Shetubondhon, a premier internet forum for the global Bangladeshi community, has chosen Electoral Reform as April 2001’s Topic of the Month. The proposal came from Dr. Qudrat-i Elahi. He has written extensively on the pertinent issues in the media. My write-up here draws on both the TOTM proposal [referred to as 1] as well as Dr. Elahi’s earlier article “President’s Role in Parliamentary Democracy” [referred to as
First let make sure that I understand his articulation accurately, including the assumptions on the basis of which he has offered some specific proposal/suggestion to explore. I identify these assumptions based on his writings. If there is any misunderstanding on my part, I hope Dr. Elahi would correct or clarify.
Assumption 1: “We have now a system that can ensure fair general elections.” 
Assumption 2: “law must be obeyed, no matter what we might think our problems are. Because, if we slip a bit from the law, all we will have, is lawlessness” 
Assumption 3: “The country’s current main governance problem seems to be the ineffectiveness of the JS that has resulted from the boycotts of its sessions.” 
Proposal 1: We need to make JS effective for which “a new election law should be enacted to annihilate this JS-boycotting culture”, so that “any member, who boycotts the JS sessions individually or collectively, will lose his or her seat and the right to seek reelection” 
Proposal 2: “broadcasting the JS sessions live on the TV” 
Question 1: Are these measures democratic? 
Question 2: Are these measures desirable? 
As far as Proposal #2 of broadcasting the JS sessions live on the TV, I don’t think anyone would have any problem with it. I can’t think of any problem in doing this in terms of being democratic or desirable. I was under the impression that JS sessions are already being televised. However, even it is not currently being done, when implemented, it may have little to do with improving our political problems. Therefore, my focus here is on Proposal #1.
Before I delve further into this topic, let me bring to our readers’ attention that my views about the political parties and the political problems in Bangladesh are already public. If anyone is not already familiar, I recommend my article “Toward Political Transformation in Bangladesh: The Demand and the Supply Side of Healthy Politics“. I have basically no confidence in either of the two leading political parties, or in any of the constituent parties of the opposition alliance. Before I discuss the proposal, I think the underlying assumptions need closer scrutiny.
In assumption #1, Dr. Elahi is suggesting “We have now a system that can ensure fair general elections.” I respectfully disagree. This assumption would be valid in Bangladeshi context, if we take the word “system” in the narrowest sense and the electoral process in a mechanical way. Yes, we have a system for election. Whoever gets elected must have received the highest “counted” votes. But we all know that there is just too big – way too big – hole in this. One may argue that there is a big “shuvonkorer faki”. If we accept this assumption as valid, then one has to say that the election of Jainal Hajari of Feni is a result of a “fair general election.” Not the case of everyone in JS might be as extreme as Jainal Hajari, but a vast majority of them, in my view, are in power not necessarily because of a “fair election” as part of a “civil” process based on “social contract”. I will elaborate on this only if further need to. Furthermore, the “system” can’t be viewed in isolation from the culture and the behavioral pattern of the society – the government and the governed. Once we take this broader view, I am not sure that we can be so sanguine that we already have a system that ensures fair general election.
In assumption #2, unless I have misunderstood, Dr. Elahi is concerned that “if we slip a bit from the law, all we will have, is lawlessness.” Are we to think that if we don’t uphold the law (including the constitution), we might be heading toward lawlessness in future? I believe that we are already in the stage of “lawlessness”. Yes, our situation can deteriorate further, but that would be a matter of degree. Fundamentally, our society, including in its political dimension, is dysfunctional. We have elections, but they don’t produce desired result (desired from the overall society’s standpoint). We have parliament, but (Dr. Elahi is right) it is not effective. We have constitution, but it hardly has any hold on the society, the politicians or the political parties. Dr. Elahi is also correct that “The current situation has arisen, because our political parties do not respect the principles of democracy; nor they obey the constitution. In other words, our politicians are failing to perform their supposed duties: practice the principles of democracy and uphold constitution.”  The fact that political parties in general, including the incumbent party, have role in facilitating the lawlessness is important in evaluating the specific proposal.
In regard to the Assumption #3, I don’t think anyone would have any disagreement with the observation that in a parliamentary democracy, effective role of the parliament is vitally important. It is also true that boycotting parliamentary sessions render the entire institution and process dysfunctional. Members of the parliament individually (regardless of their party affiliation) as well as parliament as an institution are dutybound to uphold constitution and the rule of law. Thus, boycotting does have constitutional implications. However, I respectfully disagree with the underlying thought that if we could simply prevent all the JS members from boycotting the sessions and if they were to attend the sessions as they are constitutionally required, JS would be effective and the lot of the country would be qualitatively changed for the better. Instead, I believe that it is quite possible that constitutionally the JS members can be compelled (induced) to stay active inside the JS, and the country still can continue on its path of utter ruin. One might like to read one of my earlier write-ups “Be careful about what you wish!”, where I made the point that the two leading parties, for example, can become cooperative and collaborative and still ruin the nation and the society.
Now let me take up the two questions first. Are these measures democratic? I can’t think of any reason why these won’t be democratic. Are these measures desirable? If we take the measure just by itself, the answer is probably yes. If in the overall context of the dysfunctional society and politics, the answer is probably no.
It is important to recognize, agreeing with Dr. Elahi’s observation, that our political parties generally do not have any respect for the constitution, constitutional process, and the rule of law. The law enforcement system is already utterly ruined. The judiciary system is overburdened, archaic, politicized, and basically corrupt, especially at lower levels. To better understand and appreciate the problem of our dysfunctionality, we need to take a balanced and comprehensive look at our culture, including political culture and the culture of the ruling as well as the opposition parties.
The culture of the ruling parties so far has shown some general pattern. All parties, when in power, have shown disdain for the constitution, the constitutional process, constitutional duties and constitutional rights. Almost without exception, they have not shown even the least hesitation to resort to illegal or extra-legal means to come to power, and once in power, have not least bothered to pursue whatever necessary – illegal or unconstitutional – to stay in power. Often they have pushed the situation to such an extreme that they have not let any room for fair, democratic or constitutional means to a normal change of power. Making promises and breaking promises, without any legal or constitutional consequence, is the name of the game. Once in power, the ruling parties’ invariable preoccupation is making the life of the opposition miserable and monopolizing the economic and political power, without even the least interest in institutionalizing what is good and right.
Parallel to this is the culture of opposition, some of which have been in power before. When they were in power, they have flaunted the law and constitution. They have done what I have described as the behavior of the ruling parties. Once defeated, now vulnerable to their own past deeds, and exposed to the wrath and engulfing greed of the ruling party, especially while the ruling party can operate above the law and disregard the constitution, hardly any opposition party can be expected to have the patience, virtue or civility to take the high or the normal road.
It can safely be argued that neither the ruling parties (when they were in power) nor the opposition parties (when they were/are not in power) have shown any genuine interest or ability to work toward moving the nation toward a nation of rule of law. In this context of dysfunctionality and the culture of the ruling and the opposition, the specific proposal of electoral reform to constitutionally compelling only the opposition JS members not to boycott the JS might be inadequate to bring about the scale and quality of change we desire. There might also be a major element of unfairness. Suppose such electoral reform is enacted, other things remaining the same, but the ruling party (generally speaking, any ruling party) continues to operate above the law, while all JS members are mandated not to boycott it. If they boycott, they forfeit their seats in JS. If they don’t, they remain involved with JS, but they are not able to do anything either. Add to this, opposition members are charged with cases for crimes that are also committed by members of ruling parties, but only opposition members take the legal brunt of it. Can such reform be considered fair?
More can be said to further elaborate on the problems related to taking such a narrow electoral reform. Such a reform would be called for and effective, if the ruling party generally follows and upholds the law and the constitution, but the opposition does not. Also, such reform can be fair only when any member of JS, from the ruling party or the opposition, would be equally held responsible for breaking the law and violating the constitution.
I don’t believe that the course of action the current opposition has chosen is good for the country and the people. I also don’t believe that if the current opposition succeeds in the next election to come to power, qualitatively there would be any positive change. The current opposition has neither a minimal cohesion nor any convergent vision or strategy. Also, they come from the same background of opportunistic and dysfunctional political environment – and some of these parties have already been tested in the past and even now are not acting morally or practically in any better or more acceptable way.
In my view, our problem is deeper and more fundamental. It is not begging for merely structural or mechanical changes, including such narrow electoral reform. This does not mean that there is no room for any desirable change in the electoral process. Our challenge is how to hold everyone accountable – politically and legally – and how to enforce laws and constitution in a non-partisan manner so that whoever violates the law and constitution is held duly and fully accountable.
So, what is the solution? Well, this write-up of mine is not to offer any specific solution, but to offer my assessment of a specific proposal. Yet, one solution that must not escape our attention is an electoral reform that is balanced and comprehensive. For example, political parties must take responsibility for violent or armed (not just gun) confrontation in political activities. Any JS member who is a proven criminal, such as the one from Feni or someone who illegally carries arms (even publicly), would forfeit the JS seat. Another word, the reform has to be such that any JS member violates the constitution or breaks the law in regard to political activities would be duly held accountable in a non-partisan manner. That would still leave the nation with the problem of enforcement, but at least it would be fair.
The partisan role of caretaker administration became further clear when a move to transfer Home Secretary SM Jahurul Islam to the education ministry was halted midway for mysterious reasons. Jahurul issued the controversial circular regarding army deployment, keeping the advisers to the caretaker government in the dark. Signed by Jahurul, who has been widely known as a beneficiary of the immediate past alliance government, the circular directed the local administrations to prepare for deployment of the army across the country. It said the army would be deployed to help the civil administration maintain law and order.
Jahurul is known for his leanings towards the BNP and Jamaat. He received several quick promotions during the immediate past alliance rule, superseding others. Jahurul came in the limelight when as the DC of Laxmipur he had had former minister ASM Abdur Rab arrested on the eve of the 2001 election. The president appointed him as the home secretary on October 30, a day after assuming the office of the chief adviser. Before the promotion, he was serving as an additional secretary for the same ministry. The political parties except the BNP-Jamaat-led alliance had opposed his appointment as the home secretary.
During his stint as an additional secretary, Jahurul is said to have been instrumental in reversing a home ministry initiative to transfer former Rajshahi superintendent of police Masud Mia who had been accused of backing the Islamist militants in Rajshahi and the neighbouring districts. The home secretary had been reportedly denied the US visa twice by the US Embassy in Dhaka for his alleged patronage of militant activities.
The international community including India, the EU and the US are keenly watching developments in Bangladesh. Richard Boucher recently visited Bangladesh to assess the situation in the country. The US is trying to tread cautiously in Bangladesh. Boucher on November 11 said a military takeover would not help conduct a free and fair election in Bangladesh and urged the caretaker government and Election Commission (EC) to act neutrally to ensure each vote is counted and results are trusted.
Boucher also called on the political leadership to lower the level of tension and violence and hold peaceful demonstrations so that voters get educated about elections. He urged the caretaker government to carry out its task in a neutral manner so that any of its decisions does not favour any particular political party.
The EU however doubts the neutrality of the EC and wants its reconstitution. These nations are also preparing to send their monitors to Bangladesh. The European Union will be sending both long and short-term election ob Though a political agitation for electoral reform in Bangladesh has been going on for many months. Given the level of hostility prevailing between the leaders of the two mainstream political parties. it was clear to the ruling party, the opposition and the people of the country that very little progress would be made during the rule of Khaleda Zia government. Hence towards the fag end of the four-party rule, the opposition groups increased pressure so that these reforms could be effected at least during the period of the Caretaker Government. But the Khaleda Zia government did not want to give the opposition even this opportunity. It manipulated the system of Caretaker government in such a way that now very little possibility of any reform exists before the elections. The set up left behind by her has now thrown the garb of neutrality and is openly working for the interest of the coalition led by Khaleda.
The Awami League led opposition parties have been demanding electoral reforms since July 2005 through street protests. A large number of steps taken by the immediate past government had convinced them that they were out to create a biased Caretaker government and a politicized Election Commission. Hence the opposition parties wanted certain changes in the Caretaker government system and the Election Commission.
The specific proposal Dr. Elahi has put forward has merit, but more so as an important starting point to explore the relevant issues in a problem-solving manner. I do see tremendous value in dealing with such specific proposals than incessantly discuss things merely from philosophical point of view. I look forward to further thought and input from Dr. Elahi and others.
The administrative machinery meant to conduct free and fair elections in Bangladesh is definitely biased. Whatever little doubt was left has been now removed by the recent actions of president cum chief advisor. Unfortunately, there is very little time left to introduce any major changes in this set up. Still, the agitation carried out by the opposition led 14 party alliance has highlighted the inherent defects in the present system of conducting free and fair elections. This matter should be pursued with sincerity after the present elections are over. In the meantime, measures to bring some kind of neutrality in the caretaker government and the EC can be taken, leaving the larger reform issues to the next government. EU has already pointed out this bias in caretaker government and the Election Commission. Similar pressure need to be put from other important countries like the US and Japan who are also major donors for Bangladesh. Only this will allow some kind of free election in Bangladesh. Former prime minister and BNP Chief Begum Khaleda Zia has asked the Election Commission to announce the election schedule without taking into consideration which parties are going to participate in it. It appears that in her desire to regain power she has overlooked the political situation prevailing in the country. In the event of Awami League boycotting the elections, they would become meaningless and would not be acceptable domestically as well as to the international community. Then the government formed in the wake of elections would also not be acceptable to the people. It will throw the country into further chaos and political uncertainty.
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