Eighteen months after
We have just entered the nineteenth month of this interim caretaker administration. To modify Charles Dickens, one could describe it as 'the best of times' for some and 'the worst of times' for a few. However, to a great many like me, it is as confusing now as it was a year ago. I am referring in this context to the evolving political process.
This is July and we are supposedly just about five months away from our next parliamentary elections. It is expected to take place in the third week of December -- at least that is what has been publicly stated. There have also been hints that the election schedule will be indicated in October. It is also being hoped that by then, the Election Commission would have completed the rectification of the electoral rolls.
Nevertheless, despite all these assurances, there appears to be confusion and lack of clarity with regard not only to the electoral dynamics, but also the matrix within which the election is supposed to take place. I for one cannot quite understand this absence of transparency. Controversy has also been introduced into the equation with the prospect of election to local government bodies ahead of the parliamentary polls.
Similarly, there is an ongoing debate over whether the parliamentary election can be held under a state of emergency. The situation has been exacerbated by embarrassing statements from certain minor political leaders who are agreeable to an election under emergency provisions. It is indeed sad and disappointing that even after eighteen months this Administration has been unable to agree on a common approach in this regard. We are talking here of trust and taking the common people of the country into confidence.
Somehow, unfortunately, an opinion appears to be gaining ground that the status is one of 'we' as opposed to 'they'. I find this difficult to understand. Anyone worth his salt knows that an election held under a state of emergency creates questions about validity, credibility and fairness, especially when the civil administration is subject to 'anonymous' external pressures. All these are totally unnecessary after all the hard work that has been undertaken by this government and the reconstituted Election Commission.
The authorities need to understand that the most important element in any future election is full participation of all political parties. If any section or party stays away from this process, it will affect the polls' acceptance within the country as well as among our development partners within the international community.
We have seen in the recent past some very rash comments by certain politicians suggesting that it does not matter if any particular party does not take part in the forthcoming election. I do not agree with such statements. One must remember that, whether we like it or not, nearly 80 per cent of the votes cast in the last election in 2001 were from supporters of the two largest political parties. In view of this, how can any sane individual propose that a watered down, reduced and restricted format will be acceptable to the people in general.
Yes, it is true that since the beginning of 2007, the nation has been treated to the frantic drama of a spate of revelations related to the abuse of power and corruption by politicians. We have seen, so to say, a serious effort to cleanse the Augean stable. That has been admirable. I agree that corruption breeds bad governance, exploitation and discrimination. However, we have also seen comments by some political leaders that this course of action to curb corruption should not be used as a political tool against those involved in politics.
It is this aspect that worries me. We have on the one hand an attempt to restore a functioning democracy and on the other a non even-handed approach towards the punishment of those associated with corruption and abusing the concept of equity and equal opportunity within governance. I am referring here to the creation of unnecessary adjuncts like the Truth Commission. I am afraid that instead of creating harmony it will only smack of double standards. The law related to this Commission has had to be reformulated more than once to satisfy diverse interests and might eventually lead to avenues other than reconciliation.
There is another area where contention is bound to brew. I am referring in this regard to a statement by a senior member of the Election Commission (on 6 July) where he reportedly stated that anyone tried and convicted under the Emergency Power Rules and whose appeal awaits higher court decision is barred from contesting any election. It has also been clarified that on the other hand, a person convicted under ordinary law and whose appeal against the trial court verdict is pending with the higher court, is eligible to contest the elections. Under regular circumstances, such a view would have definitely been challenged in the court of law as being discriminatory in terms of fundamental rights and contrary to the notion of a level playing filed.
Yes, there have been successes of the interim caretaker government. They have included overall improvement within the matrix of governance. This has been achieved through corrections, capacity building and reforms within the institutional structures of the Anti Corruption Commission, the Central Public Service Commission and the Election Commission. The creation of the Regulatory Reforms Commission and the Better Business Forum has also been positive. It has also successfully handled the effects of the two massive natural disasters (dual floods and a cyclone) that hit Bangladesh last year, reduced fundamentalist terrorism and considerably improved the functioning of the Chittagong seaport.
Nevertheless, there have also been several shortcomings. Public opinion believes that the government has been unable to stop petty corruption, to contain the unusual rise of price levels pertaining to food and ensure energy security. There is also a view that a hidden agenda exists with regard to the selection of alleged offenders of corruption and in the listing of those contravening emergency provisions. This, some have observed, has indirectly affected the process of requisite investigation, inquiry and trial of alleged offenders.
I also recall in this context the report published by The International Crisis Group (from Brussels) on 28 April 2008. The anxiety contained in this report probably stemmed from the ongoing concern within the country about certain prospective measures that are reportedly on the anvil of this current government. Lack of transparency, open discussion, sufficient dialogue with the important stakeholders and the continuation of emergency provisions have raised suspicions in the minds of ordinary citizens that arrangements are underway to introduce measures that might undermine existing democratic institutions. These relate to pivotal institutional steps expected to be put in place before the next election -- formation of a National Security Council, recalibrating of the powers and responsibilities between the President and the Prime Minister and also the future relationship between the armed forces and the elected civilian leadership. Some like me believe that such extraordinary measures should be taken only after the election by an elected government on the basis of parliamentary debate and consensus and not through the promulgation of Ordinances.
I believe that such changes are less than necessary, particularly because of the transformation in the public perception of politics and activities of political parties since 11 January 2007. The prosecution of important political leaders, businessmen and bureaucrats on charges of corruption and their subsequent conviction has already encouraged the view that there is need for reforms and corrective steps within institutions associated with governance and the maintenance of law and order. In view of the above, I believe that it will be difficult for the next elected government to 'overturn' most of the corrective measures already introduced by the interim government. The continuity and acceptability of the reforms will however be ensured if the current Administration could lift the present emergency provisions and allow open dialogue among all stakeholders representatives of political parties and civil society about the reforms. Such a process would identify least common denominators and avert subsequent controversy.
Our current Administration has shown the pathway but it must now trust in the judgement of the people at large. It should also not be a question of 'them' and 'we'. The best way for the next Parliament to stop abuse of the anti corruption mechanism through political partisanship would be to ensure the presence of the following: the appointment of an Ombudsman, the establishment of a functional National Human Rights Commission, the strengthening of the autonomous nature of the Anti Corruption Commission (with the proviso that it also remains accountable to the judicial process for any illegal and malafide action undertaken by its officials) and the creation of a permanent Parliamentary Standing Committee on corruption (to be chaired by a representative from the largest Opposition party in parliament).
We have only a few months left before the election. Let us please concentrate on just that instead of other items in an opaque agenda.