In his address to the 10th Parliament on January 29, the president urged the election-boycotting parties to “help reach a consensus by shunning the path of confrontation and anarchy … to contribute to the establishment of a tolerant democratic system through removing hatred, violence.” It wasn't named, but the call was aimed at BNP-led alliance. The speech has been viewed as one-sided, reflecting the government stance, an inherent weakness of the highest office of the State.
As important as the call is, it will remain only words unless those who approved it to be read by the president have the courage and capacity to take their own portion of responsibility for confrontation, hatred, violence and lack of consensus.
During a visit to Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho the Speaker said: “The 10th Parliament has added a new chapter in the country's democratic journey.” She hoped that the opposition in parliament would play a vital role in making the House effective through constructive discussion and criticism.
The 10th Jatiyo Sangsad (JS) has, however, some unusual features that severely undermine the capacity to deliver its key role. It is the result of an election held in conformity with the words of the relevant provisions of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, though not necessarily with its true spirit. Its legitimacy in terms of popular mandate will always remain questionable.
It is a parliament born of bloodbath and gross violation of fundamental right to life, liberty and security of the common people caused by unprecedented violence for a zero-sum game of power in which one side wanted to prevent the polls pushed through by the other. Hardly any aspect of life, society and economy has been spared. The education system has suffered unprecedented damage; kids and families have been told that politics means denial of access to education; politics means uprooting trees; politics means petrol bombs; politics means killing and maiming people; and politics is about power at the expense of democratic norms and public interest.
The worst victims, as in the past, have been the religious minority, easy targets of indiscriminate vengeance for a perceived defiance of the call to boycot the polls, which in turn made a convenient opening for those in the power structure, irrespective of political colour, who always benefit from such atrocities. Impunity was granted by failure of the administration and law enforcement agencies and, above all, the Election Commission whose responsibility was to foresee and prevent the atrocities.
The 10th JS will not probably experience opposition boycott, but it will be even worse, with no true opposition. It is a JS with no public mandate, as recognised at high levels of the ruling party when they announced that the election manifesto it published was not meant to gain people's verdict. Commitment was made that dialogue would be opened soon for an inclusive election for the 11th Parliament, though by now they have retracted from that stance and have been competing hard to emphasise how important it is to remain in office for full five years.
The parliament will have no true standing committee to hold the government to account; no real debate in public interest; no institutional means of checks and balance, leaving unlimited discretion in the hands of the executive. It may open the floodgates for abuse of power. Protectors of law may break laws with greater vengeance, which may unleash victimisation of the innocent. Politicisation of administration, law-enforcement and justice may accelerate further. Accountability institutions like Anti-Corruption Commission and Election Commission may be rendered more prejudiced and ineffective.
If the first month since January 5 is any indicator, risk of increased threats to fundamental rights in the form of crossfire, enforced disappearance, torture in custody looms large. Profitability of abuse of power to arrest, or threaten arrest, may flourish. The space for critique may shrink further and voice of dissent may be perceived as conspiracy and sedition, or at best siding with political opponents, while “shoot the messenger” syndrome may capture the mindset of the high and mighty.
Some highly thoughtful questions and concerns raised by a couple of hundred students of Dhaka University on February 5 in a lecture session that I had the privilege to attend are pertinent. Bulk of these related to the constitution: whose constitution it is; what is the spirit and relevance of Article 7(1) that stipulates all powers of the republic to rest in people; where are the people in a power structure that practically vests all power to one individual?
Why can't I find myself in the constitution; my voting right was forfeited, who do I complain to; I did cast my vote, but as a first time voter I am more disappointed than delighted because an election of constitutional obligation has undermined the true spirit of the constitution.
Concerns ranged from politically patronised campus violence to indiscriminate abuse of the quota system in education and jobs. Other questions include abolition of the constitutional provision of referendum; why tenure of chief executive cannot be fixed for two terms; why shouldn't we have a meaningful balance of power between president and prime minister; why should the offices of chief executive, head of the ruling party and leader of the House remain in one person?
Do our political parties care about democracy and democratic practice; why can't we move to proportional system of representation; why shouldn't we meet the constitutional obligation of establishing ombudsman; why shouldn't we try bicameral legislative system; can we introduce a law by which a certain percentage of free, fair and inclusive turnout of voters will be mandatory for an election to be credible; isn't it time to ban boycott of parliament; why should we have Article 70 if it undermines Article 39?
Why do we allow the spirit of liberation to be politicised along partisan lines; in a multi-religious state that asserted national identity challenging politicisation of religion why should we have a state religion; why should we push ourselves to the brink of religious cleansing; shall we ever be able to identify the beneficiaries of violence against minorities so they can be brought to justice; on what ground in a multi-ethnic society should one particular identity be forced upon all?
Isn't it time that our political leaders realised how their mutually antagonistic relation, having very little to do with ideology or political agenda, is creating the space for undemocratic and militant forces to gain strength; why do they embarrass the nation by inviting external intervention in resolving their intransigence-driven political conflict; how long will they allow corruption to be the key motivation for zero-sum game of power, thereby driving public interest oriented politics out of political space; can we adopt a code of conduct of MPs to stop acts, words and gestures that embarrass the young generation?
When can we expect a truly inclusive election to the 11th Parliament? Above all, will our political leaders be sensitive to public interest and conduct themselves in such a manner that the new generation will no longer see the devil in politics?
Iftekharuzzaman. Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).
Published on 9 February, 2014 in the Daily Star. Link