Thursday, September 13, 2007

Elections ’08: Power to the People

Ambassador Butenis bemoaned recently that she could not see “free and fair” election in Bangladesh before leaving for her new assignment in Iraq. I too share the good ambassador’s frustration. As a Bangladeshi citizen I too would want that our nation could move forward down the democratic path with another of our free and fair elections. After all is not democracy the ultimate destination of any free nation? But then I got thinking? Are we actually a democratic country? Were we ever a democratic country?

I know it is fashionable to say that we have been a practicing democracy since the elections of 1991. After over throwing an autocrat through a popular people lead revolt, we truly had a democratic election. Well participated and actively contested, this election offered hope to the citizens. Unfortunately it has been a downward slide for the nation since then. Though we have had two more “democratic” elections, I am afraid we have not achieved “democracy”!

One definition of the word democracy is “the free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government, often practiced by electing representatives of the people by the people.” So have we had free participation? To an election I suppose, but what about then to the governance afterwards? Have even the Parliamentarians we elected been able to participate in the process we elected them to? Now I am sure I don’t need to debate here the utter failure of the experimentation. Even the ardent supporters of the past regimes will agree with me, that the failure of democracy to live true to its definition is unquestionable.

Ambassador Butenis, I am sure will soon find out in her new posting, that an election for the sake of an election is no indication of people’s will. It is easy to hold an election but quite different to usher in participation in the political process. So if “free and fair” elections do not necessarily give us democracy, should that be our only goal? Or should our aim be of a higher calling? Maybe to ensure that participation of a vast majority of our citizens in government and the processes of governance should be the ultimate aim of any reform process.

Over the last thousand years, Bangalees have not had much autonomous democratic control of their destinies. We have been ruled during this time from Delhi or London or Islamabad. Even since 1971, our political leaders have often been autocratic leaders. So theoretically speaking we have had at best 15 years in the last 1500 years of free rule. Given this, should we be so sure of what democracy or which model of democracy suits us best? Should we not even spend some time on deliberating on our structure of government and representation?

Let us assume for sake of argument that you good readers have said yes to the questions above and have opted for some debate on the path to democracy we should take. In that case could I offer an alternative roadmap to democracy?

I am a firm believer in the power of the Demos in democracy. That is the common man in the street (or in this case villages) should not only have a say in but also participate in the political process. In our previous incarnation of government, even in the best of light, was limited to 300 or so parliamentarians. Mind you I am not even getting into the debate of Article 70, which in effect, coupled with megalomaniac leaders and ineffective party structure, concentrated power in the hands of, at best 5 people! This concentration of centralised power lead to its wide-scale abuse. Now say if we could divorce the unbridled authority that the legislative members have on the development cash cows and disseminate that to local authority, we would be achieving two things. One we will allow local citizens to have a direct say on what development priorities of a local area should be. And secondly we would allow legislators fulfil their number one task – to legislate.

This simple relook at what democracy actually means will achieve to give power back to the people where it should have come from the first place. Local Upazila Parishads will be allocated a development budget which they will decide on without the interference of the, till date, ever powerful MP. As UP leadership in vast majority of the cases live in the local area and come into interaction with their constituents on a day to day basis, I believe they will be more answerable than the absentee landlords of our previous Jatiya Sangsad. This devolution of power from the central authority to many local authorities will have the most pliable change in the fabric of governance in the nation. And that my friend in my book is the best example of democracy I can think of.

So if keeping to the Caretaker Government’s announced timetable, we have local authority elections by December 2008, we fulfil pledge we took as a nation on 1/11 ’07 of transferring power to an elected government at the earliest possible time.

Now now, I am sure there are puritans amongst us who will equate only Parliamentary elections to democratic handover of power. But why is that the only criteria, the only benchmark of democracy? With my local authority elections (and mind you, effective devolution of power) we are achieving a far stronger participation in governance than any Parliamentary elections under our old structure will allow us.

I am sure the next question on everyone’s minds is, does the unelected Caretaker Government stay on forever? Well of course not. Say we give the elected UP a year to settle in and find their foothold in government. In December 2009 (or Q1 ’10) we hold an election to a “Constitutional Assembly”. I am sure I have a few perplexed readers on my hand. Why do we need to do this? Well easy, we are not sure of what model we should follow. Do we have, say, two houses of Parliament? Or should we replace first-past-the-post with proportional representation? Or even how do we ensure equitable participation of citizens regardless of gender, religious beliefs or ethnic bias? And thousand other questions like this need to be asked, and more importantly debated and answered. Only after this process (say near the end of 2010 or early 2011) we should be bold enough to venture into a Parliamentary election.

I know many of my readers are sceptical of allowing an unelected CTG stay in power for so long. But the solution to that is in two folds. Firstly as discussed often, we need to broad base the actual cabinet. The idea of a National Unity Government (NUG) drawing from a larger cross section of political parties and apolitical activists (I did not want to use the word “civil society”) seems quite attractive a proposition. Secondly on a supervisory role we have a “Panel of Elders”. Say a body of 10 prominent and acceptable elders who act as a national conscience. The NUG will fix policy and implement them and the Panel of Elder will offer advice, guidance and most importantly critic.

The election for the sake of an election is not and cannot be the only answer to democracy. It is through a creative re-evaluation of what the ultimate objective of the reform process is, will we be able to fix priorities that will help us achieve a robust and long-term solution to the problem that have plagued our race for a millennium. There is an earnest effort for the citizens of Bangladesh to break out of the endless cycle of cynicism and corruption. Our friend Ambassador Butenis and her colleagues I am sure will appreciate this desire for self-rule that yearns in the heart of most Bangladeshis. And hopefully they will accept the paradox that for the emergence of true democracy, the only target cannot be the speed at which we attain it.