Friday, June 08, 2007

Beyond reforms ... towards a functional political process

SABER H. CHOWDHURY

FOR those who view being engaged in politics as a means to an end that being a better future for the country and its people these are indeed challenging times.

For such people, across the spectrum, who are committed to the vision of a progressive, prosperous and democratic Bangladesh, this is also the appropriate moment to wrest the initiative and, in so doing, be a part of a possible solution in taking the country forward.

The unacceptable alternative to this is to continue to be a part of the problem and wait on the sidelines with folded arms, waiting for some miracle to take place.

Despite all the negatives being bandied about, Bangladesh is a country of huge potential and possibility. We have already made significant strides in a number of social and economic areas, and when we think of how much more we could and should have achieved and attained, the cost of missed opportunities becomes depressingly evident.

For Bangladesh, double-digit growth is, thus, neither a luxury nor a pipe dream -- it is now both an imperative as well as a threshold that can and has to be reached. The current focus on reforms in the electoral process as well as political parties is welcome, necessary and legitimate.

Almost all of these reforms that the caretaker government and Election Commission are now advocating were, in fact, put forward by the Awami League-led 14 party alliance as far back as July 2005 and, thereafter, also tabled in Parliament in February 2006.

An election, free of violence and the influence of black money, so that the people are really able to choose representatives of their choice, is what we all seek. The Awami League has also, in the interim, raised the issue of state funding of political parties, an idea that we should all support and help realize.

The necessity for reform was acknowledged and felt by civil society, too, and had these legitimate reforms been accepted by the BNP-Jamaat government, and elections conducted accordingly, we would perhaps not have been in the position we are in today.

Elections sooner rather than later, after completion of the basic reforms necessary to ensure as level a playing field as possible, is clearly the order of the day, and this in turn warrants due resumption of the political process involving engagement of all parties and stakeholders in debating, defining and shaping the period leading up to the polls itself.

Even with most of these in place prior to the elections, and the polls thereafter are technically proper and acceptable (I acknowledge that this in itself is a big ask), the question still remains will we be able to develop a functional political process thereafter?

There is, and has been for a while now, an overwhelming and unexceptional focus on the electoral process itself, but there has hardly been any discourse on what should happen in the period between the elections; I consider this to be equally, if not more, important.

Just as having a constitution which allows full and unhindered practice of democracy within a political party does not ensure that democracy is thriving internally within that party, a transparent, fair and inclusive electoral process does not in itself guarantee that democracy will flourish thereafter at the national level.

In our system of "winner take all," the victor marginalizing and weakening the opposition after elections has been the general trend, and this practice had its most violent, ruthless, deadly and troubling manifestation after the 2001 elections.

Inevitably, this in turn led to a paralysed and dysfunctional polity and political process where the national imperatives of sustained growth and development and welfare of the common citizen were simply not a priority, and did not, for that matter, find a place even at the periphery of the agenda. Parliament too, in this context, understandably wilted and failed to deliver.

The boundary lines of state, government and political party simply vanished, resulting in there being no barriers, divisions or differentiation between them.

Criticism of the government was thus construed as being anti-state and seditious, and the opposition was persecuted accordingly. Side by side, ruling party activists considered government assets as their personal wealth, as evidenced by the large scale, grass-root level plundering and looting of relief materials ranging from tins to clothing and food.

Even if a policy of encouraging democracy within the principal political party actors through voluntary reform initiatives from within and strict enforcement of provisions as may be articulated in Political Party Registration-related legislation were successful, they will not by themselves avoid repetition of a paralysis in the political process as witnessed in the events leading to "one eleven" about five months back.

How to make politics work, and have in place a functional process in between elections in a consistent way to facilitate pursuing of a strong development agenda in taking the country forward, is the challenge that we need to rise to.

The way forward involves creating a facilitating environment for a functional political process, and in this regard the following three areas merit specific consideration.

Too much energy is spent on battling with what each party would like to think happened in the past. History has never been, and cannot be, a matter of wish, imagination or fancy, neither should it be used as a political football for narrow, partisan and selfish motives.

South Africa, a country torn by bitter conflicts and divisions, set up in 1995 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal wounds and move forward. Similarly, Germany came to terms with its past through Vergangenheitsbewältigung -- a composite German word that describes the process of dealing with the past (Vergangenheit = past; Bewältigung = management, coming to terms with), which is perhaps best rendered in English as "struggle to come to terms with the past."

Our glorious freedom struggle, culminating in the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, should be a matter of pride, inspiration, convergence and unity, and not a source of, or origin point for, divergence, disagreement and disunity.

We need to come together as a nation, agree and honour the past and move forward, and for this a reconciliation has to take place. Bangabandhu, as Father of the Nation, and all our national leaders, irrespective of party affiliation, should be duly recognised.

It is a matter of shame and deep concern that 36 years on from liberation we have not even been able to agree on a list of freedom fighters, and the issue of who were war criminals, let alone bringing them to justice, has also not been without controversy.

A truth and reconciliation initiative in Bangladesh's case should, therefore, be seriously considered to enable us have a closure on such issues once for all.

Having done so, we can look to the future, but a forward looking development and growth agenda will only be realised if and when our dream of the future is mightier than our bitter memories of the past, and this is the second point for consideration.

As with India and China in recent times, in Bangladesh too, economics has to take the driver's seat and politics needs to move back and occupy the rear passenger seats.

Now is the hour to focus on, and take full advantage of, our political independence, and use it as a stepping-stone for our economic advancement.

To do so and attain double-digit growth rates, we need to reach across the political divide and build consensus across the political spectrum on a national agenda -- strengthening and capacity building of institutions, upholding rule of law, human rights, dignity and religious freedom for all, and ensuring a significant improvement in governance.

As pointed out by CPD, it is possible to have a two percent increase in growth rates even at existing levels of investment by getting our act together on the governance aspect alone, and if we can manage to win the battle against corruption, a few more percentage points can be added to this.

Within the framework of a bipartisan approach, certain sectors ought to be identified and ring-fenced so that, regardless of a change in government, there is a focus and continuity in policies relating to sectors such as national security, local government, health, education, investment, regional connectivity and optimal use of our natural resources. There must be a consensus that the country urgently needs to move from A to D in terms of growth imperatives, but how we get to that point in terms of strategies and routes can then be alternatives and options that political parties can present to the people to decide.

Rather than trying to marginalize the opposition, and even forcing it towards extinction, the government of the day must take it into confidence and, yes, empower it. It has to be given the space and protection to operate and contribute in Parliament and beyond.

For instance, making some free airtime available to the opposition parties on Bangladesh Television and Bangladesh Betar would be an effective way to ensure their ownership, participation and stake in the system and, consequently, encourage these parties to engage in the process constructively, rather than disengage from it.

The agreement signed in 1998 between the Awami League in government and BNP in opposition, and witnessed by the UNDP, on making Parliament effective, functional and focal point of all activity and initiatives could have been a huge step forward had it been implemented during the tenure of the previous government -- yet another missed opportunity.

Hopefully, the next Parliament will see a full and complete implementation of this agreement in letter and spirit, and we will at last have a worthy Parliament.

I recall when Narashima Rao was prime minister of India, he had invited the then leader of the opposition, Mr. Vajpayee, to lead the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly. Why should such a practice be so remote and distant for us?

On the other hand, in Bangladesh we have the instance of the August 21 grenade attacks on the leader of the opposition as well as a number of MPs which was, despite filing of numerous notices, not even allowed to be discussed in our Parliament.

When the Geneva based Inter Parliamentary Union tried to take up the issue, the speaker of our Parliament tried his best to dissuade them from doing so! The right to dissent and have a different view point from that of the government is fundamental to democracy, and this should be upheld at all times.

In this regard, I have always believed that peaceful, mass-mobilisation oriented programs rather than disrupting hartals should be the order of the day, and besides drawing mass support and appreciation such initiatives also serve as powerful signals.

It is interesting to note that the recent changes in three critical national institutions -- Public Service Commission, Election Commission and Anti-Corruption Commission -- have not generated any protests from the political parties, and the individuals appointed thereof have been on the whole acceptable to all.

Will this, however, be the case when in future an elected government appoints replacements to these positions upon expiry of their terms? I fear not.

However, if an arrangement could be institutionalised wherein a National Committee comprising of the president, prime minister and the leader of the opposition, amongst others, discusses and reviews such potential appointments, then there is some hope.

With neither of the major political forces currently in government, this is the most opportune moment to review, discuss and have resolution of some of these pressing issues. Once the framework for a dialogue is in place, other items such as a possible code of conduct for the political parties can be introduced in the agenda and agreed upon. Much, thus, needs and remains to be done. The current election focused reforms agenda by itself will not ensure that a repeat of the political paralysis leading to the current crisis can indeed be avoided in the future.

Its success, however, will importantly provide a platform and a basis to take the democratic process forward by forging consensus on national imperatives and restoring some of the lost faith and confidence of the citizens on the political system. Speaking from our respective platforms with one voice on all of these pressing priorities of the national agenda will, I hope, pave the way for a culture of democratic dialogue. Unity of thought will then, hopefully translate into unity of action and, through a participatory and functional political process, ensure Bangladesh's march forward towards a prosperous future. Elections will then be an integral part of a dynamic and functional political process and will, in essence, be merely a means to a broader objective, that of growth and development, rather than being an isolated technical process and an end in itself.

Let this be the legacy we leave behind for our next generation. #

Saber H. Chowdhury, former Member of Parliament, is Political Secretary to the former Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina, president of the Awami League