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The Walkover and After: Time-bound negotiation or nightmare?

The national election being held today may be constitutionally and legally correct, but politically and morally flawed. There are no true winners in this walkover without credible opponent. It is a replay of bitterly farcical elections that we have had in Bangladesh, making a mockery of people's right to vote -- national election of March 3, 1988, by-election of March 20, 1994, national election of February 15, 1996, and the aborted one of January 22, 2007.

In the heart of their hearts the 153 candidates who have been given the status of uncontested “MP-elect” must be deeply embarrassed to be congratulated even by their near and dear ones. Likewise, very few, if any, of the remaining 147 would have the satisfaction of having been elected in true sense of the term.

We had seen this before. The difference is that this time the cost has become much higher because of newer forms of violence, loss of life, breach of public safety and security, capture of political space by brutally undemocratic means and, above all, threats to democracy and fundamental rights of the people. “Da-kural” (axes and choppers) and havoc by petrol bombs have come in response to “logi-boitha” (sticks and oars) for a ruthless game of hunger for power.

Our political leaders appear to be engaged in a senseless competition of doing worse than the opponent and causing deeper self-embarrassment, holding the fate of 160 million people hostage in the name of democracy. They have not shown any sensitivity to the hardships and human tragedies of the victims of violence, not least to losses incurred by the society and economy for now and for days to come. They are making politics difficult for true politicians, and creating their own enemies. The lust for power is so brazen that they don't even mind hitting below the belt. By these and more, examples are being set of what a democracy-aspiring nation and its leaders must not do.

There is another difference this time, which may in fact be a dimming light at the end of the tunnel. The prime minister and a number of her party and coalition leaders, including powerful ministers, have indicated that they are holding this election for the sake of constitutional obligation, even though it is against their own conscience.

On December 21 last year, the PM said: “Of course we will score goals as the field is empty.” One cannot ignore the factors that contributed to the field being empty -- whether it was for want of a level-playing field, or for the referee's lack of credibility, or because the trust level between the two captains is at the nadir, or because one is coached in such a company that challenges the fundamental values defining the context in which the game is being played.

Be that as it may, the candid acknowledgement that it was going to be a competition far from worth the name can be commended. On the other hand, soon after the election manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League was announced, the finance minister told a TV talk show that they did so as a mere formality and not to seek public mandate on it. He added that there was no scope to seek public mandate “because no election is being held … our jono-netri has already announced that people's mandate cannot be achieved by this, she will soon arrange another election on the basis of consultation with the opposition party.”

Today's election being a fait accompli, and much as it may appear unrealistic, this announcement can be viewed as a ray of hope for resolving the stalemate. Although it is going to guarantee them a brute majority, the ruling party and its allies are fully aware, as has been already announced, that it is not going to give them public mandate to form either the government or the parliament. Hence, the talk about negotiation for election to the 11th Parliament is a plain and simple recognition that today's election lacks both credibility and legitimacy.

The best outcome of the January 5 election, therefore, is the space for the government to take the lead to resort to the negotiating table to agree on a mutually agreed form and content of the election-time government to ensure a fully participatory election. If they mean it, they must, without losing a moment after the election, announce a specific time-bound framework for negotiations. By that they stand to gain more than lose.      
Given the political will a negotiated settlement is not far to seek. Forget about expert opinion, and ignore international and diplomatic initiatives. Ask a randomly selected common individual in the street who will easily tell our two top leaders what to do -- place national interest and public expectations above mutual animosity, unacceptability and hatred; demonstrate that you have the genuine credentials of the two brightest torch-bearers of democracy in Bangladesh.

People tend to find ways to work together for two types of motivations -- to achieve common goals or to address common threats. The zero-sum game has become so blindfolded that there is perhaps no room for exploring common goals. But the brinkmanship has also brought them to a stage that they need to look at the threats they are inviting for themselves. These are the threats to democracy; threats to public interest, safety and security; and threats of sinister and undemocratic forces gaining more and more ground in political space. These forces are making targeted attacks on innocent people most ruthlessly; they are destroying the state infrastructure. If they are not contained now, such violence may emerge as part of the political culture, inviting more ominous risks for life, liberty and fundamental values of our society than seen so far.

Failure to work out a mutually agreed election-time government within a specific time-frame may create such a havoc of instability and violence that the situation may go beyond the control of democratic political forces. While it is hard to predict the implications of such a nightmarish scenario, an open-ended period of mayhem and higher-intensity violence may unleash what the country cannot afford.

Iftekharuzzaman. Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).


Published on 5 January, 2014 in the Daily Star. Link