Who will save the sinking ship of democracy?

A drowning man catches at a straw and our civil society is not in a much better predicament. The civil society comes up with many good suggestions, protests against wrongdoings. But the rulers and leaders of state do not pay heed. But when in the opposition, these very same politicians go rushing to the civil society. This self-contradiction has become an incurable disease in our politics.

In September this year, 54 eminent citizens placed a statement before the government, demanding that a law be drawn up to constitute a credible election commission. They said that there was a crisis of confidence in the election system among the people due to the biased behaviour of the past two election commissions. The election commission must be reconstituted in such a manner that it is acceptable to all and people's confidence in the election system is revived.

Other than the civil society, several political parties too have raised the demand for a law to create the new election commission. The law minister Anisul Huq, however, has said a law cannot be enacted in such a short span of time. The election commission will be formed by means of a search committee. Accordingly, the president began talks with registered political parties from 20 December. The election commission registration process is also very complicated. There are many parties more active and with more public support than some parties already registered, but they have not been registered due to certain legal obligations. They should be given an opportunity to join the discussions too.

In this context, 37 eminent citizens on Wednesday came up with another statement, expressing their hope that the ongoing talks between the president and the political parties would lead to a national consensus on matters of importance such a democratic practice, free and fair election, accountability and just an equal application of the law. They said the president's dialogue with the registered political parties is timely and essential. They called for the media and civic bodies to be included in the dialogue.

The citizens in the statement went on to say, "The country has achieved praiseworthy success in several indicators of economic development. But on the flip side of the coin, that is, in elections, equal application of the law, freedom of speech, right to assemble, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other related indicators, we are steadily falling behind.

It cannot be denied that the political parties have long put to rest the pledge to implement democracy and spirit of the liberation war, as committed in the joint declaration of the three political alliances during the 1990 anti-autocracy movement. In the power-play, one party joined hands with the former autocrats and the other with the anti-independence elements. Even so, the civil society representatives hope for a consensus on the lines of the joint declaration drawn up by the three alliances.

While the two statements of the eminent citizens may differ in language and style, they both have made one thing clear and that is, a fair and credible election is essential for democracy and for that, an independent election commission with a backbone of its own must be formed. The few free and fair elections that took place after the fall of Ershad in 1990, were all held on the basis of consensus. Examples can be given of the elections of 1991, 1996 (12 June), 2001 and 2008. So if the 2023 elections are to be free and fair, the political leadership must reach a consensus. This will not be a consensus to keep or bring any party to power. It is a consensus to uphold people's voting rights.

The Rakib commission proved that a spineless election commission can never ensure that the government or the executive adheres to the law. The KM Huda commission proves the same. Bangladesh has never had a commission like that of India's TN Seshan which would keep the executive on its toes. But at least we had the ATM Shamsul Huda and Abu Hena commissions that gave the people free and fair elections despite strongly adverse circumstances.

Former caretaker government advisor, eminent writer and historian, Akbar Ali Khan, explained Bangladesh's political and economic condition in his book 'Obak Bangladesh: Bichitra Chhalanajale Rajniti' (Prothoma Prokashon 2017). The fourth volume of this six-volume book deals with elections, the election commission and election-time government. He presents two examples at the outset. One is about Muslim League leader Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, who was the speaker of the Pakistan National Assembly during Ayub Khan's rule.

Many persons of the minority community lived in Fazlul Quader Chowdhury's area and they did not like Muslim League's communal politics. Fazlul Quader Chowdhury understood this and held meetings with eminent persons of the minority community in his area and highlighted his development work. And then he asked if he could expect their votes, after all the development work he had done. The representatives at the meeting said yes, he could. He replied, "I have secured your votes. You need not take the trouble to come to the voting centres on the day of the election." So on the day of the voting, they really did not come to the voting centres and Fazlul Quader Chowdhury won a landslide victory.

Bangabandhu's Awami League would rely on the people. Awami League of today has made the people outcasts in the elections. Who will save the sinking ship of democracy?

Even in independent Bangladesh, many leaders have followed that policy. They have said, we have got your votes, you need not come to the voting centres. Earlier these directives were addressed to the members of the minority community. Now it is directed to the weaker segments of the population, regardless of community. In the recent union parishad election, the threats, warnings and abuse hurled at the opponent candidates indicates that we continue to ignore the voters in the election politics.

Quoting from Bangabandhu's 'Unfinished Memoirs', Akbar Ali Khan in his book mentioned another incident. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been the Jukta Front candidate from Gopalganj in the 1954 election. The ruling Muslim League resorted all sorts of tactics to defeat him. The 'Unfinished Memoirs' said even the police chief turned up at Gopalganj and clearly ordered his workers to support Muslim League. When Faridpur's district magistrate Altaf Gauhar refused to work in favour of the government, he was transferred and replaced by another official. A few days before the election, Khandakar Shamsul Huq Muktar, Rahmat Jan, Shahidul Islam and Imdad were arrested under the security act. Around 40 eminent persons of a union were arrested. Warrants were issued against another 50 just three days before the election.

The Pakistan rule is over and now Bangladesh is 50 years old. But those at the helm of power continue to apply force before the elections. Their faces have taken on an even more violent look. In Pakistan times there were bureaucrats with integrity like Altaf Gauhar. That is rare now. Bangabandhu's Awami League would rely on the people. Awami League of today has made the people outcasts in the elections. Who will save the sinking ship of democracy?

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet.

* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.