Along with free and fair elections, democracy requires the protection of fundamental human rights, including freedom of association and expression; it also needs the right of the constitutional opposition to oppose and criticise the errant policies and actions of the government party, Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, tells New Age in an interview
New Age: What is the principal crisis of democracy in Bangladesh?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: The principal crisis of Bangladesh is the absence of appropriate leadership. The country has been suffering because of the absence of a class long accustomed to rule. This does not mean that there needs to be a hereditary or self-imposed ruling class. It denotes the emergence and sustenance of a group capable of accountable leadership. Such a group must also be transparent in its conduct of leadership and rule. The problem of Bangladesh has been accentuated by the disuse and misuse of the coping political and administrative institutions it inherited even from its colonial and semi-colonial past.
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?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: The next general elections can be inclusive only if the ruling party needs and wants it to be inclusive. On the other hand, such inclusiveness cannot be realised unless the opposition forces and parties mobilise adequate political strength to make the rulers create conditions for inclusive elections.
The main conditions for making elections inclusive include, firstly, a level playing field for politics and elections for all parties. In the second place, it needs the creation of trust between the contending political forces. In the third place, the ruling class needs to refrain from exercising undue control over the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The coercive machinery of the state must not be misused for the purpose of perpetuating the forces in power.
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?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: It all depends on the conduct of the political actors, especially those in power. If the rulers act with far sight and democratic wisdom, they would let the forces of law and order to work in a non-partisan manner. In that case, society would be free of violence instigated by the ruling as well as opposing forces.
True democracy needs to be fostered and practised to create conditions where people can freely vote for the candidates they want to support. This means the creation of conditions where people are free from the threat of the abuse of state power by the ruling class. It also means the restraining of the practice of violence by the ruler’s operatives under the protection of the government forces. On the other hand, it also means the effective control of violence and terrorism by the undesirable forces in society.
New Age: Elections are, indeed, primary conditions for democracy. What, in your view, are the other factors that make democratic practice meaningful?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: Elections form only a part, although an important part of the democratic framework. They cannot ensure effective democracy. Even the best of elections may lead to autocratic or fascistic rule like that of Adolf Hitler. Along with free and fair elections, democracy requires the protection of fundamental human rights, including freedom of association and expression. It also needs the right of the constitutional opposition to oppose and criticise the errant policies and actions of the government party.
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?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: A constitution is as good as its implementation. The constitution of Bangladesh as it originally was happens to be a sound one, favourable to a people’s democracy. However, on account of historical factors, it has not been able to put in undistorted practice. The fusion of the executive and legislative leadership has left scope for the rise and strengthening of autocratic leadership, especially in a situation where restraining conventions, customs and usages like those in the United Kingdom are not adhered to. This is unfortunate, but this is true. In cases such as Bangladesh, the Westminster type of cabinet parliamentary government has not been brought in spirit but only in form. This has led to the distortion and abuse of the model making it a farce of parliamentary democracy.
New Age: What kind of constitutional reforms would you propose to democratise the state’s constitution and governance?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: No reforms will be of use until the people who are put in power want and learn to practise democracy of the western type. Experiences have shown us that it is possible and easy to abuse the provisions of even the best constitution. As the old saying has it:
‘For forms of governments
‘Let the fools contest
‘That’s best which is administered best.’
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?
Mizanur Rahman Shelley: The state and the government are accountable to people when there is a free and functioning democracy. Such a system can exist only when the people can choose their rulers through free and fair elections at regular intervals. This system also needs the ensuring of fundamental rights, including freedom of association and expression. It inevitably requires an administration and coercive machinery of the state which are strictly neutral and free from the partisan control of the forces in power.
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