Fragile state of democracy exposed
Political developments, some might say deterioration in the political situation, in 2013 look all set to gift us a one-sided general election, exposing the fragile state of our democracy. The January 5 election, which was mired in controversy, will in no way be acceptable to the people of Bangladesh or the international community.
The United Nations and some of our development partners had made hectic efforts to engage the two feuding political camps in talks to resolve the political crisis centring the 10th parliamentary election. But all their efforts fell flat. Nothing will prevent the Awami League-led government from holding the one-sided ballots on January 5. The international community must have felt the brunt of the stubbornness of our politicians belonging to ruling AL and its archrival BNP, the two parties that have been running the country for more than two decades alternately in a facade of democracy.
The outcomes of the January 5 polls have already been determined without people's verdict expressed through the ballots. As many as 154 candidates were declared elected unopposed without a single vote being cast. This means, more than half of the 300 parliamentary constituencies got their representatives denying voters their right to choose their own representatives who will govern the country on their behalf. The polling in the remaining 146 seats will be mere formality.
Voters in those 146 constituencies are not feeling important in this one-sided game in the absence of the opposition parties. This appears to be a world record. This, however, has already tainted the country's image abroad. The story does not end here. We may have to face more pain in the coming days for a farcical election. The Commonwealth, the European Union, the United States, and a few other countries, have refused to send election observers to monitor the January 5 polls. Most of the local election observation organisations have also decided not to deploy their resources to monitor the election. All these show their lack of interest in the controversial election. They demonstrated that they would not make any effort to give any credibility to this election.
By refusing to send observers the international community has also sent a clear message that they would not endorse the January 5 election. If so, will they endorse the Parliament that will be formed through this election? What will be the fate of the government to be formed after the election? The new government looks all sets to face a tough time with the international community. It may face a diplomatic crisis. The international community and donor agencies may try to keep distance with the new government as they do not endorse the January 5 election. If so Bangladesh's development activities and export will face a tremendous setback. How will the new government tackle the ensuing situation?
Will the January 5 election be able to offer internal stability at all? Before the polls the political situation is bound to deteriorate even more. The BNP-led opposition alliance has announced that they would resort to all means to foil the election. So, violence will flare up further. People's life and property will be subject to the violence and unrest. Even if the polls are held amid opposition resistance, the days following January 5 will see a different picture, which may appear more dangerous with both the government and opposition camps intensifying their actions to face off each other.
Politics, only politics, and nothing by politics is responsible for the present situation. The top politicians have led the country towards the brink. It may not be proper to blame both AL and BNP equally for the current political crisis. The ruling AL must shoulder its responsibility for the failure to improve the political situation. The AL-led government is solely responsible for the genesis of the current crisis as it whimsically abolished the non-partisan election-time government in June 2011. By abolishing the CTG system, it sowed the seeds of the political crisis. But it did not take any move to resolve the crisis even in 2013 the last year of the government. It remained silent as the cancellation of the CTG system allowed it to remain in power during the election.
Since cancellation of the CTG system, the BNP-led opposition alliance has repeatedly said that they would not participate in the general election under the AL-led government. They have been demanding installation of a non-partisan election time government. But the ruling AL did not pay any heed to the opposition's demand. Rather, it made every effort to suppress the opposition's street agitations by misusing the state agencies like the law enforcement forces and detaining the senior opposition leaders in politically motivated cases. In 2013, the government has been successful in gagging opposition's voice, worsening the situation.
And in the face of the government's tough stance, the BNP leaders failed to demonstrate their political wisdom and honesty. The party suffered from organisational weakness. It could not tackle the government with its own strength. It issued ultimatum to the government several times to restore the CTG. The government did not heed the ultimatums. But the BNP was not able to intensify the agitation to force the government to hear its demand.
The organisational weakness forced the BNP to opt for a strategy of banking on the fundamentalist forces like Hefajat-e-Islam to intensify anti-government street agitation. The BNP had openly urged people to cooperate with radical Hefajat with food and water and stand beside them during the Hefajat's May 5 rally at Shapla Chattar last year. Instigated by BNP and its key ally Jamaat, Hefajat men refused to leave the Shapla Chattar before evening of the day. They announced to stay there until their 13-point demands were met. This prompted the government to launch a midnight operation to clear the Shapla Chattar. In the face of actions of the law enforcement agencies, Hefajt men left the Shapla Chattar, upsetting the BNP.
The main opposition had also expected much from the Hefajat men during their long march towards Dhaka in April last year. At that time, Hefajat men threatened to enforce indefinite hartals if the government obstructed them from holding the long march. They were obstructed. But they refrained from enforcing non-stop hartal, breaking the BNP's heart. The main opposition BNP wholeheartedly wished Hefajat's success though many of the Hefajat's 13-point demands run counter to the BNP's charter. BNP did not care about it. The party was so desperate to oust the AL-led government that it was ready to do anything to achieve its goal.
BNP's desperateness was exposed again when it extended support to Jamaat's unprecedented violent agitation at the end of February and early of March last year against the verdict sentencing its leader Delwar Hossain Saydee to death on charge of committing crimes against humanity during the liberation war in 1971. As Jamaat-Shibir men unleashed a reign of terror in more than a dozen districts, around 100 people were killed in the violence. But Jamaat did not stop. It continued with the violent activities. Some districts like Satkhira had turned into their den from where they have been continuing their fight against the law enforcement agencies.
The BNP had maintained distance with the Jamaat since its election debacle in December 2008. But the party felt that it needed Jamaat to intensify the agitation against the AL-led government for installation of a non-partisan election time government. So, the party reduced the gap with the Jamaat. Since then Jamaat have been actively participating in all the agitation programmes announced by the BNP-led 18 party opposition alliance. Moreover, Jamaat has kept continuing its own movement to foil the trial of war criminals. Its top leaders are facing charge of crimes against humanity.
There was no sign of compromise between the AL and BNP. The UN chief made phone calls to Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in August urging them to sit to resolve the political crisis centring on the election. US Secretary of State John Kerry also wrote to both of them the same request. But their efforts did not yield any positive result. The AL-led government was moving towards election. Hasina formed her election time government in November. BNP refused to join her election time cabinet.
BNP chief Khaled Zia led a delegation in November met President Abdul Hamid urging him to take step to resolve political crisis to ensure participation of all political parties in the general election. Before Khaleda, the chief election commissioner and his team met the president and made almost the same request. Later, some civil society personalities also met the president and requested him to take steps to resolve the political crisis. But the president did not take any step.
Amid such a situation, the EC on November 25 announced the scheduled for the January 5 polls. The BNP led-opposition alliance took no time to reject the election schedule and started enforcing blockade of roads, railways and water ways from next day November 26. When Khaleda Zia announced on December 24 the March towards Dhaka programme, the opposition alliance had already enforced 22 days of countrywide blockade. At least 120 people were killed in political violence in less than one month. People are living in fear. Nobody knows what will happen in the new year? But one thing is clear that political situation will become more violent.
In the run up to the ninth parliamentary election held on December 29, 2008, the AL in its electoral manifesto entitled 'A Charter for Change" had promised to improve the country's political culture. It had promised to inculcate decency and tolerance. I had also pledged to formulate a code of conduct to change the country's political culture. But the AL ignored its own promises. Rather, many of its actions have contributed to the worsening of the political culture, intensifying the animosity with its archrival BNP. The ninth parliament had turned into a one-party legislature as the opposition MPs boycotted most of the sittings in the last five years. And the new parliament formed through the January 5 election will be an unusual parliament.
What can be done to overcome the situation? Still there are some ways out of the situation. What the politicians need first is to demonstrate their willingness to save the country and people from the dangerous state of affairs. Though the government policymakers and ruling AL leaders have been claiming that they do not have any other alternative but to hold the January 5 election to uphold the constitution, the constitution will not block the way for finding a solution to the crisis. The mistakes the politicians made last year should be corrected without delay for the sake of the country, people and for their own sake as well.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.