A deadlock situation appears before every election. Why?
The deadlock regarding elections is not new in Bangladesh. One of the reasons for this is the political parties walked through an avenue of temporary solution to incept the democratic government system. At the final stage of the anti-Ershad movement a three-party outline was drafted. The political parties did not follow that. The parliamentary democracy was reinstated in Bangladesh in 1991 through the election under a caretaker government led by Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed. After the elections both Awami League and BNP went back to their own political ways. In the following years, they kept the antagonistic ways of politics. They did not keep open the way of fulfilling the three-party outline.
The proposal raised by leftists of elections under caretaker governments in three terms was not followed as well. But, BNP’s attempt of holding elections under a political government rather than the caretaker government was thwarted by Awami League. As a result, the caretaker government system was reinstated through the 13th amendment of the constitution. This system, more or less, remained till 2008 and we saw the ruling party losing every time. Then the 15th amendment took place and the system of election under the caretaker government was abolished.
BNP did not even participate in the 2014 election. We have still been suffering from political losses, loss of democracy regarding the election. The election of 2018 was not accepted as well. Amidst the situation another election is going to take place. I would say, the election under the caretaker government system was a partial reformation. One cannot see any sign of resolving the problem that arose due to contrasting standpoints of the two parties regarding election.
Did BNP incur any damage as a political party for not participating in the 2014 election? What about voters?
BNP did not participate in the election anticipating what would be the result of the polls that was going to be held under a partisan government. They had in mind that the result always goes in favour of the party under which the election is held. The prime minister wanted to give some space. She told them they would be given the home ministry. But the BNP still had doubts about how much the election commission or the election process will be free. Above all, the main demand of the BNP was the caretaker government. They did not give an inch about it. We saw anarchy back then. We are still observing anarchy. The two parties are trading blame for creating this anarchy. Any opportunist group or terrorists may take advantage of this situation. The government suppressed the 2014 anarchy with iron feasts. BNP could come into parliament as an opposition party back then.
But the target of the two main parties of Bangladesh is to get in power at any cost and try to hold it. No one is any less than the other in terms of this. Both the parties face allegations of moving away from democratic norms, not allowing the other to talk in parliament and many other things. How could the BNP contest the election amidst this atmosphere back in 2014? So, they did not follow that path. As a result, the voters were harmed. They could not cast votes.
But BNP returned to election back in 2018? What is the situation now?
Awami League formed a government by winning 153 constituencies unopposed back in 2014. They also consolidated the government so they did not organise any more (parliamentary) elections later. In 2018, BNP had no other option. They would have lost their registration had they not participated in the election. It is not that they did well participating in it. There are many questions about that election. The BNP could not hold any public gatherings after 2018. But since the US imposed a sanction, we have been observing some flexible steps. BNP could organise public gatherings and return to their area. But they are adamant with their one-point demand. And that is the caretaker government. People thought as the de facto opposition could hold public rallies and gatherings, the two parties may reach a consensus. Hopes were raised among people. The pressure from the Western world about holding free and fair elections still persists. But it is seen that the government is no longer taking the advice of the Western world in a positive manner. The governing party has gone back to a stern standpoint once again. As a result, the grand rally of 28 October could not take place. The leaders of the opposition are kept in jail.
Awami League came to power through a free, fair and acceptable election back in 2008. How much a democratic government system could they keep intact?
Bangladesh politics is based on two parties. Maybe there is an alliance, but these two parties will decide which way politics will go. Elected authoritarianism has been incepted here since 1991. Though parliamentary democracy was implemented unanimously, the required conditions for functioning of the parliamentary system such as keeping the parliament functional, implementing oversight activities within the parliament and some other prerequisites have not been followed.
As a result, there was a structural problem from the very beginning. It continued to grow. There were many problems including shutting down the microphones of the opposition party members in parliament, biasness of the Speaker, not forming the parliamentary committees on time. The 5th parliament was busy regularising the ordinances. It was seen that there is no thorough discussion on various bills in parliament, including bills being passed under consideration in the committee. As a result, there have been incidents like Operation Clean Heart.
We have seen the authoritarian behaviour of the elected government. The opposition party also did not continue the cooperation that it had given in the early days of parliamentary democracy. They boycotted the parliament. They did not return to the parliament during the time of protests for a caretaker government. As a result, parliament became ineffective. We saw a continuation of similar behaviour in subsequent parliaments. As a result, we see a hybrid democracy. What we see is a mixture of authoritarianism and democracy. We see democracy in name but authoritarianism in action.
Do you want to say that the institutionalisation of democracy was not proper from the beginning?
Not only the governing party but also the opposition did not make any effort. If we talk about the United Kingdom, the opposition is called Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. They form a shadow government. They have shadow ministers. They scrutinise the actions of the government and propose alternatives. Its purpose is to give people an alternative in the next election. We have not seen anything like this in Bangladesh. Till date we have not heard anything about the shadow government. We talked about the launch of Opposition Day. That didn't happen either. Prime Minister's Question Session is a new addition. But it turns out there are more compliments than constructive questions. Democracy is a sophisticated system of governance. In order to maintain this system, it is necessary to formulate parliamentary norms and implement them with sincerity. We saw its absence. In particular, the contrasting positions of the two parties have played a role in fostering a narrow political culture.
Has any other country of South Asia faced such a crisis like us?
Our neighbouring country India. Their electoral system is very strong. There too, money and muscle power have come to the fore. Recently, a kind of religious ideology has come to the fore. Which has an impact on politics. We are seeing monopolistic influence of religion-based political parties. The Chief Minister of West Bengal called it a party system. Pakistan has a caretaker government. Whichever party forms the government in the country must have the direct support of the army. Maldives had a fair election. Public opinions were reflected in the vote. Maldivian politics is not like ours. There is no country so homogeneous and at the same time so dialectical and conflicting in politics like Bangladesh.
After the revolution in Nepal, the monarchy was abolished. Then they went the way of democracy. Maoists came to power and made many reforms. One of them is proportional representation. In this system, not only the big parties but also the smaller parties are represented in parliament. This mixed system is present in Japan and Germany as well. Bangladesh people have no power to get out of these two parties. To get out of this situation a mixed system could be introduced in Bangladesh as well. Let both the systems remain, if required the proportional representation system could be implemented partially. As a result, the election will be well contested. Social diversity, so-called minority representation (in the so-called democratic system no citizen can be termed as minority) can be present in parliament. We have been trying to talk about proportional representation, in many researches. None paid any heed to this.
Is the political situation of any other country like us? Or is the Bangladesh situation unique?
There are other countries where election irregularities are occurring. Where we see sanctions, there are some similarities to our situation. However, the impact of the sanctions is unclear. The United States, the European Union and even the Australian government have spoken about the Bangladesh elections. Any change in the electoral system or human rights is likely if certain conditions are present. For example, how much interest the country where the ban is imposed has with the country which is imposing it. If a country like Bangladesh depends on those countries, then they have to follow the order. For example, we may talk about the IMF loan.
How much impact of the external forces are in our domestic politics?
Initially, it seemed that their words were being reflected. But now the government is on a hard line. But we still see some steps from the US side. They are talking about holding dialogues and the electoral process free, fair and participatory. The US has interests in the region. There is no longer a unipolar system. China and Russia are also trying to expand their influence in the region. Mitigating their influence is a US security priority in the region. Westerners do not want instability in Bangladesh. They want to keep Bangladesh away from this axis. It is doubtful whether any US initiative taken by ignoring India will be fruitful here. The US and India have common security interests. However, the US is no longer looking at Bangladesh through India's eyes. In the weekly briefing held by the State Department, we see officials directly talking about Bangladesh. The US has unique considerations about Bangladesh. They want the democratic system or human rights that they are talking about to be implemented in Bangladesh.
The election commission is saying they will announce the schedule soon. Awami League is election oriented, BNP is saying the attempts being made to split their party, we have seen the rise of some fringe political parties. Will the election commission go ahead for the election amid these circumstances?
Election commission follows constitutional regulations. They are bound to hold an election within the three months from the end of parliament’s tenure. Now we have been waiting for some miracle to happen to come to a consensus. If there is no consensus, there may be one-sided elections once again. The King's Party is being formed; we are seeing a new party with defectors. But this time the context is different. Voters will see how popular these parties are, how strong they can stand against the ruling party. If those who have public support cannot be brought to the polls, then there will be a one-sided election. This will make the practice of democracy in Bangladesh more problematic.
The rise of King’s Party is not new in Bangladesh? How much is their longevity?
During the Ershad era, 76 parties joined the King's Party in the fourth parliamentary election. ASM Abdur Rab was the leader of the opposition. You have seen what happened to these groups. We have seen the purchasing of MPs. Parliament has been traded seven times in 10 years of Pakistan. When Indira Gandhi left power, the alliance took place. It didn't last. They are not received well by the general public. People consider the leaders and workers of this party to be defectors.
What is the future of BNP as a party?
The future of BNP as a party depends on the ruling party. How far the ruling party will tolerate the political activities of BNP is now a matter of consideration. On the other hand, there is room for generosity from the ruling party, everyone expects that since they are in power, they will come forward on the path of reconciliation. Neither side wants to make concessions. BNP would have had a chance to make concessions if the cases against them had been withdrawn, and the number of arrests would have been less. The core leadership of BNP is also absent. Those who took the helm could not attend the meeting. Even then they tried to keep the party together. When the election comes, many people want to participate. But they cannot go against the high command. After the arrest, the party has become even more leaderless. They have nothing but strikes and blockades. It remains to be seen how they use the public support they have. Again, if the strike continues for a long time, it may have negative effects. Common people are affected.
Do you see any attempt of consensus? What is our future?
Political parties have never walked the path of consensus in Bangladesh. Foreigners have tried before. If we talk about civil society, they have also become biased. The transitional period in Bangladesh politics has already started, now we are heading towards a great crisis. There is still some time before the schedule is announced. Let's see, let’s keep the hope alive.
* The interview, originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Syed Faiz Ahmed.