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‘Transformational Elections’ in Bangladesh

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 29, 2008

    As Bangladesh is holding its most closely watched general elections, the apprehension remains whether democracy would prevail in the country. All the uncertainties about the elections were removed when the interim authority repealed the state of emergency that had been prevailing in the country since January 11, 2007. It was on that day that a military backed caretaker government had assumed power after months of political strife and failure of the earlier caretaker government headed by President Iajuddin Ahmed to hold free and fair elections.

    This time it is generally believed that the elections would be free and fair. The country’s military, which has been notorious in the past for coups and counter-coups, did a remarkable job this time under General Moin and prepared a digital voter list with photographs. Preparing a list of this kind was no mean achievement in a country of 150 million people. The fairness of the voter list was endorsed recently by the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). IFES did a sample survey and found no ghost voters in the list. The Awami League had alleged that the earlier list prepared during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led four-party alliance contained 14 million fake voters.

    The lifting of emergency was a major pre-condition of the two main political alliances. Though the caretaker government has been gradually reducing the curbs on political activity, the complete removal of emergency on December 17 has ensured the participation of both Awami League and the BNP. After a visit to Bangladesh a UN assessment team stated that steps taken by the caretaker government would ensure a level playing field for credible elections and that the chances of a free and fair poll are much higher than two years ago.

    As in the past, the election is being fought between the alliances led by the two main political parties – Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The earlier 14 party grand alliance headed by the Awami League has now been reduced to a 9 party alliance. A major constituent of this alliance is the Jatiya Party (JP) of General Ershad. The Awami League has given 48 seats to the JP and nine seats to other allies. On the other hand, the BNP is back with the same old four-party alliance. A significant constituent of the BNP-led alliance are the Islamist parties with their avowed objective of turning Bangladesh into an Islamic state. BNP partners include Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), and Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP). Jamaat has been given 34 seats. BNP has also given four seats to the two parties in Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), and two seats to the Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP).

    Both alliances have published their election manifestos. Their main focus is on the economy and on making the Bangladesh parliament functional. The Awami League manifesto titled 'Charter for Change' highlights five promises: lowering of commodity prices and avoiding an economic depression, curbing of corruption, increasing production of power and energy, eradication of poverty and inequity, and establishment of good governance. It also promises that the Anti-corruption Commission would be further strengthened. War criminals would be tried and religious terrorism would be suppressed with an iron hand. The BNP has also pledged measures to contain the prices of essentials, curb corruption, restore law and order, combat terrorism, and allow the judiciary full independence.

    The country’s economists have expressed appreciation for the Awami League manifesto for its time bound economic programme which also makes it accountable to the people. On the other hand, the manifesto of the BNP merely touches upon economic issues without spelling out how it is going to achieve the targets. Its other programmes like free distribution of foods to nearly one third of the population and grant of loans to unemployed educated people in exchange of certificates are also being seen as nothing but political rhetoric.

    The most disconcerting aspect of these elections is that no one is sure whether the losing side will graciously accept defeat. In the democratic history of Bangladesh, it has been seen that the losing party instead of contributing to the functioning of parliament takes politics to the streets. This situation has in the past resulted in endless strikes that have often given an excuse for the military to step in. This also brings the country to a grinding halt and makes people suffer.

    The International Crisis Group has stated that the situation in Bangladesh remains ‘complex and fragile.’ It also feels that there is no guarantee of a smooth transition to democracy through the polls. It further says that an end to emergency rule and holding of elections do not equal democracy, though both are necessary preconditions for political stability. Regardless of who wins these elections, the next government and opposition parties will face the challenge of making parliament work and contending with a military that wants a greater say in politics. The ICG report has also warned that the parties must not take the international community’s support for elections as an endorsement of their behaviour, but rather see it as a belated recognition of the dangers of military rule.

    Experts feel that to make parliament in Bangladesh functional, the country will have to take a fresh look at the system of ‘winner takes all.’ The winner also has to take the opposition into confidence and value their suggestions in governing the country.

    Both the main political parties have stated in their manifestos that they will work for a functional parliament. The Awami League has promised that the office of the Deputy Speaker would go to the opposition. Similarly, the BNP, to make parliament ‘effective and functional’, has suggested that persons elected as speaker and deputy speaker should resign from their party posts. Besides, the deputy speaker would be nominated from the opposition. The party has also promised that a parliamentary standing committee would be formed and that the chairmen of important committees will be picked up from the opposition benches. It has also suggested that no party or alliance should boycott parliament, though they would be able to stage a walkout on specific issues.

    But there is skepticism about whether these declarations will actually be implemented in practice. Moreover, constitutional experts feel that unless members of parliament of both sides enjoy full access to government funds and facilities, the participatory role of all MPs will not be ensured. The BNP has also promised that it will make the judiciary fully independent. But the past dilly-dallying of the party when it was in power does not inspire confidence.

    In their respective manifestos, both political alliances have highlighted the present concerns of the country, but many doubt whether these will be properly addressed once power is captured. A large number of people feel that the political leaders may not have learnt the lesson despite the two year rule of the caretaker government. BNP chief Khaleda Zia has already started psychological warfare by alleging that both the caretaker government and the Election Commission are not neutral. She has warned that her party will not accept any ‘plan’ to hand over power to a ‘puppet government’ through the polls. Zia has also stated that if elections are held in a free and fair manner then it should bring the four-party alliance back to power. These are ominous signs indeed. Simply put, they mean that if the BNP were not to gain power, it will not accept the electoral verdict. Such posturing has caused worries among the people of Bangladesh who are looking forward to a peaceful transition to a democratic order.