Changes must take place in the constitution and the electoral process if we are to see any real transformation in the lives of ordinary people in Bangladesh, Zonayed Saki, chief coordinator of Ganasanghati Andolan tells Saydia Gulrukh in an interview with New Age
New Age: What is the principal crisis of democracy in Bangladesh?
Zonayed Saki: I think, in Bangladesh, the immediate crisis is of course the crisis of holding a free, fair and credible election. This crisis is the direct consequence of successive governments’ democratic and kleptocratic (lunthantantra) misrule. However, I must add, the current government is not only taking advantage of the constitutional provision of electoral autocracy, it is also continuously turning the state into an increasingly repressive apparatus. If you look at civil or criminal laws, the kind amendments are made, they are made to disempower people and empower the law enforcement agencies and the state. Most recent example of such legal reform is the draconian Digital Security Act 2018. This act gave more power to the police to arrest anyone on suspicion, while leaving provisions that effectively criminalise investigative journalism. We see the same tendency to delegate more authority to police in the recently proposed anti drug law. Anyone could face life-term imprisonment for just having little amount of drugs in possession, while the influential quarter that makes this transnational traffic of drugs possible remains outside the purview of the law. The demon of a state that they are creating has made people’s life insufferable, but the government must remember that power is not permanent.
New Age: Do you think that the next general elections are going to be inclusive, with all political parties actively taking part? What are the prime conditions for making elections inclusive?
Zonayed Saki: In Bangladesh, the political crisis around national election is persistent. With the fall of military regime in 1990, a temporary solution to this persistent problem was the care taker government. Since there exists an undemocratic power structure and there has been no change in this structure, elections under such government also became corruptible. It was evident in 2006/7. Then, in December 28, 2008, the Awami League took to power through the election organised by the military backed government. They quickly move to make constitutional amendment to abolish the provision of election time care-taker government. In what follows, we have return to the old-style political party managed election system and autocratisation of the entire political system continued. Inevitably, instead of creating situation to resolve the crisis at hand, they have rather intensified the problem. We have seen it in the national election of 2014. It was an election without voters — a historically unprecedented event in which Awami League candidates were declared elected in 153 constituencies uncontested.
Now the government is stubbornly insisting that election will take place without making any change to the situation, it will take place within the constitutional provision which was reshaped by themselves. Even though, when they were in opposition, they called for more than a hundred days nationwide strike for constitutional amendment, waged movement, only took part in the election when their demands were met, situation were favourable for them. Now, they are unwilling to do anything to make the election inclusive. In this context, we [Ganosanhati Andolon] and other political parties and alliances are demanding that parliament must dissolved before the election schedule is declared, a neutral government must be formed in consultation with all political parties, the Election Commission must be reconstituted, the electoral laws must be amended, administration that provides support to the commission must also be reorganised to ensure that all parties are participating in the process on equal footing. Only if these demands are taken into serious consideration and translated into action, can the election be free and fare.
New Age: Do you think that there would be a violence-free environment in and around polling stations, enabling voters to exercise their right to franchise freely? What are the conditions to create a congenial political atmosphere in which people would feel free to vote for candidates of their choice?
Zonayed Saki: We are in this political struggle with the demand for a fair and credible election and we are demanding that the government engage in a dialogue with political parties to work out an acceptable solution. However, the government so far has been unwilling to welcome any dialogue. People and political parties are left with no option but to wage movement to make the government realise their demands. Since, the government is in absolutely unwilling to acknowledge the crisis and politically unprepared to create even a minimum democratic space for political oppositions, the government in a way is inviting violence. They are leading us to a situation in which people and the government are in a face off. In the past, we have witnessed violence erupting from such political situation, now all signs and symptoms of violence are present and the government will be responsible for any violence to be taking place during election. The situation, as it is, will not bring any good to the people or the country. The government must accept the above demands — it will bring positive outcome for its people and party in question.
New Age: Elections are, indeed, primary conditions for democracy. What, in your view, are the other factors that make democratic practice meaningful?
Zonayed Saki: It is absolutely true that a credible election alone cannot ensure democratic transition. Historically, there have been elections that were somewhat fair and inclusive. An inclusive election does not always create equal opportunity for all political parties and it cannot ensure voting rights for all. In those apparently credible elections, we have seen how money played a role, communal issues are capitalised, local administration manipulated through different unfair means. These elements remain. Therefore, even if level playing field is created for the two mainstream political parties, it does not guarantee a level playing field for all people. In the existing electoral procedure, there is no mechanism to control the money or muscle power that manipulates the system. In true sense, people have no right to freely cast their vote and chose their political representatives.
The other aspect that is very crucial to understand our electoral politics and question of national election is that when a party took to power, it monopolises and abuses power in such a way that distraught citizens feel compelled to oust the existing autocracy with the other political party with similar autocratic ambition. That means, even if people don’t approve of the opposition party of the ruling class, they are so disgusted by the ruling party that they vent their anger and frustration by voting another undemocratic opposition party. Without democratising the state and government system that allow political parties in power to become an autocrat, it is near to impossible a task to make change in this voting habits of the people, because they vote for the past autocrat to get rid of the present one. In the existing political system, it will be difficult to break out of this spell.
Two main political parties of the ruling class, they took advantage of this undemocratic system, but the system that they have built thinking that it will allow them to return to power every five years alternatively has also become violent now. We have been witnessing how they [Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League] are stuck in confrontational situations. In fact, one is trying to rule, destroying the other. Therefore, this situation is not only disenfranchising the ordinary citizens, also effecting their own minimum right to participate in election. For their own political sustenance and survival, they must work to democratise the state.
New Age: Bangladesh’s constitution allows ‘electoral autocracy’ in that it provides the scope for a single person to head the state’s executive as well as legislative branches, leaving scope to influence the judiciary. Don’t you think that just credible elections are not enough, under such constitutional regime, to move towards democratic governance?
Zonayed Saki: As I said earlier, constitutionally our state governance system is autocratic. In this system and structure, the head of the state — prime minister has all the authority and power to control state apparatuses. S/he is constitutionally allowed to exert authority over the government, the parliament; s/he can control the judiciary. Inevitably, there is no constitutional provision to check and balance the power of the ruler. Within this system, there is scope for the party in power to partisanise (daliokaron) state, as well as social apparatuses.
In democracy, people have ultimate sovereign power. They exercise that power through vote choosing their representatives. In Bangladesh, people’s representatives in the parliament no longer remain their voice, they become loyal subject of their party. The Article 70 of the constitution does not allow them to vote freely, according to their conscience. Therefore, a law maker can no longer speak for the interest of his/her constituency; s/he maintains her/his position in the parliament through not acknowledging people’s rights and interest. In other words, disempowering the people, power of the rulers is concretised. In that respect, the Article 70 also encouraged an undemocratic cultural growth within the mainstream political parties.
This kind of culture is infested in all aspects of state craft. The separation between state, government and political parties becomes an illusion and establishes structural autocracy that disempowers people in the end. The judiciary and the media — the last resort for people to seek justice, to resolve grievances are also partisainised.
The political party in power may incline to become autocratic, but the state must have the mechanism to check and balance that authority and power. State apparatuses must have built in mechanism to resist the autocratic tendency of the government or the political party in power so that it cannot exercise unquestioned power and influence the state organs.
New Age: What kind of constitutional reforms would you propose to democratise the state’s constitution and governance?
Zonayed Saki:We need to enter into a new social-political contract and for that we need to formulate a new Jatiyo Sanad through dialogue with people at large. We [Ganosanhati Andolon] have already proposed one and presented it to the public and in this Sanad we have said, first and foremost is to bring changes in our constitutional power structure through which there will be a balance of power between the government and parliament, between president and prime minister. To this end, we have to amend the Article 55 of the constitution; we have to scrap Article 70 that has disenfranchised people. The power to make appointment in the constitutional positions should be transferred from the prime minister to the constitutional commission with representation from government, political opposition and the judiciary. We have to introduce proportionate electoral system. To ensure people’s voice, proportionate electoral system is considered the most advanced mode in modern democracy. From appointing the Chief Justice to ensuring the separation of the judiciary we have to take all legal steps.
However, constitutional amendment must go hand in hand with the changes in the electoral system. The kind of political violence and stagnation we are in for the past 47 years, to get out of that situation, we must hold the next three elections under the supervision of care taker government. More importantly, there must be new law to check the use of money to influence the election process. Those in positions of power, they are not interested in such law, because they take advantage of these legal loopholes. Instead of tightening the laws, for loan defaulters regulations are relaxed to widen their participation in election. Therefore, fundamental changes in the electoral process are essential for democratic transition.
We have to establish local government system in its true sense. What we have in Bangladesh that is not local government but local ruling system. The way prime minister exerts authority over the cabinet, similarly, in local context, the parliament members control the local elections and administration. In effect, there is no local government, rather a local system of autocratic rule exists which many refers as ‘MPtantra’. Same scenario prevails in the city corporation elections. Mayors in any elected area cannot work sidestepping the influence of the government bodies. It means, the governance system is centralised in such a way, the power is monopolised in such a manner that at any level of the government — union, district or national — separation of power is absent. Change must take place in the constitution and electoral process, if we are to see any real transformation in the lives of the ordinary people in Bangladesh.
New Age: Successive governments — elected, half-elected or unelected — have always been busy making all kinds of efforts, legal and extralegal, to make people accountable to the state and the government. How could the state and the governments be made accountable to people?
Zonayed Saki:We need some minimum political commitment on certain unresolved national issues. The fact that these issues remain unresolved, they left grounds for political uncertainties and allowed mainstream parties to capitalise on these issues for their partisan political gains. Firstly, we must nationally come to a consensus that Jamat-e-Islami or its affiliates that directly or indirectly worked against the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 and participated in the genocide cannot participate in the political processes in Bangladesh. We must reach a national consensus against political patronisation of religious fundamentalism. We must as a nation commit to respect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. We must come to a consensus that we will resist any legal reform or national policy that discriminates women. Forced disappearance, extra-judicial killing cannot be the norm; whoever is in power must be challenged and made accountable for their failure to protect people’s fundamental right to life. In democratic system, there will be political differences, as a nation we must resist treating difference as divide. Following the spirit of muktijudha — equality, dignity and justice, we must protect our economy and nature, ecology. If we can come to a national consensus on these issues and amend the constitution and electoral process as discussed earlier, then conditions of possibility of a new political system, journey to democracy will be in place for us.
At the moment, the situation we are in, the government seems to be stubbornly marching towards a forced election, they are attempting to impose an unacceptable election on the people at large. In this situation, we urge the government to abandon this political stubbornness and engage in political dialogue. And to the people at large, we urge them to participate in political movements to reclaim their rights and ownership of the state.
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