Parliamentary elections: Au revoir democracy | The Daily Star
12:01 AM, January 11, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Parliamentary elections: Au revoir democracy

Parliamentary elections: Au revoir democracy

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Bangladesh Parliament
Bangladesh Parliament

THE tenth national assembly elections are over. The ruling Awami League has won with an absolute majority and will form the new government soon.
There was no voting in 153 constituencies and extremely low turn-out in the remaining 147 constituencies. BNP-led opposition boycotted the elections and mounted violent agitation for a neutral government to supervise the elections. Several hundred lives were lost in the run-up to the elections and on election day. The new parliament will be constitutionally legal but morally null and void. Interestingly, there will be no opposition in the parliament. BNP leaders termed the election “farcical.”
Let us examine the reasons how and why Bangladesh politics, dominated by two political parties, arrived at this critical juncture. And also what the future holds after this election.
The two major political parties had taken intransigent positions possibly because they perceive that Bangladesh does not face any external national security threat. External threats normally spur political parties to be more responsible in reaching bipartisan consensus on major national issues, such as peaceful transfer of power, credible elections, economic policies, foreign policy, etc. Internally also there is no third political force to challenge these two parties.
The constitution has been brutalised repeatedly through amendments. The last amendment (15th) to the constitution was the beginning of the current political crisis. The molested charter has proved inadequate to preserve and promote democracy in this small land of 160 million people. There are now loud demands for a new constitution with provisions such as no more than two terms as prime minister for a leader, curbing the powers of the prime minister, more powers for the president, proportional representation, creating an upper house, banning religious parties from politics, etc.
The demographic composition of country has also contributed to the current catastrophe. The sheer weight of 160 million people is more than enough to make the law and order situation dreadful. More than 61% of the population is in the 14-65 age group. Of this, a significant percentage is below 40 years, which is active politically and otherwise. With a density of 2,700 people per square mile people have become edgy, intolerant and bigoted. Under normal situations, not a week passes when violent quarrels do not break out among villagers in different parts of the country. The current political standoff has brought restive young people on to the streets to fight the law enforcers and each other. Sadly, homogeneous Bangladesh is now heterogeneous because of bad politics.
Given the spread of economic disparity the active population is tempted to align with one or the other party for economic opportunities. Consequently, when political loyalty promises more power and money, the young generation is easily divided and conflicts arise between them. In the process many of these young people engage in criminal activities against the state. Will they ever give up what they have learnt during periods of political confrontation? Society will have to bear the curse of criminalisation in the days ahead.
The most significant factor of the current crisis is the absence of democracy within the political parties. There has been no change in the top leadership in the major parties for decades. Thus, when a party obtains majority in the parliament, the same leader becomes the head of government. Sycophancy and blind loyalty have denied the grooming of new, young, imaginative leaders in major political parties. What is distressing is that party leadership has become dynastic.   
Now that the tenth Parliament has been elected, what will Awami League do with its brute majority? Once the ninth parliament is dissolved, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia will cease to be leader of the opposition, simply because she is not a member of parliament. That will no doubt weaken her position significantly. On the other hand, Sheikh Hasina as prime minister will be more powerful and authoritarian. If at all there is any negotiation, it will be between unequals. The weaker party will have to agree to the terms of the stronger party.
Some senior AL ministers, before the elections, indicated that they will negotiate with BNP and hold eleventh parliamentary elections soon. That seems a long shot. The AL leaders will soon change their political discourse once Sheikh Hasina forms her new government.
Whatever negotiations are held will revolve around Jamaat-e-Islami and trial of the war criminals. One wonders why Jamaat has not yet been banned by the Awami League government.
Constitutionally speaking, the prime minister will have five years to negotiate with BNP. There will be no pressure on AL to negotiate. Using state apparatus, AL could employ all the techniques to constrict the maneuvering space of BNP.  Repression of all kinds may be used to bring the opposition to its knees.
Internationally, the election has not been recognised, except by India. The statements appearing in Washington, London, Brussels, Tokyo, Beijing and the United Nations are indeed worrying. The AL government has been asked to arrange fresh polls. There are possibilities that Bangladesh will be ostracised in the comity of nations. The economic concessions that Bangladesh enjoys may be curtailed.  That may cost the country dearly. The economy, already spiraling downwards, may not be able to sustain external onslaughts.
The tenth parliamentary elections have left the Awami League a big loser. It has lost morally authority to govern the country. More importantly, the people of Bangladesh lost “democracy.” The current political upheaval was for credible elections to strengthen democracy -- that never happened. “Democracy,” for which the people of this country had fought for in 1971, has been waved “au revoir.”

Mahmood Hasan is former ambassador and secretary.

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