Betrayal and consequences
In 1990, the alliance of Awami League, BNP, Left parties, and their allies, signed a historic framework for the future democratic dispensation.
Badiul Alam Majumdar looks back at the tragedy of how in the next 16 years these promises were broken and the ideals betrayed
Nearly 16 years ago, on February 27, 1991, democracy was reintroduced in this country by means of free and fair elections. This was the result of a people's movement under the leadership of an alliance composed of the political parties. The movement involved people from all segments of society, including students, teachers and professionals. The alliance included almost all major parties excepting the Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami.
At that time it was hoped that the democratically elected government would practice democratic norms and institutionalise democracy in the country. A unified agenda was announced on the part of the alliance for this purpose. Unfortunately the three successive governments not only failed to implement the agenda, they indulged in many disgraceful activities which were contrary to it. Consequently our democratic system fell apart, the result of which was the imposition of the state of emergency and the cancellation of the election scheduled to be held last January 22.
The alliance's agenda is a historic document. But many citizens are not aware of its contents and most politicians would want the public to forget it. Nevertheless, since we are tying to reintroduce democracy once again, it will be instructive for us to review the agenda and the track record of the alliance members in implementing it.
The alliance's agenda, circulated on November 29, 1990, contained ten items under four categories. They include:
"1. In order to introduce true democracy and a democratic system of administration in line with the spirit of independence and the liberation war by freeing the country from the shackles of the autocratic Ershad and his regime which is characterised by murder, coup d'etat, deceit and conspiracy (we resolve that): (a) Keeping the constitutional process continuing ... Ershad and his government must be compelled to resign and a non-partisan neutral person appointed as the vice president. The government and the parliament must dissolved and the President must resign and handover power to the vice president. (b) An interim caretaker government must be set up under the leadership of the vice president in-charge whose responsibility will be to hold free and fair elections for a sovereign parliament within three months.
2. (a) The head of the caretaker government must be non-partisan and neutral; that is he/she must not be a follower of, or involved with, any political party ... (b) The interim government shall only perform regular daily administrative work, reconstitute the Election Commission and reassign the activities of the commission in order to ensure free and fair elections. (c) Confidence must be built and guarantees must be made so that the voters can exercise their franchise freely and without influence. (d) In order to guarantee their full neutrality, the independence and autonomy of all public media, including the radio and television, shall be ensured so that unhindered publicity for all parties can be assured.
3. The interim caretaker government shall transfer power to a sovereign parliament elected through free and fair elections and the government shall be compelled to be accountable to the parliament.
4. (a) Recognising the sovereignty of the people, the integrity of the constitutional system shall be upheld and continued, and any unconstitutional effort to capture power shall be resisted. Elected governments must not be removed by any unconstitutional and extra constitutional means or using any other excuse except through elections. (b) People's fundamental rights shall be guaranteed, and independence and neutrality of the judiciary and rule of law be ensured. (c) All laws contrary to fundamental rights shall be annulled."
The alliance's agenda may be broadly categorised into two groups. The first category relates to a set of demands and the second to a set of commitments.
The first demand relates to the issue of transferring power to an interim caretaker government. The demand included confining the caretaker government to routine administrative tasks and to reconstituting the Election Commission and making the commission effective to ensure free and fair elections. Independence and autonomy of the state media were also demanded in order to give all political parties access to them.
The commitment of the alliance included the creation of a sovereign parliament and ensuring the accountability of the executives to it. The alliance also committed to ensuring that the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Thus, the alliance committed to a system of checks and balances by instituting the principles of separation of powers.
Furthermore, the alliance committed to the repealing of all laws which violated fundamental rights. Most importantly, the alliance's commitment included renouncing the idea of removing any elected government through unconstitutional or extra-constitutional means or through any excuse other than elections. Undoubtedly, these were very bold and wise commitments made to safeguard public interests.
It is well known that in the face of the mass upsurge, the autocratic Ershad government resigned and a neutral caretaker government was established in early December 1990. The interim caretaker government, headed by Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, handed over power to a new government constituted by means of free and fair elections. The interim government also reconstituted the Election Commission and gave the political parties access to the government media, although there was no time to make the media autonomous.
It is clear that the Ershad regime acceded to the demands of the alliance and resigned. The interim government also kept its word. But did subsequent elected governments keep their commitments?
Experiences of the past 16 years sadly show that the political parties did not keep their commitments, rather they did just the opposite. For example, the continuous boycott of the parliaments, partisan behaviour of the speakers and the ineffectiveness of the standing committees made all successive parliaments ineffective. Instead of making the administration accountable to them, the parliaments themselves were made subservient to the "imperial" premieres. As a result, although we have been able to create a system of election-centred "one-day democracy" with great fanfare, true democracy was not established in the country. In fact, we are now the victims of the unscru-pulous behaviour of the political parties in the name of democracy.
The parliament, as an institution, could not even ensure the honesty, transparency and accountability of its members, let alone the government. Consequently, politics has become a profitable business and the parliament has become a safe haven for the corrupt, hooligans and owners of black money. This made the parliament itself the source of most of our problems rather than the centre for settling all national issues. The disclosures
Over the past few months by the arrested politicians clearly confirm this.
The fundamental rights of the people were also seriously undermined by successive governments. Not only were the laws violating fundamental rights kept in place, new such laws were enacted to impede such rights. The political governments also played games rather than fulfilling their commitment to a separate judiciary. Instead of the rule of law, the rule of whims of a few was established, which in essence led increasingly to dynastic and plunderous rule by the prime minister and her family. The mindless competition for pillage thus divided a once united people into two warring camps.
It must be noted that there was nothing in the alliance's unified agenda about hooliganism, black money, nomination trade, fundamentalism and corruption, because apart from corruption, they were not the burning issues then. In fact, these problems were the "gifts" of successive democratically elected governments over the past 16 years. Moreover, it was hoped that the elected governments, once in power, would be able to solve all the challenges that the country faced.
One of the main commitments of the alliance was to shun unconstitutional and extra-constitutional means or use of any excuse to remove democratically elected governments. However, undemocratic activities like the continuous boycott of parliament, forced hartal and siege, etc were egregious violations of this commitment. In addition, by grafting the caretaker system into our constitution, the political governments have institutionalised this undemocratic system instead of keeping it as a temporary measure, which ultimately led to serious political instability in the country. Clearly, the caretaker system is not the solution for our dysfunctional and criminalised democratic system. Rather it was instituted to sweep those problems under the rug which did not make them go away.
It is clear that the political parties belonging to the alliance did not uphold their promises to create a truly representative democracy based on the consent of the people. Rather they almost destroyed important democratic institutions like the Election Commission, Public Service Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission, Supreme Court, bureaucracy, etc. through their reckless partisan behaviour. Such recklessness caused our democratic system to melt down, shaking the very foundation of the state.
To remedy this, we must now refocus on the commitments made by the alliance in 1990 while doggedly pursuing the goal of free and fair elections. This will require cleaning up the mess created by the political governments over the years and keeping, through necessary reforms, the ruffians out of the electoral process. This will further require reconstituting the vital democratic institutions and making them effective. We must also, through compulsory registration, bring the political parties under a legal cover and statutory restrictions, which is not the control of the Election Commission.
We hope that the political parties will seriously examine the consequences of their reneging on the commitments of 1990. We further hope that in the greater national interests, and the interest of reintroducing democracy they will voluntarily come forward for initiating reforms on their own. Otherwise democracy will once again turn into a meaningless slogan, and more seriously, an instrument for meeting the selfish ends of criminalised political operatives via deception of the masses.
Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary, Shujan (Citizens for Good Governance).