Politics, Yes ... Change, Not Yet
ASYED BADRUL AHSAN reflects on the government's promises and politics of change.
First, the truth. Something Barack Obama did during his campaign for the United States presidency in 2008 quickly caught on around the world. He promised change if he were elected to the White House. And suddenly other politicians in other countries were picking up the idea, to tell their own people that change was theirs for the asking, only if they voted for those who promised it. That was what the Awami League did in the campaign leading up to the general elections of December 2008. Having gone through the bitter experience of the Fakhruddin Ahmed-led caretaker government, a period which saw Sheikh Hasina undergo a spell of imprisonment and, before that, a bitter struggle to be let back into the country following a bad move by the authorities to prevent her return from a trip abroad, the Awami League appeared willing and ready to inaugurate a new phase in national politics. Its pledge was one of change. It called the promise "dinbodol-er rajniti" -- the politics of change.
Briefly, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League gave people to understand that certain reform measures the caretaker administration had undertaken during its tenure would be maintained, indeed strengthened. And into that set of measures came, or so people thought, more accountability and transparency in government through having such bodies as the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission operate independently and so underpin the overall idea of government as a thriving, throbbing experience in modern times. There was the pledge of an institutionalisation of local government through a clear devolution of authority away from the centre. The party promised an independent judiciary; it spoke of respecting a free press. Indeed, it informed the nation that the right to information was one it would protect as part of its policy plank. The party promised other crucial steps as such, among which was a trial of the collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army in 1971. The Awami League also made it clear that it would bring the assassins of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to justice, 13 years after they had been convicted and which conviction had run into inordinate delays insofar as implementation was concerned owing to the indifference of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat-e-Islami government to the entire process in the five years preceding the declaration of a state of emergency in January 2007.
Two years after the Awami League assumed power, yet once again, in January 2009, it makes sense to ask whether or not the party has kept its promises; indeed, whether it has truly brought change as a central factor into Bangladesh's politics. The answer is not a complex one, despite the complexities which politics has largely epitomised in all this period since the December 2008 elections. And yet one cannot lose sight of the fact that the government has found itself buffeted by unforeseen difficulties which, in the early stages, meant it spent a precious length of time finding its feet. The ground was made slippery early on through the mutiny which claimed the lives of 70 people, including 57 army officers, at the Bangladesh Rifles in February 2009. Into office for a mere 50 days when the murder and mayhem occurred, it was a rudely shaken government which needed to have its credibility restored with the army in particular and with the country in general. In the end, it did emerge, somewhat bruised but nevertheless secure, from the ramifications of the mutiny.
And then, of course, came time for a fulfillment of the pre-election promises. The first signs that the Awami League-led government was ready to go back on some of its pledges came through its approach to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). Retired General Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, having led the ACC during caretaker times with diligence and a clear sense of purpose, ought to have carried on. Apparently, the new government thought otherwise and there appeared to be a couple of reasons why the government wished to see the back of the general. In the first place, contrary to its early promise of keeping the ACC intact in terms of its authority, it mulled the idea of a less assertive structure. In the second, it was plainly in the mood to downgrade the power of the chairman of the ACC through putting an official of a lesser category in the job. In the event, it did both. Chowdhury did the decent thing of walking away into the sunset. The ACC has not been the same since.
SK ENAMUL HAQ
The good bit in the story is one of the Election Commission and the Public Service Commission retaining their authority and of the government not wading into any move to bring about any change in their authority or organisational structure. Add to that the party's programme regarding a trial of the war criminals of 1971. Movement on this front has clearly been slow and ponderous. With the constitution of a War Crimes Tribunal in March this year, it was the general expectation that the detention of alleged war criminals and their trial would swiftly follow. That has not happened. More to the point, a number of questions regarding the specific, foolproof laws under which the trials will be conducted, the opportunities for defence provided to the accused, the collection and collation of evidence, et cetera have been raised over the past few weeks. Besides, individuals and organisations engaged in the job of seeing justice done to the killers of 1971 have underscored such significant points as the need not only to bring individual war criminals to trial but also such organisations as the Jamaat-e-Islami, which unreservedly cooperated with Pakistan during Bangladesh's War of Liberation in 1971.
Be it noted, though, that the trial of war criminals is not and has never been in any doubt. But what does raise questions is whether the government will have enough preparations to begin and conclude the trials before its term in office comes to an end in 2013. With Bangladesh's electoral politics conventionally marked by an unpredictability of outcome, such fears are only to be treated as natural. There is, after all, the memory of the past. In early 1972, the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pledged to put Pakistan army officers and their local Bengali collaborators on trial for war crimes committed in 1971. In the event, no trials took place. Under a tripartite deal among Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, all Pakistani military personnel detained as prisoners of war in India were allowed to go home. Following Bangabandhu's death in August 1975, the Collaborators Act of 1972 was repealed in December 1975 by the regime of General Ziaur Rahman. The fear lurks among a sizeable section of political observers that, in the end, all this high gear activity regarding the trial of war criminals might come to nought.
That said, the government has surely moved to right some manifest wrongs that had crept into the Constitution per courtesy of military regimes in the past. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution has been done away with, through clear action on the part of the higher judiciary, thus enabling the government to move ahead with the business of restoring the secular nature of the Constitution as spelt out in 1972. And yet the authorities have been moving with caution. There is as yet no clear conception on its part on whether religion-based parties, banned under the original Constitution, will be permitted to operate in politics. Besides, the government has made it clear on a number of occasions that it does not mean to do away with the Bismillah principle, inserted into the Constitution by the Zia regime.
Any assessment of the Awami League-led government must of course take into consideration its performance in everyday governance. Law and order remains a pivotal issue, particularly in light of the extra-judicial killings which have gone on despite the huge outcry against such action on the part of the Rapid Action Battalion and other security forces. The government has certainly not done itself or the country any favour by defending the killings as a necessity on the part of the law enforcers. In areas of quotidian concern, the incessant rise in prices of essential commodities has led to public frustration with the government. In broad measure, the economy has remained stable, despite the unrest in the garments sector and the agitational politics that seems to have become a pattern with the opposition BNP. To be sure, the government's handling of such matters as Begum Zia's cantonment residence have made things rather messy for it. Then again, the prime minister's denunciation of Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus over reports emanating in Sweden have left the government red in the face. On another front, though, it has been a mixed bag. And we speak of foreign policy here. But when you consider the plain lawlessness which young supporters and members of the ruling party have indulged in (read Chhatra League and Jubo League here), there is little of the appreciative about the government. It has not been able to rein in these young people.
With three years to go before the next spate of general elections, the Awami League, as the party of government, patently needs to re-invigorate itself. It has not governed badly, but along the way it appears to be losing its sense of purpose. Ministers have spoken in discordant voices; lawmakers have acted in less than democratic fashion. The change the party promised before the 2008 elections has not come to pass. It has been politics as usual. The feeling, a worrying one, grows that what ought to have been parliamentary government is fast dwindling into prime ministerial administration.
Change, ladies and gentlemen, is yet a long way off.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.