Culture of trampling electoral promises
For many people, it is easy to make a promise, big or small. But when it comes to deliver on the promise, it may prove difficult. Wise people always think twice before making any promise. And if they make any promise, they try hard to honour it. Otherwise people may portray those failing in this respect as untrustworthy. Many people are very careful about making promises, excepting a very few who do not realise the importance of promise and do not care if they are termed by others as untrustworthy.
The interesting thing is people who have become politicians in Bangladesh might have achieved different type of quality and wisdom. They do not think much to make big promises to woo voters to win the polls as wining the elections is still the only way in a so-called democratic state to grab the state power. Once the polls are over, politicians and political parties usually forget their own promises. And they do not hesitate to deceive people. So, it has become a culture in our politics. Awami League and BNP, the two major political parties that have been running the country in turn over the past two decades, are the patronizers and mothers of the culture. They had made huge promises before the every election since 1991. Whenever they assumed power, they had miserably failed to deliver on many crucial promises like fighting corruption, establishing good governance, making parliament effective, separating the judiciary etc.
They however can claim they have fulfilled many electoral promises after assuming office. It is true that during their tenure many development activities were done. Many new infrastructures were built. Some welfare programmes like social safety nets are being implemented. But even in a so-called democratic country it is difficult for a government to claim credit for only such activities when it miserably fails to contribute to establishing good governance in the state. The reason is very simple. A military dictator-led government also implements such development programmes during their rule to keep the administrative machinery functioning and to keep people satisfied to some extent.
A democratic government must has a different face. It has to perform on some additional issues like making parliament effective, fighting corruption, establishing rule of law, separation of judiciary, making the administration free from partisan interests etc. Over the past decades, the AL and BNP in heir election manifestos also had promised to do so. But the reality always took a different turn when they assumed the office after wining the polls. The BNP assumed state power twice [we did not count here the BNP-led government formed following one sided and farcical February 15, 1996 parliamentary polls]. The AL also assumed office twice. Unfortunately, they could not deliver on major electoral pledges. Their failure worsened the situation for them when their tenure came to an end.
For instance, both the AL and BNP had promised to separate judiciary from executive in line with the fundamental principle of the state policy enshrined in the constitution. But none of them separated the judiciary from the executive as per their electoral pledges. And it was the past caretaker government-led by Fakhruddin Ahmed that separated the judiciary from the executive through promulgation of ordinance in 2007. Both the parties also promised to ensure independence of judiciary. But during their regime, the controversial appointments have largely tarnished the image of the judiciary.
Neither parties could make parliamenta centre for all political activities as per their promises. Despite restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991, parliament could not be made effective due mainly to rise of confrontational culture in politics. Frequent House boycott by both AL and BNP over the past years has crippled parliament.
Both the parties had promised to establish the rule of law and good governance by fighting corruption. But unfortunately, after assuming offices they acted in a different way. The country was labelled for many years by Transparency International as most corrupt country in the world since 2000.
In the run up to the 2001 parliamentary polls, the BNP had promised to set up a constitutional and independent autonomous anti corruption commission to fight corruption. But it did not do so. It enacted a law in 2004 and paved the way for the formation of Anti-Corruption Commission as a statutory organization. The ACC however could not function during the BNP regime due to growing conflict between the then chairman and commissioners of the anti-corruption watchdog.
In the 2001 parliamentary elections, the BNP also had promised that wealth statements of all elected representatives including the prime minister will be made public every year in an effort to fight grafts. But assuming office the BNP-led government forgot the electoral pledge and did not take any step for disclosure of the wealth statements.
Interestingly, before the 2008 parliamentary elections, the AL made almost the same promise. In addition, the AL had promised to take measures for disclosure of wealth statements of family members of prime minister, ministers, and MPs along with them. But in last four years, the AL-led government refrained from implementing the electoral pledge.
And on the fighting of grafts, the AL in its electoral pledges in 2001 promised that an independent anti-corruption council will be formed to build a constitutional and institutional structure to curb corruption. The AL could not win the 2001 parliamentary polls. So question of meeting the pledge was not raised at that time.
But in its 2008 electoral pledges, the AL retreated from its 2001 stance and just promised to strengthen the ACC, which was introduced during the past-BNP regime. The AL did not maintain consistency in its pledges made in 2001 and 2008 polls. However assuming office through 2008 ballots, the AL-led government had moved to clip the wings of the ACC, let alone making it stronger.
It had placed a bill in parliament in February 2011 seeking to amend the ACC law to make it mandatory for the anti-graft body to take government permission before filing corruption cases against the government officials. The move had triggered widespread criticism. Apart from the ACC, different non-government organisations and individuals working for good governance and various donor agencies and countries had expressed concern over the proposed changes. In such a situation, Finance Minister AMA Muhith himself had sent a letter to the parliamentary standing committee on law, justice and parliamentary affairs ministry that was scrutinising the bill had opposed the proposed change.
In the wake of strong protests and criticism, the parliamentary standing committee had taken stance against the proposal and finally it also opposed it. However, the bill is still remaining pending with the parliament. In last four years, the AL-led government did not take any steps to strengthen the ACC in line with the electoral pledges to fight grafts.
Although the government has been claiming that the ACC is functioning independently, the public perception is different. By dropping former communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain and former state minister Abul Hasan Chowdhury from the case of 'conspiracy of corruption' in the Padma bridge project, the ACC has proved that it is unable to function independently. The Padma Bridge has become a glaring example of how corruption impedes the country's infrastructure development.
As per their electoral pledges, neither AL, nor BNP-led governments did appoint Ombudsman in line with the constitutional provision. In 2001, parliamentary polls, both the AL and BNP made the same promise to appoint Ombudsman to ensure good governance by fighting corruption and bad governance. The BNP assumed the office through the 2001 parliamentary elections. But it did not make any move in its five-year tenure to appoint Ombudsman. Like the 2001, the AL again made the promise before the 2008 parliamentary polls. But after assuming office in 2009, the AL forgot to implement the pledge in last four years and there is no possibility to appoint an Ombudsman in the remaining tenure of the current government.
In the run up to past elections, both AL and BNP had promised to strengthen the local government system by holding polls to upazila and zila parishads. But after assuming office, they did the opposite. In 1991, the then BNP-led government had dissolved the elected upazila parishad system. Later the system was restored in 1998 by the then AL-led government, but elections were not held during the then government.
Before the 2001 parliamentary elections, the BNP in a surprise move took stance in favour of upazila parishad and promised to hold polls to parishads. But assuming office it did not do so. It refrained from holding polls to upazila and zila parishads too.
Thanks to the past caretaker government's efforts, the elections to upazila parishad were finally held in January 2009. But the polls to zila parishads have yet to be held during the present government's tenure as per its electoral pledges. Rather the government in December 2011 appointed ruling party men as administrators to 61 zila parishads, ignoring the constitutional provision which in no way allows unelected men to run the zila parishads.
As per their electoral pledges, both the AL and BNP-led governments failed to free the civil administration and police and other law and order enforcing agencies of politicisation. Rather the situation has been made worse in many cases in their tenure. Both of them misused the law enforcement agencies to suppress street agitations by opposition parties.
They have been promising to establish rule of law. But during their tenure the rule of law always got a new meaning. During the past BNP-led government in between 2001-2006 the ruling party men continued violent and unruly activities, extortion and tender manipulation. But the then government did not take stern actions to uphold rule of law. Similarly, controversial activities of many BNP lawmakers and ministers went unpunished. Moreover, the then BNP-led government withdrew more than 6,000 'politically motivated' cases filed against the ruling party leaders and activists. On the other hand, the government was harsh on the opposition men. All those demonstrated a weak rule of law.
During the current AL-led government, the situation was not improved. Its electoral pledge to establish rule of law did not see light of day. The AL-led government too could not take tough actions to enforce rule of law, which encouraged the ruling party men, especially the pro-AL student organisation Bangladesh Chhatra League, to continue with violent activities, extortion and tender manipulation. Controversial activities of many ruling AL lawmakers and ministers went unpunished. The government withdrew more than 7000 'politically motivated' cases and granted presidential clemency to a record number of ruling party men. All this looks like a direct assault on the principle of rule of law. On the other side, the government has become harsh on several occasions on the opposition leaders and activists to foil their efforts to gear up street agitations.
State-run Radio and television could not be made autonomous as per their pledges to free them from partisan control. Ignoring their electoral pledges, both the BNP and AL-led governments abused the media for their partisan purpose. For instance, the AL in its electoral pledges in 1996 had promised to give the radio and BTV autonomy. But it did not do so when it was in power in between 1996-2001. Interestingly, before the 2001 parliamentary election, the AL again made the same promise. It however could not win the 2001 parliamentary polls. Before 2008 parliamentary polls, the AL however did not make any pledge to give autonomy to state-run Radio and television channels. This time it promised to ensure independence of all mass media. But assuming office in 2009 by wining the 2008 election, the AL-however did not take any move in line with its pledges to ensure independence of state run Radio and television channels. Rather, the government and ruling AL have been using the state media as their propaganda machinery.
There are many other pledges made by the AL and BNP and they ignored their promises after assuming the state power. Interestingly, both the parties have been making the same promises on crucial issues in different forms and languages over the past two decades. And it is almost certain that in the run up to the next parliamentary elections, they will keep the trend continuing to woo voters and to win the battles of ballots.
Politicians also break their electoral pledges in other countries. So, Bangladesh is not a unique example. In recent years, there are some examples of prime ministers in UK, Italy, Australia and Ireland breaking electoral pledges, which in these countries trigger huge outcries– top politicians face criticism and pay heavily for it. But wholesale violation of electoral promises may be only possible in Bangladesh. But things should be changed. Political parties should not be allowed to enjoy such blanket immunity. They must be held accountable for their total failure to implement electoral pledges after assuming offices. They must keep it in mind that the voters put trust in their pledges when they vote them to power. So, it is tantamount to breach of, trust if a party tramples the electoral pledges after wining the ballots.
The writer is Senior Reporter at The Daily Star.