Who will provide the political base for reform?
Rehman Sobhan scrutinizes the constituency for political reform and outlines the formidable hurdles that a such a political realignment would have to overcome
The caretaker government (CTG) has now been in office for just under a month. It remains unclear as to how much longer they will remain and what will be the constitutional framework to institutionalize their tenure. Whilst both the CTG and the various political parties indicate that the responsibility of the CTG will be to hold a free and fair election as soon as possible and to then make their exit, it is obvious that the perceptions on either side, over what is required for a free and fair election and the concept of "as soon as possible" are not fully shared by both sides.
Within the political parties it is not clear if the two main alliances have an agreed position on "free and fair" or even on "as soon as possible." As far as the CTG is concerned, their public persona is hardly self-determined so they continue to speak with variable voices. But the CTG is an entity of limited power sustained by the powers that be. Since the powers that be do not speak their mind publicly their position can only be perceived through some of the actions of the CTG and this too is open to different interpretations.
It remains to be seen how far the new election commissioners are able to demonstrate their independence, courage, and efficiency in the discharge of their mandate. It should be kept in mind that a truly independent EC, with strong commissioners, may become a law unto itself. Under the constitution, the EC becomes sovereign in setting the dates and terms of the election as well as the functioning of the administration and the determinants of what constitutes a free and fair election.
The CTG will indeed have no other function than to care-take and act in support of the EC. This precludes the CTG from making drastic changes in the systems of governance or the placements in the administration, unless specifically requested by the EC to do so in the service of a free and fair election. It is not clear if the powers that be are prepared to accept such restraints on their agenda imposed by the EC whose mandate and independence may have to be accordingly modified to accommodate a possible agenda for more substantive changes in the arrangements for the governance of Bangladesh.
The operative issue lies in the interpretation of what will be necessary to ensure a free and fair election. The most obvious actions include an updated and credible voter list. There has been much discussion on this as well as the issue of voter ID cards so I will not pursue this issue. The key issue in defining the terms of a free and fair election remains to ensure that the EC will conduct itself without a semblance of partisan bias and will be able to restructure and discipline the administration to totally support the EC in this endeavour.
The partisanization of the administration by the outgoing 4-Party Alliance government had been far reaching, going down to the grass-roots level, involving EC officials, police, even school teachers. A major overhaul of the administration will, therefore, be in order to re-establish the non-partisan status of the EC as well as the CTG.
Similar action may be needed in the judiciary where attempts to partisanize this hitherto untouchable institution have already produced some lamentable outcomes. Elevation of a deputy attorney general, appointed by the outgoing political government, to the position of attorney general, strikes me as an impolitic move, given the partisan bias of the outgoing attorney general and his whole office.
A credible voter list, an independent EC and a non-partisan administration, may ensure a relatively free and fair election. If this could be done by the CTG under Shahabuddin, Habibur Rahman, and even, up to a point, Latifur Rahman, there is no reason why this cannot be achieved under Fakhruddin's CTG.
However, none of the previous CTGs could ensure that a free and fair election would ensure that people with money and muscle at their disposal would not receive nominations or deploy these resource to win the election. Obviously the campaign for clean candidates promoted by the Nagorik Committee and Shujan touched a responsive chord amongst citizens across the country There is today close to universal agreement that voters would prefer to vote for a better calibre of candidate and would like to be presented with such an option by the respective parties. The nominations of the two alliances which were made public prior to the deadline of January 3, set by the ousted CTG of Iajuddin Ahmed, suggest that the major parties were not particularly impressed by the public demand that they nominate clean candidates.
The point of departure for the present CTG from its predecessors appears to be that their power base also appears to be motivated by the objective of ensuring a cleaner slate of electoral candidates. To this end the powers that be have already begun a far-reaching crack-down on criminal elements, many of whom appear to be politically connected, and are now casting their net wider to catch the bigger fish, mostly on charges of corruption. It is not clear how much wider this net will be cast but it could go far enough to reach the inside pond of the two political leaders.
What has to be seen is whether this sweep into the depths of the main political alliances, to catch ostensibly corrupt or criminal elements on both sides, can be sustained long enough to keep them out of the elections to a point where arms and money became a marginal factor in the electoral process. It is possible that such an exercise by the CTG may be legally open to challenge and may even be politically contested. It would, at the least, require laws which disqualify particular categories of political elements from contesting elections. If due legal process is to be observed in eliminating selected politician from the elections, such a process would imply that the CTG will be around for quite some time. It is not certain that the political parties would remain idle for all that time so that the assault on the parties may have to go even deeper if they are to kept under restraint whilst the process of political cleansing is being completed.
It is arguable that the disqualification route may thus not be a feasible option, though the more egregious political elements, with proven track records for violence and corruption, can be detained, if convicted, under due legal process. Action can also be taken by a strong EC to eliminate the power of weapons and severely reduce the influence of money in the next elections. Enforcing a more sensibly defined election expenditure ceiling may be a novelty for the Bangladesh EC but there are many precedents for this in our neighbouring countries. Indeed, technical advice may be sought by the newly inducted EC from some retired chief election commissioners in India, who have managed to enforce expenditure ceilings on candidates, using the authority already available to the commission.
It is, however, still not certain that enforcing expenditure ceilings and reducing the power of weapons will be enough to ensure the slate of clean candidates craved by the voters. Both corruption and political violence originate in structural problems and not mere deficiencies in personal character of the offending candidates. Professor Yunus may have indulged in hyperbole when he recently observed that money making is the sole motivation of politics. There are still politicians at all levels driven by a sense of public service, and many of them, particularly at the local level, have made great sacrifices in the struggle for democracy. But it is becoming increasingly evident that a generation of political players are new assuming prominence in the major political parties for whom politics is assuming a largely instrumental role in their primary mission of pursuing wealth. This emerging political culture is leading to the depoliticization of the parties and their progressive divorce from issues of ideology and policy or the compulsion to address the most basic concerns of their voters. This culture has given birth to the winner take all mode of party politics which has bred the virulent confrontational politics which has eroded democracy within the parties, has paralyzed our parliament, and has, thus, virtually disenfranchised our people.
Can short-term efforts at political cleansing really change the culture of our dominant political parties, ensure intra-party democracy and nominations for candidates of integrity who have given loyal service to the party? The answer to these questions obviously lie within the parties themselves and should be answered by the leaders, those around them, their MPs, and by their rank and file, but, above all, by those who vote for the respective parties.
If the major parties could reconstruct themselves into organizations which are fully responsive to the concerns of their constituents it would be the best option not just for the CTG but for all those who have invested their faith in the democratic process. But what if the major political parties are in no mood to reconstruct themselves and simply aspire to return to business as usual once a free and fair election restores the political process? The two major parties may calculate that a CTG will have to hold elections sooner or later and once they do so then they are the only two major players still in the field, of whom one will be elected to power again.
There may be some truth in this assumption of the parties since a CTG cannot stay forever and nor can the powers that be behind them. There may be elements within the powers that be who are motivated by the Ataturk syndrome of reconstructing the country. However, in this day and age, there is no great future for such missionaries, particularly for countries with low strategic value and a global reputation to sustain within the international community as responsible peacekeepers. To assume any longer term responsibilities to reconstruct Bangladesh many thus be contrary to the corporate interests of the powers that be.
If the powers that be cannot provide any long-term guarantees of durable political change and the political parties cannot be persuaded to reconstruct themselves, then there is no assurance that the current measures to detain apparently corrupt political elements, mastans, and economic criminals will be a sustainable proposition. For those, like myself, who have in our lifetime witnessed four military interventions in the political process, covering the Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Ershad regimes, it is observable that all ended in disaster for their progenitors. Military regimes, in our part of the world, who aspire to stay in power, feel compelled to politicize themselves. When they do so they embrace many of the corrupt political elements, against whom they justified their original intervention, which leads to corruption and disrepute of the regime of the politicized generals. In such circumstances, a military intervention which aspires to go down in the history books as well as retain its international prestige cannot afford to overstay its welcome.
Housecleaning of corrupt elements from the body politic is not the same as sustainable institutional reform. Such reform has to emerge out of a democratically mandated political process and will need to be carried through and politically defended by a political party or parties. In the absence of a revolution within the major political parties, an alternative political force will be needed to institutionalize political reform. Unfortunately, no third political option appears on the horizon to sustain the reform which is desperately sought by the citizens of Bangladesh. Is it possible for such a third force to emerge in Bangladesh? The historical record does not hold out much promise. Sundry attempts to build such a force have come to grief because none of the attempts could find leaders and workers with the message, charisma, stamina, and financial resources, to challenge the deeply embedded hold of the established political parties, at that time, over the electorate. What would be needed for such an alternative political force to emerge?
Let me itemize some of the preconditions needed for an alternative political force to emerge:
1. A clearly defined agenda which can capture the imagination of a broad segment of the voting population and generate confidence that the party is sincere in implementing this agenda.
2. A charismatic leader, who enjoys immediate name recognition throughout the country.
3. The leader must be surrounded by associates of established integrity and competence who have not been compromised by charges of corruption and criminality.
4. A party organization, led by a general secretary, who has proven organizational skills and an understanding of the workings of the political process at the local level.
5. All those identified in (2-4) above must commit themselves to work full time (this means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year) in building such a party. Party building, particularly of a new party, is not a task for part-timers.
6. Adequate financial backing, transparently obtained, not just from
more credible financers of means but from small donations from ordinary citizens.
7 Such a party must target the following constituencies:
i. Political figures in the major political parties who are uncorrupted and who are still committed to serving the country rather than themselves. There are many such figures, including senior figures and MPs in the major parties, who are deeply disillusioned at the state of their parties. However, those with established political loyalties, particularly to long established political parties, would only consider supporting another party if they were assured that such a party was there to stay and means what it says.
ii. In every constituency there are respected people -- lawyers, doctors, teachers, retired officials, small businessman, and young people including students -- who are deeply concerned about the degeneration in our political life and the rampant corruption, which has made life insecure for ordinary people. Many of these concerned citizens hunger for leaders and a party who can mobilize their patriotism and passion to build a decent society.
8. There are large number of social and economic groups who constitute the productive core of Bangladesh. Their efforts have largely contributed to the 6% growth rate we now enjoy and who go about their work not because of but in spite of the role of the government. These groups have been denied adequate official recognition or political support and reckon that in a better governed state their efforts could serve to double our growth rates. These groups include:
i. The readymade garment exporters, which includes not just the entrepreneurs, but their hard-working workers who are the source of value addition in this sector.
ii. The productive elements in the business community who have made new investment or expanded their earlier investments without becoming loan defaulters or tax evaders.
iii. The large numbers of small-scale industrialists dispersed across the country from Dolai Khal to every upazilla headquarter, producing a variety of products for meeting local consumption needs, who are denied protection, official support or institutional financing.
iv. The small farmers who have tripled Bangladesh's food production since Liberation, in spite of policy neglect, rising prices for their inputs, shortages of power, and diesel and fertilizer scams.
v. Bangladesh's fast growing professional class whose skills tend to be unrecognized and remain underutilized.
vi. Civil society organizations active in the defense of human rights and/or advocating good governance.
vii. The NGO community who have played a major role in alleviating poverty in Bangladesh and whose large constituency of workers are distributed across Bangladesh.
viii. The large constituency of women who receive micro-credit and other resources which have enabled them to earn their own livelihood and who look to a regime committed to their empowerment.
ix. The millions of hard-working yet resourceless people who live insecure lives on the margins of poverty, who look towards a day when they can vote a party to power which will put them at the centre of their political concerns.
The above mentioned constituencies, which could be supplemented, constitute a large and important segment of the voting population of Bangladesh. They have been overlooked in the calculations of the major political parties except when they are forced to agitate around specific issues such as Kansat. They are, individually, and as communities, looking for a leadership which recognizes their contribution, is willing to support rather than terrorize or extract resource from them, and, above all, who can be relied upon to keep their word.
Is it possible for such a leader, backed by such a party, to emerge within the next year, possibly within the tenure of this CTG? It may be the pious hope of many Bangladeshis, including that of the CTG and the powers that be, that it would. However, the practical obstacles for such a party to emerge are so formidable that it would take a bolder person than myself to predict such a possibility.
Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Editorial Board, Forum
Photos: Amirul Rajiv