Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Too little, too late for democratic roadmap for Bangladesh


ON THE eve of the military installed interim government’s chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed’s crucial address to the nation was interpreted in a first-page commentary by Nayeemul Islam Khan in a Bangladesh newspaper Amader Shomoy, that it would be a “landmark speech” and hopes it would be a “magna carta” for the Bangalee nation.

Millions at home and thousands Bangladeshi immigrants abroad glued themselves on TV screens for live broadcast of the chief adviser which was expected to give clear direction regarding transition to democratic road map.

In fact the over-zealous military bulldozed the constitutional means of transition to democracy in January 2007, fired the caretaker government, declared state of emergency and of course installed an interim government with hand-picked advisers they hire and fire.

Well the much ado Monday speech to the nation was too little and too late for restoration of democracy. Though the election has been planned days after the Victory Day celebration in December, the chief adviser deliberately avoided any commitment about the deadline to withdraw the dreaded emergency.

It seems that the chief adviser was cruel about the aspiration of the people at large and instead advised the political parties should not to question the results of the general elections. When the “Election Commission, which has already made itself controversial through various actions and inactions and whose credibility remains eminently questionable,” remarks an editorial in New Age.

Despite passionate request to withdraw emergency rule by political parties, the adviser have made it clear that the emergency has come to stay. But was benevolent to relax or suspend certain provisions of the Emergency Powers Rules as and when his government deemed it fit.

Aptly said by a university teacher that the withdrawal of emergency is a prerequisite for dialogue, which has disappointed the nation. The political concessions laid out to the nation is a political farce.

1. The long-running ban on indoor politics all across the country will ease from May 13.
2. The government will start dialogue with political parties, starting on May 22. The Chief Adviser's Office will send out invitation letters to political parties from Tuesday.
3. The government will either relax or suspend certain provisions in the emergency powers rules to facilitate electioneering and create a proper context for the polls.
4. Ahead of elections, the government will form a national charter with the opinions of all related parties, which is meant to bring a qualitative change to government and politics.

In a bid to create a “congenial atmosphere” for elections, the indoor politics would continue to be “indoors”. With conditions attached there are half a dozen do’s and don’ts which flouts the constitutional provision of freedom of assembly and fundamental rights. The political parties cannot assemble more than 50 people during indoor activities. The meeting agenda will discuss organisational issues only. They cannot use public address system. Media cannot broadcast live of the political events. The venue of meetings is limited to designated places. Lastly the party have to inform the nearest police station at least 48 hours before the event. Possibly to ensure transparency of indoor politics! Well Ahmed could have said it.

He did not mention the names nor indirectly referred the two women leaders Khaleda Zia and Shiekh Hasina languishing in prisons. Well he also did not hint whether the interim government has dropped the “minus-two” formula. He failed to mention their status of standing trial for corruptions and extortions. Even he did not indicate whether they could be invited for the political dialogue. Also it is not clear whether they can participate in the planned election in end of this year. A total blackout!

Fakhruddin said, "The precondition of a meaningful, free, fair and acceptable election was checking black money and muscle power, establishing the rule of law, conducting an anti-corruption drive, improving law and order and, above all, making state institutions effective and dynamic."

Whereas the Brussels based International Crisis Group recent report in April 2008 states: The caretaker government, along with the international community, must take credible steps to restore democracy to Bangladesh ahead of the December 2008 general elections.

His dramatic words “golden opportunity” and “golden future” for the nation has been marred in the wake of series of failure to break the culture of criminalisation of politics, institutionalisation of corruption, organised crime, money laundering, and accumulation of black money, and punish profiteering traders.

Ahmed for obvious reasons avoided whether the dialogue would have open-ended agenda to ensure guaranteed transition to democracy.

It is understood from insiders that “National Charter” to reach a consensus would be the guideline for dialogue with mainstream political parties and allies. Failure to comply with the charter, the political parties and party leaders would be punished, banished and barred. It is game of snake and ladder!

Instead of the so-called National Charter, the authority could have developed a Commission for Integrity of the Democratically Elected Public Representatives, which could have been a bible for politicians and elected leaders in public offices. Thus refrain from exercising threats and coercion from the top on reforms of political parties.

From Ahmed’s words it is understood that the authorities ceased “implementation of an internal reform of the political parties voluntarily.” He further said that the nation expects implementation of the expected reform for providing the nation with democratic behaviour, honest, efficient and dynamic leadership.

When the international watchdogs and donor consortiums are demanding for a credible election, the caretaker government's main aim, according to the chief adviser, was to hold a "free, fair, neutral and acceptable election and start a post-election healthy democratic system".

The piece de resistance of his speech came when he claimed that his government was committed to establishing the rule of law. With the people’s fundamental rights suspended under a state of emergency, complaints galore of the judiciary not being allowed to function freely, mass media forced to work in a suffocating environment created by illegal interference almost on a routine basis by a security intelligence agency, such talks surely come as empty rhetoric, writes an editorial in New Age, an English language daily published from capital Dhaka.

Meanwhile the editors and journalist’s professional bodies on the eve of the address to the state by Chief Adviser underlined a red area in exercising their profession and remarked "invisible, unwritten pressure and control over the media". The journalists expressed their indignation over the looming crisis the media is going through during the state of emergency.

Notwithstanding Ahmed hoped that after his address all questions, suspicious and speculations centering election will come to an end. But political observers understand that the real motive and intention of the military backed authorities will further deepen. The political parties are pushed into a corner, like a whisker-cat trapping a mouse, when the delimitation have been drawn in the political bout. The road to democracy has in fact has come to a difficult cross road of military rule, emergency and economic stagnation. The speculation and suspicions will obviously gather moss, which will turn into a political crisis. #

First published in E-Bangladesh.org, May 13, 2008

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow - a journalist best known for his investigative reporting on military oppression in CHT and Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh. Currently living in exile in Canada for his articles in Time, Tehelka.com, Daily Times. He specializes on intelligence, security, conflict, Islamic militancy in South Asia. He is currently
editor of DurDesh.net