Eminent political scientist Rounaq Jahan thinks the election is a test case to demonstrate that in Bangladesh it is possible to organise a free, fair and competitive election under an elected political government. In an interview with The Daily Star, she shared her thoughts about the upcoming election. Following is the full interview taken by Mohammad Al Masum Molla.
DS: What's the importance of this election for the future of our democracy?
Rounaq Jahan (RJ): This election is important for our democracy for a variety of reasons. Let me highlight just two. First, this election created an opportunity to renew our commitment to competitive elections. As we all know the last parliamentary election was not competitive. The main opposition party, the BNP boycotted the election and the majority of parliamentarians were "elected "uncontested. The opposition in parliament, the Jatiya party, was not credible as its members also joined the government. The decision by the Jatiya Oikyafront, where the BNP is a significant partner, to participate in the election opened a pathway for a competitive election. After ten years, it appeared the voters would be able to choose a candidate from multiple nominees put forward by all major parties.
Second, this election is a test case to demonstrate that in Bangladesh it is possible to organise a free, fair and competitive election under an elected political government. After the overthrow of military rule in 1990, we had several credible elections which were generally perceived as free and fair (except by the losing side) and power was transferred from one party to another. But all these elections were organised by non-party caretaker governments. The two elections held under party governments in February 1996 and in 2014 were hardly credible. We are now all looking forward to seeing whether a political government is able to organise a credible contested election under its watch.
DS: Why is a free and fair election needed?
RJ: A free and fair election is needed to establish the legitimacy of the winners to govern the country. Since an election means a competition and there are always winners and losers, it is important to ensure that the competition is perceived as a fair process by all contestants. This implies that the rules of the competition are agreed to by all contestants, the referee is acceptable to all, and there is a transparent process to adjudicate any contestations over violation of rules and results. Unfortunately for Bangladesh even after 47 years of independence, the two major contestants in elections, the AL and the BNP, are not in agreement about the rules of the competition .In the last 25 years the two parties reversed their positions on polls-time government. The referee, i.e. the Election Commission is not able to gain the confidence of all contestants. Violation of electoral rules and complaints have never been properly addressed prior to, during and after the election.
When the rules of the game are not accepted by all the contestants, it is difficult to organise credible elections. And when there is no agreement about the rules of the contest as is the case in the current election, it is even more important to ensure that the whole election process is perceived by the contestants, voters and the citizens at large as free and fair. The purpose of the election is for the winners to gain legitimacy for their victory but if the election is not perceived as free and fair then that purpose will not be served.
DS: How do you evaluate the "development versus democracy debate"?
RJ: This is a false and unnecessary debate. We had heard this argument in the 1950s and 1960s when military dictators in Asia, Africa, and Latin America used this argument to justify their autocratic rule. We heard this from Ayub Khan and rejected this argument. In fact, people want both democracy and development. It is not an either or situation. I would argue that democracy is an important component of development. Rule of law, fundamental freedoms, citizen's voice, accountability these should all be regarded as goals of development .They cannot be treated as instrumental values or secondary and subordinate goals. In fact, several surveys on the state of democracy in South Asia have shown that the income of poor people put high importance on development as well as protection of their rights.
DS: How do you evaluate the atmosphere that prevailed during electioneering?
RJ: I must say that I was saddened to read and watch TV reports on violence against workers of both ruling and opposition parties, arrests of leaders and workers of opposition parties, and even physical attacks on candidates. These reports have created doubts about the fairness of the electioneering process and the voters are getting concerned as to whether they would be able to vote in a violence- free atmosphere. After ten years citizens, are getting a chance to cast their vote in a competitive election .All stake holders concerned -- Election Commission, polls-time government and contesting parties, particularly the ruling party -- should have taken strong measures to ensure that the campaign season is kept violence free and fair so that the contestants and voters gain confidence about the fairness of the election process.
DS: Around 2.5 crore new voters will exercise their franchise in this election. What's your message to them?
RJ: New voters must be eager to excise their voting right. Some of them may already be supporters of different mainstream parties but some may be non-partisan and may feel disheartened by the pre-poll atmosphere. But whether they are eager or disinterested, they must all vote. It is their right. This right was secured through a lot of sacrifice of people from previous generations and this right must be sustained through intelligent exercise of this right by the new generation. The young generation may not be happy with the candidates or their messages .They may find none of the choices meet their expectations. But in a real world, we have to choose between what we are given as options. And if we are not happy with our choices we have to engage with the political processes in a sustained way to bring about changes and help create choices that meet our hopes and dreams.
[Rounaq Jahan received her PhD in Political Science from Harvard University, USA in 1970. Her thesis which was later published by Columbia University Press in 1972 titled “Pakistan: Failure in national integration is still regarded as the most definitive study of the birth of Bangladesh.” She started her academic career as an associate professor and later full professor of Political Science at Dhaka University (1970-1982). She worked for the United Nations first as the Coordinator of the Women in Development Programme at UN Asia-Pacific Development Center, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1982-84), and later as the Head of the Programme on Rural Women at the International Labour Office, Geneva, Switzerland (1985-89). She was an adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University (1990-2010. Currently, she is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh and a visiting scholar of Columbia University. She is the author of several internationally-acclaimed books and numerous articles, primarily focused on issues of politics, governance, gender and health.]