Vol. 5 Num 923 Sun. December 31, 2006  

Bottom Line
To participate or not to participate

FREE, fair and credible election is an essential element of democracy and an environment has to be created for all political parties to participate in the election. There is no doubt that the primary responsibility, however, falls on the non-party caretaker government and the Election Commission.

Furthermore, all political parties as well as civil society bear responsibility to ensure that a spirit of tolerance and accommodation prevails. Major parties in particular have an added responsibility to avoid confrontation during the election process.

The December 29 announcement by the AL-led grand alliance to call back-to-back countrywide blockade on January 7 and 8 and the reiteration of its earlier demands appear to inject doubt in their participation in the election. It is like a see-saw game.

Certain recent events have occurred and they are:

  • The rejection of President Ershad's nomination forms
  • The AL-led grand alliance has not given reasons to the public as to why they decided to participate in the election, despite their demands remaining unfulfilled.
  • There has been a chorus of widespread protest by civil society, minority religious groups and freedom fighters for the deal between AL and Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM).

Let us examine these events one by one:
On December 14, the High Court Division sentenced former President Ershad to two years imprisonment in a graft case and asked him to surrender to the trial court. On December 26, the one-member vacation bench of Justice Abedin of the Appellate Division rejected Ershad's petition for a stay.

Lawyers for former President Ershad have made out a case that: (i) it remains a mystery as to why his appeal from the trial court was suddenly activated at this critical time of submission of nomination papers by the office of the Attorney General, (ii) that under a law of 2003, Ershad is deemed to have already served two year sentence because earlier in the same case he had served more than six years' imprisonment. That being the case, he is free to stand in the election, and (iii) his appeal remains pending before the Appellate Division for final decision and the matter is under judicial consideration (sub-judice).

Against the background, it has been alleged by Ershad's lawyers and supporters that the rejection of Ershad's nomination papers is politically motivated. Former President Ershad reportedly said that "if the conspiracy against him" continues, he might not take part in the election. He further added: "I am eligible to appear in the election, but they are obstructing me. Since I am in the grand alliance, I'll take my decision by consulting with the alliance partners." He did not name who "they" are but the meaning is palpable to everyone.

His lawyers argue that support for the allegation of political bias rests partly on the fact that the rejection of his nomination papers outside Dhaka was not reportedly declared until the Returning Officer in Dhaka had decided in the matter. If it is true, it smacks certain extraneous considerations, allowed to play in the decision of rejection.

On the second issue, on December 24, in a major shift, the AL-led grand alliance decided to participate in the election, though their demands remained unfulfilled. No explanation was given for the reversal of its decision except that its secretary general told reporters that their "movement has always aimed at having a level playing field ready for the election."

The supporters and people in large are confused and perplexed as to why the AL-led grand alliance decided to participate in the election when they knew that a level-playing field had not been created by the concerned authorities.

Although for the sake of democracy, it is prudent to go in for election if the level playing is created, otherwise many political analysts believe that it is better not to participate in an election that will not be credible, free, and fair.

The election process is as important as the outcome of the election. If the election is held in an environment when AL-led alliance's demands remain unmet and if it loses the election, then AL-led grand alliance will be able to tell the whole world that the outcome of the election is not acceptable because it is rigged.

Is that the strategy for the AL-led grand alliance? Or is it that prospective candidates put extreme political pressure on the AL-led grand alliance? The question is: in case the AL-led grand alliance does not participate in the election, can AL-led grand alliance persuade their candidates not to file nomination papers?

Many believe that since becoming a member of parliament is a highly lucrative investment, it attracts candidates in running an election. During the tenure of the 8th parliament, statistics reveal that 69 percent of parliamentarians were drawn from business circles. An MP not only gets his perks and privileges (including a tax-free car and diplomatic passport) but also gets to be involved in government contracts and other government-funded projects. People ask what can be a better business than becoming a member of parliament.

Finally, it has been a severe disappointment that while the AL leader sings the virtues of secularism, the AL stealthily concludes on December 23, five-point Memorandum of Understanding with the Khelafat Majlish (BKM) that takes the heart out of principle of secularism. Furthermore, there has been a widespread shockwaves around the country for concluding the MOU that belies the spirit of liberation and modern notion of "nation-state" where religion is separated from politics (such as Turkey).

Many political observers ask: is it a political opportunism of the AL? How many votes AL will get from BKM? Or how many votes the AL will lose? Has been any strategic evaluation or calculation by the AL in the matter? Or is it to cancel out the allegation by some political quarters that pursuing secularism by AL means abandonment of Islam? This negative image arguably could have been encountered in a different manner.

Whatever may be reasons, it has shocked supporters that principle of secularism (means that politics should not be based on religion) has finally been buried through this controversial MOU for apparent political expediency.

Many political observers believe that the AL found itself in a tricky situation. On the one hand, it wants to participate in the election to gain power; on the other hand, it and its partners of their grand alliance firmly believe that a level playing field has not been created. Under the circumstance, they feel that it is better to have a policy of ambivalence in the matter of participation in election.

Like corporate products, nations, too can be regarded as brand names and their standing in the international community evaluated. That is what the Anholt Nation Brands Index does four times yearly. Bangladesh's positive image has been displayed all over the world by the award of Nobel Peace Prize to Professor Yunus and the Grameen Bank.

When the image of Bangladesh is high and positive, it is critical that Bangladeshis can demonstrate to the world at large that a free, fair and credible election is possible in the country. The non-party caretaker government, the Election Commission, the judiciary and public servants have a great responsibility to ensure that all parties participate in the election.

It is noted that democracy means not only free election, but also rule of law, free media, a minimum material standard for people, and a strong opposition in the parliament. Sir Ivor Jennings, the eminent constitutional expert wrote: "A tyrannical majority and a recalcitrant minority ruins democracy."

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.