Elections are not the only means, they are the primary condition. It is the beginning of the journey to democracy, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party standing committee member Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain tells Rashed Ahmed Mitul in an interview with New Age
New Age: What is the principal crisis of democracy in Bangladesh?
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain: Now there is no democracy in Bangladesh. There is no democratic atmosphere. The administration, legislative and judiciary are not functioning following the democratic ethos. Now everything is centered on a person.
The principal thing in democracy is that the country would be governed taking opinions of people. This primary condition is absent in the way the incumbent is ruling the government. It is because the present government is not elected by people’s vote. It is not a people’s government when it is established without a free, fair, neutral and participatory election.
Democracy is absent now in Bangladesh by all definitions. In a democratic society, government is established for, by and of the people. In the last general election held on January 5, 2014, all candidates except Awami League had boycotted the election in 154 parliamentary seats. People did not cast vote to anyone in majority of the parliamentary seats. In parliamentary form of democracy, the government is established with the support of the majority members of parliament. Therefore, the present government is the government of vote of boycott. Now, the fact that the law makers claim themselves as the government of the majority, they did not come to power through people’s vote. In what follows, the democratic character of the government was destroyed. The present government is not elected by people.
The government is running the country in fascist and autocratic style. There is no accountability to people. The government’s chain of command was destroyed. We see the government has no control — the robbery of thousands of crores of taka from banks, plundering of share market, Bangladesh Bank cyber heist, stealing gold from the volt of Bangladesh Bank. Coal, stone, sand and soil across the country are being looted. Leaders and activists of the ruling party are involved in reckless extortion and tender manipulation across the country. They are repressing people in various ways as the government has no control over them. Police in the name of filing case are involved in rampant ‘arrest business’. And, as the government is unelected, it feels no obligation and responsibility towards people.
If the government is not elected by people’s vote, any machinery of the state — administration, legislative and judiciary — inevitably will not behave democratically. They are prompted to behave autocratically. That is why, we now see that all three organs of the state are totally under the authority of the government. They are working at the instruction of the government.
We have already seen, in the biographical title of the former Chief Justice of Bangladesh SK Sinha, how he has described his ordeal and raised a very poignant question — if the Chief Justice is refused justice, the fate of the rest in the country is easily imaginable. He mentioned, over last few years, the written verdicts of court were sent from Ganobhaban and judges read out those judgments. This is not acceptable, rather painful. In an independent country, the judiciary is constitutionally independent. Today, judiciary has hardly any freedom.
People’s last resort is the judiciary. Unfortunately, we have no rule of law, good governance and justice in Bangladesh. The major challenge for Bangladesh is to restore democracy and people’s rights.
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?
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain: In 1996, the incumbent prime minister Sheikh Hasina was the one who had first raised the question that, in our country, a free, fair, neutral and inclusive parliament election is not possible under partisan government. The logic behind her proposition was that the two major political parties in Bangladesh which either sits in power or goes to the opposition do not enjoy each other’s trust.
In Bangladesh, the Election Commission is constitutionally assigned to conduct the election independently; however, their power and manpower are limited. Therefore, the commission has to depend on the administration. During the election, the district administrators are appointed as returning officers, district superintendents of police are assigned for maintaining law and order, upazila nirbahi officer is appointed as assistant returning officer and officer-in-charge of thana is assigned to maintain law and order at grassroots during election. If the government is partisan, then DC, SP, UNO and OC never could gain the ability to go against or beyond the government’s authority. Despite the fact that the election commission is constitutionally independent, when a partisan government stay in power, the election will not be neutral as the government controls the administration. This was the present prime minister’s logic. She had launched the movement and called for a 173 days hartal for poll-time non-party neutral caretaker government.
Following general election in February 1996, our leader Begum Khaleda Zia incorporated the non-party caretaker government system in the constitution respecting the public demand. In 1991, despite there was no provision of caretaker government system in the constitution, poll-time neutral government was formed which was led by Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed following the understanding of the two major political parties, the parties that joined the movement to oust the autocratic regime of General HM Ershad. After that, under the governance of caretaker administration four general elections took place in the country. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party won two of those four elections and Awami League won the other two. It was proved that people can change government through election. The caretaker government was a settled matter.
The present government for its own vested interest made amendment and canceled the constitutional provision of caretaker government. It did so to perpetuate its power and unofficially return to the era of Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League. Now, we are again faced with this crisis of election time government. The main opposition, BNP that came to power several times with people’s approval, boycotted the January 5, 2014 general election under the control of Sheikh Hasina’s government. We have boycotted the election with the same logic the current prime minister used to justify her decision in 1996, that fair election does not take place under partisan government. In 2014, candidates had boycotted elections in 154 parliament seats. In other seats, only 10 per cent voters did go to polling centers to cast their votes. It proves that free, fair and neutral poll cannot take place under partisan government.
We are very hopeful, we believe that the next general election will be competitive, but a level playing field for all parties to participate in election process is the need of the hour. We, National United Front have placed seven demands to be implemented before the announcement of the election schedule. Our demands include resignation of the present government, dissolution of present parliament, the formation of poll-time neutral government after dialogues with all political parties, deployment of army, no use of electronic voting machine and the reconstitution of the Election Commission as the commission already proved itself to be subservient to the present government. The commission is incapable of doing anything without the instruction of the government. We also demanded the release of our imprisoned leader Khaleda Zia to ensure an inclusive poll.
On January 5, 2014 general election, it was proven that without the participation of Khaleda Zia and her party, people do not accept the election. If our demands are met, I think there will be an inclusive poll. For BNP, BNP-led alliance and Jatiya Oikya Front would then participate in the national election, people’s voting rights would be restored, a democratically elected government will be installed.
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?
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain: If a level playing field is created and our seven-point demands are met, if congenial atmosphere is created ensuring people right to cast their vote without fear in polling centers, then I don’t think, there will be any kind of violence. Four elections held under neutral caretaker governments in the past, there was no violence. If seven demands of National United Front are implemented, a violence free environment can be ensured. But, there remains fear of violence, if unilateral poll is held, if the government attempts to repeat the general election of 2014.
New Age: Elections are, indeed, primary conditions for democracy. What, in your view, are the other factors that make democratic practice meaningful?
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain: I agree, election is not the only pre-condition for democracy. This is a means to achieve a democratic society, but democratic government, good governance and government’s accountability to people are established through contested election.
However, election is not the only means, it is the primary pre-condition, it is the beginning of the journey to democracy. If good governance, law enforcement agencies judiciary and the government are accountable to people, then the ingredients to establish a democratic society are fulfilled. Executive, legislative, judiciary and media — all will have a freedom in democratic system. None will control any one. This is how democratic society will be established.
The National Unity Front places eleven objectives guiding how to make democratic system parliament through establishing justice and good governance with the spirit of Liberation struggle, putting an end to existing autocratic rule and an end to one person-centered executive power, bringing balance of power between parliament, government, president and prime minister. True democratic system will be established if the objectives we have put forward are implemented. We are committed to march towards this end. Therefore, election alone cannot establish democracy, it is an important, necessary pre-condition.
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?
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain: As I said earlier, the number one objective of the National Unity Front is to establish a welfare state based on good governance, justice and the spirit of liberation struggle. We are determined to put an end to the existing authoritarian government system by ensuring balance of power between parliament, government, president and the prime minister, we are determined to eliminate the one-person-centered power by ensuring administrative decntralisation and appointment of an Ombudsman.
Through it, I think electoral autocracy that is permitted in our constitution, we can check and balance the unchallenged power of the government. So, we are saying, we are for balance of power. Electoral autocracy is not acceptable. People do not accept it. We don’t accept it either. So our aim is to put an end to electoral autocracy through decentralisation. So, we are committed to make necessary amendments to the constitution.
New Age: What kind of constitutional reforms would you propose to democratise the state’s constitution and governance?
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain: In future, we will bring reforms to the Constitution that are necessary to create balance of power. We will amend unnecessary parts of the constitution which are not universal, but incorporated to serve the interest of a political party’s ideal and purpose.
In the present constitution, there is a provision under which a number of articles that can never be changed. These articles are totally undemocratic. The constitution needs to be amended in line with the demand of the time considering the changing context, environment and situation. We will form a constitutional commission to identity such issues and amend after public consultation.
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?
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain: I think, this matter is not applicable to all the governments in Bangladesh. It is not true for all the government elected in the past history of Bangladesh. Each government, particularly those came to power through democratic election did not make people hostage to their overwhelming power.
In the case of the current government, it made people hostage to remain in power for perpetuity and establish unofficial rule of BKSAL that we have witnessed in our early history. A free, fair and neutral election is necessary to undo this situation.
If people can elect government by casting vote to their candidates of choice then the government will be accountable to people. People’s government never makes people, its own citizen hostage to its power. Present government is not peoples’ government. There should be an end to this misrule. We are hopeful that the people of Bangladesh will get united against the fascist instrument and will be able to establish peoples’ government through election exercising their voting rights.
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