond in kind? They often do, especially where they believe that the normal channels of law enforcement are unlikely to punish the killers. But such retaliation only invites more violence from the other side, leading to more retaliation, and so on. Party politics becomes open warfare between highly armed factions rather than an essential element of deliberative democracy.

Parties that are frustrated with the institutions in their country may turn to street-level agitation and disruption. Is this ethically acceptable? Such actions can cost the nation considerable income, as businesses shut down and transportation halts. A party must weigh the cost to the nation against its own desire to advance its cause. Yet, when ruling parties close off channels of dissent by muzzling the press, disabling parliament, or rigging elections, opposition parties feel they have no choice.

Party discipline creates yet more ethical challenges. Presumably, a morally aware political leader will vote according to conscience, not expediency. Yet, in many systems, party discipline is the norm. Members of parliament are required to vote with the party, especially MPs in the majority party. What about cases when a bill goes against the member's deep convictions? Failing to go along could mean the loss of position, in which case the member will have no influence over future legislation.

On critical issues, pressure from higher-ups might be intense. At what point do the member's own convictions properly give way to the demands of the party? All of these problems are present in many diverse countries. In particular, they are typical of the challenges political leaders face in Bangladesh. Political violence has not risen to the level of civil war. Yet, frequent politically motivated killings continue to plague Bangladesh politics.

The harmful effects of corruption on Bangladesh politics, delivery of public services, and economic efficiency are regularly discussed in the daily newspapers, at academic conferences, in policy seminars, and in the streets. Rooting out corruption is ostensibly everyone's goal, but doing so has proven a daunting task. Bangladesh has not yet been able to establish an effective Anti-corruption Commission, despite the pressure coming from inside and outside actors. No wonder, political leaders are increasingly resorting to corruption. It is widely known, for instance, that obtaining a nomination to run for Parliament requires a certain cash contribution to the party. Individuals who make the contribution tend to look upon it as an investment. It is a widespread belief that winning a seat in Parliament or securing a ministerial position offers substantial monetary returns.

Bangladesh's parliament has become almost irrelevant as a forum for political discourse and decision-making. The high level of partisanship means that the opposition party carries almost no weight, and so the Parliament serves as little more than a rubber stamp for the decisions of the majority party leadership. The opposition does not add to Parliament's effectiveness by walking out and disrupting normal processes, and continuous boycott. The signs are very clear that the parliamentary government is not working in Bangladesh contributing to the practice of taking politics to the streets and resolving power struggle there. Lacking effective voice in Parliament, the opposition organises agitation aimed at bringing down the government. Hartals and strikes disrupt normal commerce, and as the street agitation increases, the government responds by trying to break the strikes. Party activists and the police attack opposition processions and meetings. The opposition responds with more agitation and more mobilisation. Left unchecked, this can result in severe governing crisis and economic costs to the country in the coming days. The use of street action is deeply embedded in Bangladeshi political culture, but the costs require both government and opposition to rethink the ethical implications.

Article 70 of Bangladesh's constitution requires that Members of Parliament vote with their party. If they fail to do so, they are ejected from Parliament. This is an extraordinary level of party discipline. In most legislative bodies, members can vote according to their conscience. In the U.S. Congress, no explicit sanctions exist for a member who votes against the party, even on most issues. In Great Britain's parliament, a party member can be ejected from the party, but he or she will not lose the seat in Parliament. For Bangladesh's MPs the problem of what to do when a vote would violate the member's most strongly held convictions is acute. Voting one's conscience means losing all future influence. Voting with the party could compromise one's deepest beliefs. In practice, very few members vote against the party. This means that policy is almost entirely decided at the top levels, and most party members simply go along most of the time without questioning those decisions.

The maintenance of public order is a higher good, one that sometimes requires extreme measures under the worsening conditions in Bangladesh. On the other hand, there are genuine concerns of human rights and legal implications. How are these dilemmas to be alleviated? What can be done to deter the level of political violence in Bangladesh? How to reduce, if not eliminate, the amount of corruption plaguing the political and administrative system at various levels? What steps would lead political parties away from hartals and strikes and toward normal channels of political competition? How can political leaders find room to act according to their vision of the public interest rather than simply follow rules of acquisition or consolidation of personal gains and political power? What measures might remove the perceived need for another 'Operation Clean Heart', and alleviate the human rights abuses such operations produce? Will the government and the opposition address these critical issues at this 'turning point' of Bangladesh's democratic politics rather than spending time and energy on less productive issue of enhancing representatives in the Parliament, and on negative politics of hartal?

We have examples before us of leaders who have transcended difficulties to transform society toward the good. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela show that even in societies suffering from racism, imperialism, and severe human rights abuses, it is possible for politics to be a noble and inspiring vocation. These leaders have shown us that statesmanship is about adjusting means to conditions so as to achieve a peaceful and humane society. Political leaders around the world, including those in Bangladesh, should follow the example set by such statesmen. This means engaging in the deep moral reflection required to ensure that one's actions do respond to the public interest and do aim at creating a peaceful and just society.

Dr. M. Ataur Rahman, Professor of Political Science, DU is President, Bangladesh Political Science Association.