Exit strategies: The way ahead
As 2008 comes to a close, Rehman Sobhan re-examines the options facing the caretaker government and the political parties
Last August, I wrote a piece in Forum on exit strategies for the caretaker government. I attempted to offer some guidance on the subject by providing a few insights from the historical experience of militarised regimes in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Today Pakistan continues to serve as laboratory for us on the perils of ignoring the lessons of history. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is consequently playing out his end game in the face of mounting public dissent. He has managed to coalesce fundamentalist forces with liberal/secular forces drawn from across the political spectrum and civil society in sharing the slogan: "Go, Musharraf, Go."
In the process, the military as an institution, which usually commands quite high ratings in the mind of the Pakistani public, is being discredited and the rule of law has been deeply compromised. The inter-national community has denounced the imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan and asked him to withdraw it so that a free and fair election to the parliament can take place. As a result, Pakistan has been suspended from the Commonwealth for the second time.
So far, Musharraf feels he can ignore mounting external pressure because of his apparent indispensability to the strategic design of the Bush administration. But the US has no long term loyalties to Musharraf, only short term interests in the region, and has already opened up a dialogue with Musharraf's prospective successor as army chief of staff, Gen. Kiyani, to explore the prospect of regime change.
The Pakistani experience should teach us that there is little international sympathy for militarised regimes in our part of the world unless we acquire a superpower sponsor who aspires to use us as frontline soldiers in their so called war on terror. To the best of my knowledge, Bangladesh's geography and contemporary history do not indicate any such elevation onto the global strategic map. Whatever messages we have received from the international community advise us that their tolerance for an unelected CTG is not likely to extend beyond 2008 and that far less tolerance would be extended to any resort to more militarised rule or resort to severe repression.
In such circumstances, the self interest as well as good intentions of the CTG would appear to point to their fidelity to their commitment to hold a free and fair election by December 2008 and to then hand over power to whomsoever captures the mandate of the electorate. Time is not necessarily on the side of the CTG since too many festering problems demand resolution but remain beyond their capacity to solve. So far preparations for such a free and fair election appear on track. However, within the near future open political activity will have to be encouraged if a credible electoral process is to get underway.
There would, in fact, have been no problem in permitting the resort to open politics which remains the life blood of any democratic process. The problem, if any, appears to arise from the undeclared agenda of influencing the direction, if not the outcome, of the prospective political process.
There is general agreement that much was wrong with the functioning of our political system. There is some revisionist thinking today in particular political circles that criticism of the political parties from some segments of civil society paved the way for current attempts by the powers that be to impose their own version of reforms on the political parties.
But, whilst some parts of civil society and many thinking individuals had been pointing to the need for political reforms within the political parties and our democratic institutions, the most vocal criticism of the state of politics came from the political parties themselves.
As may be expected, the sharpest criticisms originated from the parties in opposition who were the most affected by the undemocratic
conduct of the outgoing ruling party. The 23 point agenda of political reforms prepared by the 14-party alliance during 2006, on the eve of the parliamentary elections was, if anything, more advanced than the writings and declarations of civil society. The demand for more democratic conduct within the parties, the selection of clean candidates enjoying the confidence of their local party workers, the repudiation of those candidates who sought to use their ill-gotten wealth to buy their nominations or to mobilise muscle power, were clearly articulated in the 23 point reform agenda.
In all the meetings convened by civil society groups across the districts, the most vocal participants were the local political party leaders, activists, and their fellow travelers from the professional community. These political activists, who felt marginalised by their party leadership, demanded political reforms, including within their own party. The recommendations which emerged from civil society groups largely voiced the opinions of these local political activists. The current whispering campaign in political circles and some newspaper columns that the demand for political reforms is the motivated fantasy of some elements of civil society is thus an unfortunate reinvention of history, which could prove costly to the regeneration of the democratic process.
The demand for political reforms within political and civil society was never, and is not today, intended to justify the perpetuation of extra-democratic rule. Indeed, the constant refrain in the discussions on political reforms was the need for the political parties to reform themselves into strong democratic institutions which could be mobilised to withstand any challenges to the democratic process. The move for political reforms should thus be sustained by democratic forces and not remain contingent on pressure from the CTG or even the Election Commission. Anything imposed from without, whether it be economic reforms imposed by our development partners or political reforms imposed by a CTG or its backers, has been and is likely to be unsustainable. Reforms of any variety have to emerge from within the body politic as part of the felt needs of the political forces on the need for reform.
Discussion on reforms had already begun within both the political parties. Since such reforms involved issues of democratisation within the parties, this demanded
significant change in the mindset of the leadership. It is not clear how far the leaders were willing to countenance such reforms, but they had demonstrated a willingness to let such discussions go ahead within their party. The attempt to accelerate the reform process by sidelining the leadership of the mainstream parties has had the unintended consequence of putting such discussions within the political parties on hold.
The notion that an alternative leadership will emerge to carry through the reform process requires a clearer appreciation of our political reality. Those who wish to challenge the incumbent leadership must themselves demonstrate a capacity to mobilise broad-based support within the party without giving the impression of dividing the party. Mainstream parties, particular those with a long history, have a corporate interest in keeping together and tend to reject leaders whose political actions may end up in dividing the party.
Those leaders who aspire to give a new direction to the mainstream parties must themselves project a demonstrable record of integrity in their public life and should have established their credentials with the rank and file of the party through their political work at the grassroots level. It has to be made clear whether those leaders who are now associated with the reform process in the major political parties command any such credentials.
Indeed, it could be argued that had any of these senior leaders invested sufficient time and energy in giving guidance and leadership to the party workers at the constituency level, they would have mobilised enough support within the party to demand more democratic processes within the party.
In the final analysis, the alternative leadership within the political parties would have to be able to command the loyalty of the local leaders as well as the party rank and file if they are to carry through reforms. Physically removing the existing leadership, whether through incarceration in sub-jails or by exile, will serve little political purpose unless alternative leadership, sustained by the support of the party base can fill the vacuum.
In the absence of credible alternative leaders, virtual leadership can be exercised as was demonstrated over many years by Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and other Third World leaders who were removed from the political scene through incarceration or exile. Today Benazir and Nawaz Sharif are back in Pakistan and remain leading contenders for being re-elected as prime minister.
The fate of the leaders and their political parties will ultimately depend on the extent to which they have been politically damaged by the recent passage of events. Historical experience in our part of the world, and perhaps in most post-colonial states, indicates that the trial of political leaders usually takes place in the court of public opinion rather than the courts of law. The electoral process is designed to serve as the court of public opinion. If the two parties, with or without the physical presence of their leaders, were to contest a free and fair election, would they today emerge as the dominant force in the next parliament?
This would, in some measure, depend not just on their current political image but on whether any credible third political force emerges to challenge the traditional parties. There is no indication that such a force is emerging, though here one will have to reserve judgement until open politics resumes.
It must here be pointed out that the longer open politics is delayed, the more difficult it will be for a third force to emerge. A genuinely free and fair election which creates a level playing field for all candidates, by neutralising the power of money and muscle power, provides the best opportunity for challenging the supremacy of the established parties at the polls. It also provides opportunities within the mainstream parties for candidates of modest means but with strong local credentials to seek their party nomination and to win elections.
If some parties or individuals can use this opportunity to bring more political diversity as well as a better calibre of candidates into the next parliament, this would strengthen the democratic process. However, any attempt to tilt the playing field in favour of any particular political force or candidate or to manipulate the electoral process to seek a predetermined outcome will be fatally counter-productive to the peaceful transition towards a sustainable democratic order.
I have undertaken no grassroots poll to provide a definitive answer to my question. I would at best hypothesise that either one or the
other major party would emerge with a plurality, or the two parties and their allies would together emerge as the dominant presence in the new parliament. This would allow for some presence in the new parliament by third party candidates as well as independents. The point to be argued is that the principal alliances would still remain major players in the next parliament. The elected government would therefore have to be built around the dominant presence of one or the other of these two alliances.
What may we then expect from such an elected government which assumes office at the beginning of 2009? Would they leave the two leaders languishing in custody or would one of the first acts be for the dominant party, whether ruling on its own or as part of an alliance, to immediately seek the release of its leader? This action need not be taken through any violation of the rule of law but by simply letting the law take its course. Every case for which the leaders are being tried may lead to conviction in the Special Tribunals set up for the trial of corruption cases. However, under due legal process, each judgement of the tribunal will go on appeal to the High Court and then to the Appellate Division. How vigorously would the attorney general of the elected government be expected to pursue the case before the upper courts for upholding the judgement of the Special Tribunal against the leader of a party which is part of the ruling alliance after the election?
If, under such circumstances, the leader of the ruling alliance is released, would the ruling alliance apply the provisions of the law with full rigour in dealing with the legal appeals of the leader of the party in opposition in the upper courts? I am myself unfamiliar with the inner workings of our political parties, so I will leave it to those with more knowledge of such party dynamics to answer my questions.
Similar problems would arise over the much larger number of anti-corruption cases filed by the ACC. All such cases would end up on appeal before the upper judiciary. How would our due process of law work once Emergency Rule is withdrawn, which would apply both before and after the elections? Since most of these cases would continue, on appeal, into the lifetime of the elected government, much would depend on how the elected government would handle such cases.
The ACC has demonstrated its vigour and credibility in tackling corruption which has hardly been the experience in the past. It would be a tragedy for Bangladesh if the drive against corruption was to lose its momentum under an elected government. The work of the ACC should therefore be sustained during the tenure of the next government which would thereby need to ensure the ACC's autonomy and integrity. However, if the elected government is to proceed with some, many or all such cases bequeathed to them by the CTG, it would be sensible for the CTG to work out, in advance, some ground rules with the political parties on how to deal with such cases and in the process support the work of the ACC.
The burden of my argument is that whatever arrangements for reform and institutional change are underway, whether to deal with corruption, reform the regulatory system, or establish a workable system of local government, will have to eventually be implemented by the next elected government. The attempt to rebuild the authority and integrity of the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Public Service Commission, the University Grants Commission are all commendable achievements of the CTG. But all these institutional interventions will again have to be consensually sustained by the next elected parliament. Not only will the reforms have to be politically supported by the next government, they will have to be immunised from legal challenge so that the constitutionality of both the CTG as well its specific reforms will have to be protected.
If we reckon that the major political parties are likely to remain important political players, whether as members of the government or the opposition, the CTG will have to enter into a dialogue with them, not just to ensure a credible election, but to sustain their reform initiatives. Such a dialogue will have to address the fate of the party leadership, the agenda for political party reforms, the political ground rules leading up to the elections, the guarantee of the constitutionality of the CTG, the handling of the
cases initiated by the ACC, the preservation of the integrity and authority of the ACC, EC, PSC, and UGC, and the commitment to sustain the administrative reforms initiated by the CTG. The issue of how to deal with the political forces which challenged the very legitimacy of our liberation struggle also needs to be resolved. These issues remain major challenges for the CTG and will require protracted and politically sensitive negotiations if we are to move peacefully towards December 2008.
To clear the air for political negotiations the CTG may begin by releasing the university teachers and students currently under detention. This may also provide a good opportunity to then open up discussion, not just with the academic community, but political and civil society on how to ensure peace on the campus and the regeneration of our public universities into centres of excellence.
The move beyond resolving the problem with the universities, to political negotiations, will be more challenging and should involve the CTG as well as their backers. Bangladesh has a narrow window of opportunity, created paradoxically by the cataclysm visited on us by Sidr. This disaster, as in the past, has brought us together as a nation, united by a shared concern for the victims of nature. Let the CTG reach out to the political parties and draw them into a collective enterprise to bring succour to the victims of Sidr. Once the concept of a shared response to a major disaster is established, the CTG can move on to address the more demanding challenge -- the shared move to build a sustainable democratic process.
Such a negotiated transition to democracy is not just to the advantage of the CTG but is important for the political parties, who should not suffer from the illusion that their electoral mandate will give them the freedom to return to the status quo ante. The malfunctioning of the democratic process which culminated in emergency rule on 1/11 remains part of our living history. Reform of the political parties and other democratic institutions is a necessity and not an option. It would be ideal if such reforms were carried forward by the parties themselves and by an elected parliament which would invest the reforms with a democratic mandate. Failure to carry out and sustain such reforms could imperil the entire democratic process which would expose us to an uncertain and potentially dangerous future.
Rehman Sobhan is Chairman, Editorial Board, Forum.