IN the Awami League's joint meeting at the Gono Bhaban yesterday, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought forth several more contentious issues gripping the nation at the moment. The Daily Star was once again denied access to cover the meeting without being provided any valid reason. The Prime Minister brought up the issues surrounding the January 5 elections, viewed by many people the world over as a low-point for a practicing democracy. Referring to Dr. Kamal Hossain's appearance before the High Court questioning the manner in which 154 MPs were elected unopposed this time, Hasina recalled how Kamal Hossain himself was elected unopposed during the 1970 and 1973 by-elections. It is a strange way of drawing parallels between two situations which are unrelated in context. Dr. Kamal Hossain was elected unopposed through the two constituencies during a by-election- a system put in place to fill political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections. It was only after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had vacated those seats that Kamal Hossain stood for the seats in question. It provides quite a different context to the January 5 elections, which was boycotted by the 19-party alliance on grounds of abolishing the caretaker system. If it was, as the Premier has quoted several times, a duty carried out to respect the constitution then it has failed to do so as millions of Bangladeshi citizens were not able to exercise their right to vote. What Dr. Kamal Hossain did was call into question the neutrality of the Election Commission and their liberal interpretation of section 19 of the Representation of the People Order (RPO). He lamented the fact that less than 5% of the population cast its votes during the January 5 elections and his concerns are not unwarranted and require further investigation.
The Prime Minister also called into question the intent of several intellectuals who have criticized the workings of the government. The crucial aspect of a democracy, any democracy, is the space for criticism and improvement through cooperation between all citizens of the country. The government cannot think of placing itself above the negative comments of the people it purportedly serves. The incumbent government is not without its successes but its shortcomings must also be up for debate. The fact that the government is so sensitive to criticism on its governance indicates that it is not one that welcomes open democracy. Recent rhetoric emanating from the Premier's camp has a very defensive tone to it and it will be in the best interests of everyone if less time is spent defending the apparent infirmities and more time spent on fixing them.
The writer is Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star.