Democracy means more than the ability to vote
Not unnaturally, democracy and people's right to vote are hogging the headlines, occupying the time of political observers and providing subjects to columnists to write on for newspapers. The next general election is scheduled for next year, and the prime concern of the major political parties is either how to cling to power or how to dislodge the incumbent from power.
Unfortunately, winning an election has become the synonym for achieving power – whatever level of election that may be. Thus, when an office is attained through elections – or in our case, to be more accurate, "so-called" elections – power becomes the sole tool of governance. It becomes the instrument of the opposition's chastisement. Every bad law, every anti-people regulation that is vilified while in the opposition, is forgotten once in power. Not only are these laws and regulations not repealed, but they are employed with a vengeance, in a more stringent fashion than by the previous regime who enacted those laws in the first place.
The most abhorrent aspect of the matter is that these laws become direct encumbrances on democracy, democratic practices, freedom of speech and assembly, etc. Not that such exercise of power was not demonstrated in the past by the other political parties while in power, but the last 10 years is a glaring example of how "power" is exercised to curtail rights in a most stringent manner. The recent example is the way police was used to scuttle a political party's programme in the southern district of Bhola, in which at least one person was killed by police fire and several sustained injuries.
The Bhola incident exposes how democracy and politics have come to be dictated by force. A perfectly peaceful gathering – to protest fuel price hike and load-shedding – turned into a chaotic event that caused deaths and injuries, because the BNP had not taken permission to bring out the procession, according to police; the BNP's version of the event is different. They argue that verbal permission was taken for both the rally and the procession, while the police argues that permission was taken only for the rally. Be that as it may, one would like to ask: What precipitated the firing? Is the police's threshold level so low that opening fire becomes the first option? If the crowd had to be dispersed, could safer methods not have been employed, instead of using live rounds on protesters? Bhola is one of the many examples of denying a political party its fundamental rights during the tenure of the current government.
Regrettably, some of us have fallen into the definitional trap of democracy, which would have us believe that democracy and elections consist only of the day people cast their ballots – if and when they get the chance to exercise this option. Unfortunately, the chief election commissioner (CEC) seems to be suffering from that same irised mindset. And he is supposed to be one of the guardians of our democracy.
Since the day the new CEC was sworn in and put in that exalted office – which in many countries that are democratic to a fault has been haloed by people who sanctified that appointment by their unfaltering commitment to not only the precept, but also the application of the principles of democracy – he has been harping on one single issue: vote, vote, vote. He has been doing so without recognising that an election is a process and democracy a principle, that admits of no encumbrances to be successful.
The CEC exposed either his outdatedness or his willingness to accept reality when he put the onus on the people for the survival of democracy. The fact is, democracy as of now is moribund – if not completely dead. Comments of leading political leaders, at least one belonging to the ruling party alliance, have categorically exposed concerns about people's apathy towards elections and politics, and its deleterious consequences on democracy. But who cares! As long as power is attained, the manner and means matter little.
We admit that it is not the Election Commission's remit to ensure that all the parties participate in the elections; it remains the choice of individual parties. But it is its bounden duty to make sure that the process is free and fair. That the Election Commission, by its words and deeds, engender confidence in the minds of voters and political parties to convince them that the voting will not be a sham, as it was in the last two national elections, and that the proverbial playing field would be level. That innovations in the voting process, which does not garner trust or credence in people, are not imposed on voters. Electronic voting machines (EVMs) are a nonstarter as far as a majority opinion among the political parties is concerned, no matter the clean chit given by some professors and party activists. Its possible use, misuse and exploitation to serve the interests of the party in power have already been exposed by some ruling party men. It is also a majority view that a free and fair election would not be possible with the incumbent running the administration during the election. Citing examples of other countries won't wash with the public. It's the past experience that matters. Some sort of a temporary dispensation has to be put in place to oversee election and shield it from the ruling party members' unwarranted influence.
The prime minister rightly expressed her eagerness to see that the major political parties join the election. It behoves her, as the leader of a political party, to see that the game is fair, that corners are not cut, and no new doctrinaire political philosophy is introduced. Let the system work without let or hindrances. Trust in the people and the party's performances over the past 10 years – and let the chips fall where they may.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is a former associate editor of The Daily Star.