Aug 12, 2014

Conciliation, not conflict

BNP has been making repeated threats to uproot the government by staging a mass movement after Eid. However, the ruling party appears to be totally unconcerned about it. Rather some ruling party stalwarts have been irresponsibly enticing BNP by saying that they are incapable of waging a mass movement. Some have even been making explicit threats that street agitation would be appropriately dealt with by the law enforcement agencies as well as ruling party.

We are seriously concerned about the threats and counter-threats. BNP was not allowed to hold human chains on the street. A few months ago the government did not even allow it to hold an indoor meeting. If BNP announces a peaceful political programme, the law enforcement agencies will prevent it from happening.
If BNP announces hartal or siege, the government will take severe repressive measures, which will lead to violence. Consequently, the lives and properties of innocent people would be at stake.

Our political parties normally display their strength by unleashing violence on the street, which has been becoming more lethal over time with the misuse of official power by ruling parties. Due to continued politicisation of the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies by successive governments over the past few decades, the ruling party is now able to illegitimately use the government's legitimate power to exercise force against its political opponents. In fact, many of the 'servants of the Republic' now function like ruling party cadres and they can be used to illegally repress political adversaries. The attractiveness of using public servants against political opponents is that they can be used for both unleashing violence and filing cases against opponents, which has been increasingly happening in recent years.

We are obviously opposed to BNP's causing violence on the street and destroying people's properties. However, BNP's staying away from waging a street movement is not going to resolve the political dispute that now prevails, especially relating to the recent parliament election. Rather it may accentuate the problem, pushing us towards an uncharted course.

The principal reason behind the present political dispute is the one-sided and manipulated election of January 5, in which 153 MPs were elected unopposed and 52% of the registered voters living in those constituencies were disenfranchised and deprived from exercising their fundamental right of voting. It may be noted that courts in recent years have recognised voting as part of right of expression as the voter expresses himself/herself through voting. In addition, in the recent election, only 12 (29%) of the 41 registered political parties participated.

According to the Election Working Group report, 30% ballots were cast in 147 seats where elections took place, which makes the overall voter turnout rate about 13% for all 300 seats. The election was also very violent. Thus, the tradition of free, fair and peaceful national election that had developed in the country since 1991 was shattered by the election of January 5. Consequently, the prospect that was created for institutionalising democracy was dashed, which is the cause of disenchantment of many citizens.

Bangladesh's present political dispute is not between Awami League and BNP alone, a large percentage of the country's population are also part of it. Many people hold Awami League, the most ardent proponents of people's 'right to food and vote,' responsible for the voter-less election of January 5. Many of them, who were disenfranchised, are very unhappy, although they do not want law and order to deteriorate and their safety and security threatened through street violence.
In addition, BNP has little credibility with the neutral citizens and they have not forgotten the excesses of the past BNP regime. To many of them Awami League and its allies in the government have been merely continuing the misdeeds and misrule of the past BNP government, although with increased intensity. Furthermore, BNP's alliance with Jamaat, its shaky position about the war-crimes trial, and the blatant practice of dynastic rule within the party has caused many citizens to give up on the party.
Many thoughtful citizens also do not think that holding of a mere free, fair and inclusive election at this time would be a cure-all for the ailments. They want sustainable solutions to the prevailing problems; along with a credible election they want some deep reforms in our electoral system, political parties and the constitution. Many of them feel cheated by Awami League, which promised dinbadal or unprecedented changes, before the 2008 election. They are also quite suspicious of BNP -- BNP has not even articulated what they will do if they are voted to power in a fair election.
Because of the extreme partisan behaviour of our bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies, and the prevailing sense of resignation of many of the citizens who are unhappy with Awami League's excesses, it is unlikely that BNP will succeed in dislodging the government through street agitation. However, that should not make Awami League feel fully safe and invincible. Because, not only is the “birth” of the present government tainted, its activities of the last six months are also most disappointing. The past performances of the last Awami League government -- corruption and criminalisation, violence and human rights violations -- are continuing as if with new vigour. If these persist, the government's public support will erode further, requiring it to use force and impinge on the rights of the citizens, the evidence of which we are beginning to observe.
With concentration of powers in the hands of one individual, the thumping majority in the parliament and no political opposition of any significance anywhere, the government's ability to indulge in excesses has increased to a limitless extent. In the words of Lord Acton, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. However, history teaches us that no government anywhere could stay in power forever by using force. Thus, the present situation is potentially unstable and unsustainable.
There is also another reason for this potential unsustainability. Some government party leaders have been claiming that democracy has become consolidated through January 5 elections even through some of its ardent supporters think that the election has paved the way for creating 'democratic dictatorship' in the country. However, we feel that the so-called election has ushered in a type of 'toxic democracy' in Bangladesh, which may not only destroy the ruling party but also make our beloved country a failed state. The effectiveness of a state depends on the effectiveness of its institutions as well as the prevailing rules and procedures.
Our Election Commission, the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies are to a great extent functioning like the ruling party's affiliated organisations. The ACC also has not yet demonstrated its unquestioned neutrality. Serious efforts are already underway to curtail the freedom of the media and the civil society. If these institutions further lose their effectiveness, there may be chaos in the country. Thus, we feel that the government is playing with fire which may in the future engulf the whole nation.
Given the situation, we urge the opposition political parties to stay away from violent movement. We request the government to engage in dialogue so that the disputed issues can be resolved peacefully and sustainably. If the ruling party feels that it is now in a stronger position, it would be prudent for it to engage in dialogue from the position of strength.

Published: August 11, 2014

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