|Volume 6 Issue 01| January 2012|
Keeping Democracy Alive
Noted political scientist, feminist writer and academician Professor Dr Rounaq Jahan (RJ) shares her views about Bangladesh's current political crisis with TAMANNA KHAN for Forum.
Forum: How do you evaluate the democratic system of Bangladesh, 20 years after its restoration?
RJ: I am concerned that we have not made much progress in institutionalising democracy in the last 20 years. One of the indicators of democratic institutionalisation is routinisation of free and fair elections acceptable to all contestants. But unfortunately we have not been able to put in place a system that will ensure organisation of regular and credible elections acceptable to all major political parties.
From the beginning, since the restoration of democracy in 1991, there has not been a single election, where the losing party has not questioned the legitimacy of the election results. Even when all the observers, domestic and international, have said that these were more or less acceptable elections, the party or the alliance who had lost the election had always alleged that the election results have been rigged.
We managed to organise three parliamentary elections under a caretaker government in 1991, 1996 and 2001 which saw rotation of power between two major political parties. But we failed to hold the scheduled 2007 parliamentary elections on time and there was a two year break in the system of democratically elected governments. After the 2008 elections, I had hoped that the political parties and their leaders would put priority to building consensus around a system for holding free and fair elections so that the country would not face any more uncertainty about future elections. But it appears that we are again heading towards a crisis on the issue of organisation of the next parliamentary elections as the two major political forces can not come to an agreement about the basic rules of the game.
Another continuing challenge for us is the weakness of our major democratic institutions. Our parliament is a prime example of this democratic deficit. The opposition has regularly boycotted parliamentary meetings since 1994. Though both major parties have rotated in power, they attended parliamentary meetings only when they were in government. They boycotted parliament when they were in opposition. Nowhere in the world we have witnessed a situation like this. Both of our major parties had equal opportunities to be in government as well as in opposition, but both parties chose to abdicate their role as opposition in parliament. In a democracy, parliament is the most important institution for holding the executive branch of the government accountable. And opposition in parliament has the prime responsibility to scrutinise the actions of the executive. In Bangladesh, the parliament has not performed well mainly because the political leaders have not made any effort to strengthen parliament as an institution of accountability.
If we look at our neighbouring country, India, we find a very different picture. Despite its many problems, India has been able to institutionalise democracy. At least on certain basic rules there is an agreement amongst all major political parties. India had never entertained international election observers but its election commission is powerful enough to organise credible elections, and the losing side has never questioned the legitimacy of the election results. Parliament functions. Opposition goes to parliament. There is corruption and there are criminal elements in the Indian politics but democratic institutions of governance function. With the exception of a two year emergency rule, there has not been any break in Indian democratic system since 1947.
Forum: However, opposition claims that they do not get floor in the parliament. In that case, how would they have any say in the bills passed in parliament?
RJ: It may be true that the opposition is not getting a fair hearing by the speaker or that the ruling party is being abusive; but the opposition parliamentarians have to remember that they have been elected to the parliament by their constituents and the parliament is as much their house as the ruling party's. It is their duty to go to parliament. Even if the other side tries to be abusive they should just go there, and repeatedly ask for the floor. The parliamentary sessions are being televised. So if the opposition parliamentarians create a big commotion in the parliament and it is publicised in the media then it will actually go to their advantage. I do not see what the opposition members are gaining by not going to the parliament. By not going to the parliament, they are giving the ruling side a very easy walkover. The opposition can always demonstrate on the streets. They have that option. But street politics should not be regarded as an alternative to parliamentary politics. The parliamentarians are elected to go to parliament. This practice of boycott of parliament makes absolutely no sense to me, particularly since in Bangladesh no major party has remained in opposition for ever.
Forum: With the caretaker government being scrapped and the appointment of a new election commission in question and the two major parties in disagreement on both these issues, how do you analyse the current political situation of the country?
RJ: Whether we have a caretaker system or an independent election commission, the crux of the problem is that the major contestants, mainly the two main political parties, have to agree and accept the people who will be heading either the caretaker system (if it is restored in some form) and the election commission. The major political parties have to abide by the decision of the system they agree on to organise the elections and not cry foul if the decision goes against them. If the two main political parties fail to come to an agreement through discussion and negotiation and continue with their past practice of confrontational politics then I am afraid we will face continued political crisis and uncertainty and we will not be able to institutionalise democracy.
Forum: The culture of political anarchy is increasing in Bangladesh's politics day by day. What factors are behind such practices and what roles can political parties and civil society play to keep it under control?
RJ: If you have a functioning democracy then you would assume that the disagreements and contestations would be resolved through non-violent means -- through discussions, debates and consensus-building. This does not mean that there would not be some sporadic violence in democratic systems. There can be street demonstrations that may result in some violent acts. Sometimes police can use excessive force. But these acts of violence will always be aberrations of the norm. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh we have a long history of political violence. Our heads of government have been assassinated. Our members of parliament have been killed. Attempts have been made on the lives of major leaders. But these crimes were not properly investigated or punished. This has created a culture of impunity.
Even within political parties we find one faction leader being killed by another faction leader. Violence has routinely been used to settle scores in our politics. This is not democratic politics.
Again, if you look at our neighbour, India, there too top leaders have been assassinated. Mrs Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated. But there had been proper investigation and punishment for these crimes. In India, we do not hear of any allegation that leaders of major opposition political parties had been targeted for assassination by the party in power.
But in Bangladesh these allegations are present. This is not an environment of democratic contestation. As I said, there could be a few instances of violence but if we have a continuing history of violence this makes nurturing of a democratic process very difficult.
Civil society can play only a limited role in changing this culture of political violence. Civil society can raise awareness about the negative consequences of political violence and try to mobilise public opinion against it, but the primary responsibility for controlling political violence rests with the political parties. They need to realise that by engaging in political violence they are only encouraging undemocratic practices in politics. Political leaders themselves need to make a serious commitment to control and put an end to political violence. Otherwise we will not be able to consolidate our democracy.
Forum: Will the war crimes trial have any influence on the next elections?
RJ: All over the world, including Bangladesh, elections are generally decided on two sets of issues. The first set is related to economy. The majority of citizens need to feel that they will be economically better off if a certain party comes to power, that things will be good in terms of employment, income and prices.
The second set of issues are related to law and order. Ordinary people need to feel that they are secure, that they are not going to be victims of wanton crime and violence in their neighbourhood, that they will be able to sleep in peace at night. All over the world, these two sets of issues are very important considerations for people when they go to vote.
This does not mean that some groups of people will not prioritise other issues such as the war crimes trial when they go to vote. The war crimes trial may be a make or break electoral issue for some groups of people.
To me, the war crimes trial should not be made an electoral issue. One should not hold war crimes trial just to get votes or win an election. We should hold war crimes trial because crimes against humanity were committed in Bangladesh. Many of us witnessed these crimes. For a variety of political reasons we have not pursued these trials for the last 40 years. As a result, many people internationally have forgotten that such crimes took place in Bangladesh. They know about Rwanda, Bosnia and other countries but not about Bangladesh. We need to hold the war crimes trial because this is the right thing to do. It is Bangladesh's responsibility to organise a credible war crimes trial which we can hold up to the rest of the world.
There has to be a national consensus that crimes against humanity and genocide were committed here. If we get divided, then, we dishonour ourselves. People must not think that war crimes trials are being held to get some political advantages. What is important is to at least establish the fact beyond any doubt to the international community that crimes against humanity were committed here in Bangladesh and there has to be some accountability for these crimes.
Forum: The tribunal itself has been put to question by the opposition. What is your assessment about the continuous disagreement of the two major political parties on each and every issue?
RJ: This is the major problem that we are facing in Bangladesh and how we will get around this, I have no answer. On certain basic things there has to be an agreement amongst major political parties. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh from the very beginning, we have created all sorts of controversies and tried to distort history for some petty political advantage, which has been very destructive for the nation.
In fact, we have many things going for us in Bangladesh. Despite our bad politics, we have made major strides in social and economical development. Recently, I was looking at a television programme that was made right after independence in 1972. There they were making many dire predictions about our future that 'Bangladesh will not survive', 'people are going to starve' and such. These predictions about us 40 years ago are proved wrong. We now see a pretty confident nation, who can rightfully be proud of many achievements.
However, we have developed some bad political practices. Our political players need to recognise them as bad practices and pull themselves back from these practices of confrontation, vendetta and violence.
Forum: What should be done to change our political practices?
RJ: Our politics is playing like a broken record. Both major political forces should realise that in a democracy there will be a ruling party and there will be an opposition. Both are legitimate political players. It is not possible, nor is it desirable to completely eliminate the opposition. If the opposition is eliminated, then it is not a democracy.
However, in a democracy, certain means of expression and behaviour are legitimate while some others are not. Killing your opponent or setting fire to a bus is not a democratic act. These are criminal acts and have to be dealt with accordingly. One of the ways we can change our bad political practices is to work towards establishing a rule of law. A democratic system is not a rule of individuals or leaders no matter how good the individual or leader is. A democratic system needs laws, rules, and institutions that would guide, treat and protect all citizens equally.
However, we have to remember that not everything can be written down as rules and laws. We need to develop norms and conventions about good democratic practices. There are also many norms and conventions that are followed in other democratic countries which we can emulate. For example, in many democratic countries it is a convention that when a party loses an election, the leader steps down and a new leader is elected to head the party. It is a convention when there is a major scandal in a ministry, the minister resigns. It is a convention to consult all major parties and create bi-partisan or multi-party consensus on issues of importance concerning national security. In Bangladesh, we need to develop norms of civility and democratic tolerance towards political opposition.
I do recognise the important roles our political leaders and parties have played in the struggle for restoration of democracy. They have courageously opposed colonial and military powers. But we also have to recognise that they have fallen far short in nurturing our democratic institutions of governance. Developing institutions for democratic governance remains our key challenge for the future.
Tamanna Khan is Feature Writer, The Star magazine, The Daily Star.
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