Participatory polls alone won’t change things

AKM Zakaria | Update:

Raonak JahanPolitical scientist and distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Rounaq Jahan spoke to Prothom Alo about the country’s political situation, the coming election and the future of politics in Bangladesh. AKM Zakaria took the interview.

Prothom Alo: The new year also ushers in a new year for the government at the helm. Everyone has some expectations in the new year. What are yours, concerning the country’s politics?

Rounaq Jahan: Everyone wants to have hope and so do I. But when entering the new year, and the new year for the government, we have to take the experience and realities of the last few years into consideration. This does not bode well. But politically speaking, this is an election year and we all hope for the coming election to be fair, peaceful and participatory. 

Prothom Alo: What event or events in the past few years make you apprehensive about the country’s politics?

Rounaq Jahan: Democracy has seen problems in the last few years. The recent confrontation, with the executive and the legislative on one side and the judiciary on the other, is a matter of concern. The office of the chief justice remains vacant. The government has filed a review against the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgement concerning the 16th amendment. The executive has managed to keep the judiciary under pressure. Yet the independence of the judiciary is vital for democracy.

Also dangerous for democracy is the spate of abductions and extrajudicial killings which has been taking place over the recent years. Disappearances created a sense of panic throughout 2017. Many have not returned and those who have turned up, remain silent. Pressure has mounted on the media and the civil society. They have been polarised. And those who try to maintain an independent stand, have been pitched into controversy. Such matters do not give hope for politics or democracy in any country.    

Prothom Alo: Given the politics of the past one year, can we consider that participatory polls are enough for democracy and good governance in the country?

Rounaq Jahan: Elections are essential for democracy and the participation of all is essential for the elections. But in the context of our country, it is seen that those who are elected, get involved in all sorts of undemocratic activities once in power.  

It has become the norm to be oppressed and repressed when in the opposition and then, when in power, to take revenge. Awami League and BNP are the two main parties of the country. Awami League is in power now. If you criticise their undemocratic activities, they will say that when BNP was in power they tried to kill our leaders, even the head of our party. We are doing nothing like that. But the fact remains, the opposition leaders are having to go into hiding. It is not that all of them face criminal charges. The main factor is that they are in the political opposition. Winning and losing is a part of any democratic election, but here the winner takes all and the defeated loses all. A free, fair and participatory election will not change things.

Prothom Alo: So where is this political trend taking us?

Rounaq Jahan: This trend discourages good people from entering politics. Those in politics have to take risks. They know they can do a lot when in power, but will fall into danger once they lose power. So the doors to politics are closed for those who want to do good for the country, but who are unwilling to take such risks. Under the prevailing circumstances only those willing to take risks for the benefits they can reap, are the ones entering politics.

Prothom Alo: When democracy took off afresh after 1990, it had hoped that there would at least be some sort of working relationship between the ruling party and the opposition, but whatever little of that there was, has dwindled to nothing. The situation is in a critical state now. What went wrong?

Rounaq Jahan: I feel the grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina in 2004 changed things. The incident crossed all limits of differences and debate. BNP had also brought a halt to the trial of Bangabandhu’s killers. Several Awami League leaders had been killed too. The things that Awami League did when it came to power in 2009, were much a part of the reaction to all this. Maybe Awami League feels it is too risky to stay out of power.

Prothom Alo: How would you assess the activities of the country’s political parties on the basis of democracy?

Rounaq Jahan: Decision-making in both the major political parties of the country is centralised. The top leader takes all decisions. And there is no third political force that can play any role. Such a force could keep the two major parties under a certain degree of pressure. Many may point to religious parties as a third force, but these are not democratic forces. In developed democracies, there are young progressive parties, like the Green Party. They have a role to play. About 50 per cent of our population comprises youth. Yet there is no spokesperson for them. The absence of a third force in our politics is certainly a problem in our country.

Prothom Alo: If there is a free and fair election, the people will assess Awami League’s performance in government. But has BNP been able to give the people any assurance that they will do better than Awami League if they go to power?

Rounaq Jahan: Awami League will highlight economic success and development. But the party must keep in mind, though the election is at a national level, the bottom line remains that the election takes place at a local level. There are internal conflicts and clashes over party nomination. The image of those in power, or to be nominated, is an important factor too. Many of them have harassed the local people and are in their bad books. Their anger will be manifest in the election.

Meanwhile, BNP has the same leadership with no new faces. Perhaps they are being oppressed and repressed, and are not being allowed to carry out programmes. Even so, they could devise ways to make their plans and policies clear. They are not doing so.

Prothom Alo: What do you thing Awami League and BNP will be bringing forward to the public before the election?

Rounaq Jahan: Awami League will probably stress the need for continuity to keep up the trend in development. BNP is likely to highlight the undemocratic behavior of the government, the extrajudicial killings, disappearances, abductions and oppression of their party leaders and activists. They may even try to use the Rohingya issue. BNP, for the time being, is not playing its religious or anti-Indian card.   

Prothom Alo: The present and the past prime ministers are leading the two major parties respectively. But the time is drawing near when both parties will require new leadership. How do you foresee that?

Rounaq Jahan: The leadership is not elected democratically in either of the parties. It is all about dynastic politics. The general feeling in BNP is that after Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman will take the helm. In the case of Awami League, things are not so clear. But it is taken for granted that it will all remain within the family. That leadership may be either weak or strong. This dynastic trend in politics has trickled down to the local levels too. This has narrowed the possibility of leaders coming up through a democratic process. 

Prothom Alo: Thank you very much.

Rounaq Jahan: Thank you too.

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