Why should the 5th January 'election' not be held?
Because it violates the concept of election as envisaged in the constitution, because it will destroy whatever faith people still have in democracy, because it will cause more deaths and violence in the coming days, because it will further hurt the economy, which is already greatly damaged, because it will further damage the image and reputation of Bangladesh as an unstable country, because more violence will significantly affect our chances of becoming an FDI destination, because further disruption will shift RMG orders from our country to others, because continued unrest will create social instability and break down law order further.
Will the 5th January voter-less election solve any of the problems that we now face? Will it stop the hartals, oborodhs, the street level violence, the destruction of property? Will it stop the killings and the burning? We all know it will not. Then why go ahead with something that will solve nothing and only complicate the problem further and linger the agony of the people? Sheikh Hasina, more than many others, knows that whenever there is social unrest people blame the government. So she has more to lose from continued unrest. She benefited from this public behaviour when she was in the opposition.
What is after all an election? Is it just a ritual that has to be performed every five years whether or not people participate in it? Is it just a constitutional requirement that has to be complied with regardless of whether voters are involved in it or not? Is it just a legal game that is to be played on the voters through which MPs are imposed on them without any chance of casting a vote?
If it is all the above then we truly have an election coming on 5th January 2014.
If, on the other hand, an election is an expression of the people's will, if it is a process through which voters express their choice, if it is an event through which people choose a new government, if it is the process through which people approve a set of policies that they would like their new government to implement, and if it is a process through which the voters punish those who have failed to deliver, or who have been corrupt, etc., then what we are about to have on 5th January is a travesty of everything that is remotely attributable to democracy. It is also in total violation of the meaning, intention, goal, spirit and ethos of the constitution.
Sheikh Hasina's fundamental argument for abolishing the caretaker government (CTG) was that as a "Republic" Bangladesh cannot be allowed to be governed by "unelected" people.
If we accept this argument-and we do-then naturally election becomes the most crucial process through which the new parliament, and consequentially a new government, is to be formed.
According to our Constitution, formation of a new parliament and a new government must come through a people's verdict, exercising adult franchise and expressed through a free and fair election. This is the overriding theme throughout our Constitution.
On the other hand, our constitution does not envisage an election where a majority of the MPs are “elected” uncontested, without a single vote being cast. Already 154 MPs out of 300 are uncontested. The remaining 146 seats will be contested only in name. Take the case of Dinajpur where AL and Workers Party will fight for 5 seats. Since 1991 Workers Party participated in three elections and they got a total (counting all three) of 1,500 out of more 10 lac votes.
The Supreme Court judgment that Sheikh Hasina used to bring about the Fifteenth Amendment repeatedly talks about the importance of “free and fair election". Justice ABM Khairul Haque, the Chief Justice at that time, said that “free, fair and neutral election is without doubt a basic structure of the constitution.("Abadh, sushtha o nirapekkha nirbachan nishshandehey sangbidhaner akti basic structure”). Justice SK Sinha in the same judgment said, "The constitution abhors any system of governance other than a government which is elected by the people." Justice Md Abdul Wahhab Miah, another judge of the same bench said, "Democracy and free and fair election is (sic) inextricably mixed. Like democracy, free and fair election is also a basic structure of the Constitution. Without free and fair election democracy can never be practiced in its true sense." He adds, "In the absence of free and fair election, Parliament cannot have real legitimacy and cannot be said to be sovereign as well, and in such a parliament people will have no representation".
In another paragraph Justice Miah says "... election as referred to in article 65(2) of the Constitution definitely refers to free, fair and peaceful elections; if candidates ..... get themselves elected by use of muscle power and money, coercion, threat, intimidation and exerting undue influence on the government machinery, they cannot be called people's representatives and Parliament consisting of such members cannot be called Parliament in the true sense within the meaning of clause (1) of article 65 of the Constitution and such Parliament cannot materialise the aspirations and dreams of our forefathers and the martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the liberation struggle of 1971."
So the question that Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League must ask themselves is what sort of parliament and government will the 5th January election produce. How much of the people's mandate will it carry? How much confidence of the people will it enjoy? What will be its legitimacy? What representative character will it have? We believe, very little.
So what will Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League gain by all this? Again, we believe, very little.
Whatever AL and the PM may say, a parliament of 154 MPs uncontested, and the rest 146 barely contested, can and will never have the legitimacy that comes from a fully contested election. The ruling party can only persist in following through on this so-called election at the risk of losing its reputation and credibility as a party that counts on people's support for its existence.
The idea that this parliamentary election should go ahead and that the election to the 11th parliament can be held on an agreed formula very soon is wasteful and unproductive and it will prolong people's agony and destroy the economy, not to say lead to killing of more people.
An infinitely superior option for AL would be to go for a genuine and free and fair election. It will greatly enhance its prestige both at home and abroad.
Therefore, we suggest the following steps as the best option before the country, before the two major political parties, to save democracy, prevent further bloodshed and prevent destruction of the economy.
1. The Election Commission and the ruling party should desist from holding the January 5th election. The fact that a majority of voters could not exercise their adult franchise in the 154 uncontested seats is enough to destroy all the credibility of the 10th Parliament. It should sufficiently weigh on the EC's conscience that what it is about to stage will be the biggest fraud played on the people of Bangladesh in the name of democracy.
2. Sheikh Hasina should reconvene the 9th parliament, which has not yet been dissolved, and work out a poll-time government formula acceptable to all. It does not have to replicate the former CTG concept and can reflect much of the PM's own ideas of an all party government. The only hurdle remaining is: Who will head it? We think the President can rescue the nation at this stage if requested by all sides. In such an all-party poll-time government headed by the President crucial portfolios such as home and establishment should remain with the President. The 9th parliament can fix 90 days time limit to hold the election and form a new government.
3. If the 9th Parliament should be reconvened the opposition should join it without any precondition and must withdraw all its programmes and start a negotiating process leading to a free and fair election.
4. Jamaat's participation must be conditional in compliance with the High Court judgment.
5. Why should the PM take such steps? Because the ruling party has as much, if not more, to gain from it than the option of railroading a voter-less election. It is our considered view that the Awami League has done well on the economic front. It has also gained significantly from staging the war crimes trial, something that boosted the personal image of the AL leader. It still has tremendous grassroots-based organizational network that can be used to galvanize public support in its favour.
Why should the opposition accept the above steps? Because the opposition has lost significant public support through its 'killing and burning' of innocent people in the name of anti-government agitation. Its continued hartals and oborodhs are damaging the economy and taking the country towards ruination. BNP and its allies must realize that they are in fact destroying the country and that our economy is on the verge of collapse. They can only sustain their agitation at great cost to the people and the economy.
The ruling Awami League should calculate that the opposition has not been able to gather public support on any issue other than a poll-time government. Therefore, making concessions on it will throw wide open the election process in which AL has a chance of winning, given vigorous, well planned and effective campaigning. By compromising on the poll-time government-which retains much of the PM's own formula and only compromises on the President heading it- the PM and her party can gain incalculable goodwill that can be turned into votes if campaigned well.
Awami League needs to regain its confidence that it is still a formidable party and has the strength to win a free and fair election. Whatever it may say, the public impression is that it has lost that confidence. It cannot escape its leaders' notice that today the party appears more and more dependent on police, BGB and the security forces in doing its work rather than on its workers. This cannot be good for AL in the mid and long run.
BNP for its part must review its relationship with Jamaat. This big party, having formed government twice, looks more and more to be in the pocket of Jamaat. BNP leaders, especially Khaleda Zia, appear to be fundamentally indifferent to the issue of the war crimes trial. There appears to be a lack of understanding about the genocide committed by the Pakistanis in 1971 and Jamaat's role in it.
BNP, for its own future should either de-link itself from Jamaat, or insist Jamaat, as a party, should de-link itself with the leaders who are now accused of crimes against humanity. All Jamaat members below the age of fifty were either born after Bangladesh came into being or were too young to have played any role then. Why should they carry the burden of genocide committed by those leaders? The impression that such an admission will destroy their politics is an idea imposed by these old 'genocide-accused' leaders on the younger generation. As a political option in a democracy, Jamaat can always exist-like the RSS and VHP in India- as long as it denounces the role of old Jamaat in our Liberation War and in having committed genocide. It is for Jamaat to decide its future role in Bangladesh, but BNP must realise that the people of Bangladesh want and are determined to try the war criminals and impart justice to them for their crimes against unarmed Bangladeshi men, women and children.
As for the present, a political compromise is the wisest option for the country, its democracy and its economy. As a ruling party we want to tell Awami League that “you have no right to deprive us of our right to vote”; to the opposition we say, “You have no right to kill us, burn us, destroy our personal and public property and you have no right to destroy our future and that of the younger generation by destroying our economy”.
To ourselves we say, “We cannot sit on the sidelines as our political leaders play with our future and take the country toward definite ruination. Please use your democratic “Rights” to let your concerns be heard and taken into account.”