Jan 3, 2015

Waiting for democracy

For Bangladesh, democracy is a constitutional commitment, and the government in power is obliged to establish a democratic polity in the country. As we approach the first anniversary of the Tenth Parliament, it will be useful to take stock of our democratic credentials, especially in view of the fact that the ruling Awami League and the main opposition party BNP are now bickering on whether the events of January 5, 2014 in the name of 'elections' actually saved or destroyed our democracy
One essential feature of democracy is periodic elections, which are free and fair. Democracy also requires rule by the people's representatives not only at the national level, but also at the local level. Article 59 of our Constitution provides for elected local bodies at all administrative units to manage local affairs. Thus, unless local body elections are held at regular intervals, democratic governance remains incomplete.

Another distinguishing feature of democracy is that it requires effective institutions for proper functioning. To this end, our Constitution provides for several institutions. Two of these institutions – the Executive and the Parliament – are created through parliament elections. The party winning majority seats in the parliament elections forms the government and in this process a group of parliament members becomes ministers and performs the roles of the Executive. The council of ministers thus created, headed by the prime minister, govern the country with the assistance of the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies. The other members of the parliament, especially those belonging to the opposition party, are expected to ensure the transparency and accountability of the Executive. Thus, if the parliament elections are not genuine, the legitimacy of both the Executives and the Parliament becomes questionable.
Yet another distinguishing feature of democracy is that in such a system, people enjoy certain unalienable rights. Part III of our Constitution recognizes a set of rights as fundamental rights of the citizens. They include freedom of expression, religion, assembly, association, movement, right to protection of law, protection of right to life and so on. Only in extreme cases citizens can be denied their fundamental rights.
Have the elections of January 5, 2014 fulfilled these three essential features of a democratic polity? Have the elections been free, fair and competitive, that is, genuine? Are the institutions performing more effectively after January 5? Are the rights of the citizens safeguarded following the elections? The answers to these questions will determine the state of our democracy.
The elections of January 5, 2014 were far from genuine. They were not competitive as only 12 of the 41 registered political parties participated in the elections. Of the 300 MPs, 153 were elected unopposed and hence there was no voting at all in those constituencies, not to speak of constitutionally-mandated 'direct election'. In the remaining 147 constituencies, based on the counting of counterfoils of ballot books from nearly nine thousand polling stations, Election Working Group (EWG) estimated that the voting rate was about 30 percent. However, according to media reports, there was widespread ballot-box stuffing and other forms of flagrant rigging during the elections. Nevertheless, if we accept the EWG's estimates, the total number of vote casting in 147 constituencies was about one crore 33 lacs, which reduces the average voting rate for the entire country to about 14 percent, compared to nearly 87 percent in 2008 elections. But according to knowledgeable observers, the actual voter participation rate in the Tenth Parliament elections was less than 10 percent. In AFM Shah Alam vs. Mujibur Rahman [41 DLR (AD)1989], the Bangladesh Supreme Court stated: 'That is no election that is no democracy. Election is needed to sustain democracy and a perverse or voter less election destroys democracy.'
In addition, the overdue local body elections – namely the Zila Parshad and Dhaka City Corporation elections – were not held after the elections of January 5.

Our institutions have not become stronger either during the year following the elections of January 5. In fact, the institutions have increasingly become weaker and losing their vitality and effectiveness. The Tenth Parliament has no opposition as such since the Jatiyo Party now is also a part of the government. The bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies have become more partisan since the election. Many citizens are concerned that the law enforcement agencies are now acting more like personal force of the ruling party.
Since the government formed after January 5 has no popular mandate, it has been trying to stay in power by infringing upon the rights of the citizens. The infraction of the right to expression and peaceful assembly appears to have reached a dangerous level. The state and all its apparatuses are now hyperactive in undermining the rights of citizens, although in a democratic society limits are placed on state's authority.
According to reports published in Prothom Alo (December 10, 2014), there were 82 unaccounted for disappearances in the first nine months of 2014, which is the highest in the last eight years. Although 23 dead bodies were found, there were no traces of 39 other persons. Thus, the right to life of 23 persons was nakedly violated and the lives of other 23 are in danger. According to latest report of Ain O Salish Kendra, the state of human rights is alarming in Bangladesh, with crossfire and enforced disappearances on the rise (The Daily Star, January 1, 2015). In addition, the denial of the rights of the people to vote on January 5, 2014 itself represents a violation of their rights to expression as Courts now recognize that voters exercise such rights through voting [Union of India vs. Association of Democratic Reforms (2002)5SCC294].
To conclude, since 1991 we have had an 'electoral democracy' in Bangladesh, where people could more or less freely exercise their franchise. However, the situation has completely changed after the so-called elections of January 5, 2014, when the vast majority of the people were denied, through manipulations and unfair practices, their right to vote. It is clear from the foregoing that the events of January 5 caused a serious setback in our endeavor to create a 'substantive democracy' in Bangladesh.

January 04, 2015

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