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Is democracy ‘for, by and of the Family Monarchs’?

Is democracy ‘for, by and

of the Family Monarchs’?

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Two events are almost coinciding in international media when they are focusing on Bangladesh. One is Dr. Muhammed Yunus’ getting Nobel Peace Prize and the other, political chaos and extreme confrontation, which almost certainly puts Bangladesh’s democracy in serious dilemma. Numerous articles, editorials and features are being published in international media on these topics. And of course, the Nobel Peace Prize has brought Bangladesh into global media’s focal point. This might have been positive for the nation, if there was no bad news from the political arena in the country. Power monger leaders of Bangladesh are continuously putting question marks on the future of country’s democracy. There are whispers about emergence of third force or even some thing much beyond general perceptions in this country, under the present politics of uncertainty. Bangladeshi politicians regularly speak of democracy, although in all standards, they do not behave as democrats. They try to use ‘democracy’ or ‘constitution’ for attaining their personal benefits. Politicians want to ride into ‘power horse’ by hook or by crook. That is their one and only agenda. They really do not care about the country or its people. This had been very clearly projected at least in past several weeks. Innocent people were killed like animals on the streets of Bangladesh because of politics of agitation and destruction. Although the politicians are leaving crocodile tear at these tragic deaths, there is valid question in the minds of the peace-loving people of Bangladesh. They question, who are liable for these mass murders? Is there any law in Bangladesh, which could put the responsible politicians on dock for such notoriety? Nah! Because, Bangladesh is possibly one of the very few countries in the world, where politicians have the right to kill innocent people with lame political excuse. Now let us look what global media say about Bangladesh.

This week, internationally acclaimed newsmagazine The Economist published an article captioned ‘Isn’t democracy beautiful?’ In this article, this prestigious periodical wrote, “ON OCTOBER 27th, after five years in power, a coalition of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist allies was due to give way to what is supposed to be a neutral caretaker government. This body is meant to oversee elections due next January, meaning that for three months the two politicians who have taken turns to rule Bangladesh since the early 1990s, the outgoing prime minister Khaleda Zia, the BNP's leader, and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the opposition Awami League (AL), will have no say in affairs of state. That is an arrangement many Bangladeshis would like to see endure.

But Bangladesh's constitution does not limit prime-ministerial terms, so another “battle of the begums” is in store. This round, the fourth since 1991, looks set to be the most severe test for Bangladesh's democracy since the country rid itself of a military dictator, Hossain Mohammad Ershad, in 1990. Rivalry between the two main parties is violent and little checked.

It would help if the new government had an accepted leader. Days before it was due to take power, the main parties broke off talks over who should head both it and the country's election commission. The AL has threatened to call strikes if the country's president does what the constitution says he must, by appointing the previous chief justice, K.M. Hasan, to lead the interim government. It says Mr Hasan is a BNP supporter under whom fair elections will be impossible. Unless he is replaced by a neutral, it threatens to boycott the poll. As has happened lamentably often in Bangladesh, democratic dialogue may now give way to the politics of the street.

If the past is any guide, many people will be killed in mob violence and targeted assassinations. The AL admits that it has distributed staves among its followers for impending battles with BNP supporters. Bangladesh's politicians have been buying up bullet-proof vests in recent weeks, according to Bangla Patrika, a Bengali-language newspaper. Many observers fear the army may step in.

Until the end of last year it had seemed that Islamic militancy was the main threat to Bangladesh. A year ago a militant group called the Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh launched a series of suicide attacks on government offices and law courts. But the coalition government clamped down on the Islamists more firmly than many had predicted. A more mundane spectre, Bangladesh's intensely politicised judiciary, is now a bigger threat to the country's fragile democracy.

Lawyers complain of politically appointed judges at every level and direct government meddling in the lower judiciary. The BNP-led government—like the AL when it was in power—ignored a ruling from the Supreme Court that the judiciary must be made independent. A partisan caretaker government is the result. And indeed the AL has reason to feel victimised. A grenade attack on one of its rallies, in August 2004, nearly killed Sheikh Hasina and left other senior leaders dead or injured; it has not been properly investigated.

It is unclear whether an effective interim government can be formed or decent elections held—always assuming there is no army coup. But, for a welcome change in Bangladesh, the impoverished country's demography does at least offer hope. In this election, for the first time in Bangladesh, seasoned voters with a firm allegiance to one of the two main parties will be outnumbered by voters aged between 18 and 35. This, and general disenchantment with the two main parties, explain why over 50% of voters are still undecided. One party could emerge from the scrimmage with a decisive victory.

That might explain why Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi development economist and this year's Nobel peace prize winner, has suggested that he will launch a political party, creating a third force in the corrupt and chaotic land. Whether he will actually embark on this potentially suicidal plan is also unclear.

International media is quote vocal on Bangladesh’s confronting political situation. Commenting on this situation, Somini Sen Gupta in International Herald Tribune’s October 20 issue wrote,The timing, Bangladeshis confess, could not have been better.

With a troubled election season around the corner, the Nobel Peace Prize comes to Bangladesh as it braces for battle with itself. Or as Muhammad Habibur Rahman, a retired chief justice put it, "The country is in such doldrums, it's a shot in the arm."

This densely populated, grindingly poor country of 147 million people is frequently troubled by doldrums, natural and political. The latest is an impasse between the main political parties over who will take over at the end of next week, when the Bangladesh National Party-led administration is to hand power to a caretaker government.

So bitter are the politics here that the law requires a caretaker to organize elections. The high-stakes haggling over who that should be this year has added to the usual level of distrust in a country where the widespread perception of corruption and the rivalry between the governing party and the opposition have induced a long bout of political paralysis.

The opposition has threatened to boycott the elections, scheduled for early 2007. Its loyalists have clashed repeatedly with the police. Talks to resolve the standoff have proved futile. Adding to the tension is the rise of Islamist militants, who announced their presence by setting off more than 400 homemade bombs across the country 14 months ago.

But now there is the "Yunus effect," as some call it, named for Muhammad Yunus, the micro credit pioneer of Bangladesh and the winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yunus has inspired jubilation amid the gloom. Shegufta Yasmeen, who waited to greet him one morning this week holding white gladioli, said he was "like the light of the moon in a dark room."

Yunus has used his Nobel bully pulpit to gently goad his country's leaders to behave better. Engage in a protracted negotiation, he has urged; work out a deal; exploit the euphoria his award has created. His name has even been floated as a substitute caretaker. He has expressed no enthusiasm for the job.

Since the announcement Oct. 13 of the Nobel, which Yunus shared with his Grameen Bank, songs have been written in his honor. Banners and posters have gone up all over Dhaka, the capital. So many bouquets and wreaths have been dispatched to Grameen headquarters that it is a wonder there are any flowers left in Bangladesh.

Again and again, people here describe the Nobel as a prize second only to the country's freedom from Pakistan in 1971.

To recognize Grameen, of course, is to recognize how such nongovernmental organizations - Bangladesh seems to have more than its share - have stepped in to do a great many things that would normally be expected from government: building schools, offering health care and creating economic opportunities for the poorest in a country that is among the poorest in the world.

Instead, political deadlock has carried the day, pitting the two most powerful women against each other, and the legacies of their respective families.

The prime minister, Khaleda Zia, rose to power after the assassination of her husband, General Ziaur Rahman, the country's military ruler, in 1981. The opposition leader, Sheik Hasina Wazed, is the daughter of the founding Prime Minister, Sheik Mujibur Rahman.

Politics is a winner-take-all game in this country, and the stakes between them are high.

Yunus has called Bangladeshi politics "a bottleneck" to the country's aspirations. Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index, based on surveys of businesspeople and analysts, listed Bangladesh at the bottom, with Chad.

"There's no ideological fight between them," Yunus said of the leaders in an interview here this week. "They go back to what your husband did, what your father did. They have to fight because they came into politics because of their legacy. There's no substance in the politics."

The two leaders are out of the country. "Why don't you just sit down and settle the whole thing?" Yunus wondered in public remarks. "If they don't agree the situation is going to be very explosive. There will be political chaos."

Even by the standards of Bangladesh, the elections are shaping up to be particularly troubling. Today, in private, Bangladeshis say they worry not about whether blood will be spilled before the voting, but how much. Several hundred people were killed just before and after the last general elections, in 2001, and they were not laden with nearly as much controversy as these are.

This time, the opposition Awami League has threatened to boycott, principally over the issue of the chosen caretaker, whom it accuses of being partisan, and the opposition leader, Sheik Hasina, has exhorted her followers into the streets. The governing party has blamed the Awami League for thwarting democracy.

But the opposition has clamored not only against the proposed caretaker, it has also questioned the neutrality of the election commission.

The voter roll is embroiled in controversy. It contains many more names than in the 2001 elections and represents roughly two-thirds of the total population - which a pre-election team dispatched by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a nonprofit group, in September said "strains credibility."

A worry that Bangladeshis largely banished many years ago has recently resurfaced: Will the military step in if there is chaos?

Bangladeshis have been ground down by much more than election uncertainty.

In September violent demonstrations over crippling power failures spilled into the streets of this capital. Garment workers went on strike demanding higher wages. Journalists and political party workers were attacked, some of them fatally.

In spring 2004, the British high commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwar Choudhury, was wounded in a grenade attack on the outskirts of Dhaka. Last month, an outlawed Islamist group took responsibility for the attack. Bangladesh was struck by its first (and only) suicide bombing in December 2005.

The troubles eased earlier in the year, when the government arrested several members of a banned Islamist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahedeen Bangladesh; five have been sentenced to death.

So while gushing comes easily to Bangladeshis these days, the rejoicing is all the more striking for the disquiet that they say they have lived with for so long - and may well have to live with for a while longer.

"We are a nation thirsty for recognition for something good," said Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper, explaining the excitement of the last few days. "The euphoria is absolutely proportionate to the despondency that was there."

Although the Caretaker government has already taken over power from 29th October, there are questions on the neutrality of many of the advisors of the government. On the other hand, major political party Bangladesh Awami League in its official web site says that, ‘Hawa Bhaban’ (political office of Bangladesh Nationalist Party) is controlling the office of the Chief Advisor. Let us have a glimpse on the website of Awami League, where they wrote, “The activities of the Chief Adviser of Caretaker Government including on-going changes in secretariat and police administration, are being influenced by Hawa Bhaban. Bangladesh Television and police administration have failed to prove neutrality till date, alleged coordinator of the 14-party combine Abdul Jalil.

"The president Iajuddin Ahmed took over as chief adviser violating the Constitution. Despite his illness, he took extra responsibilities of the interim government holding 11 portfolios. Considering all these, he should have over the functions of the chief adviser to a non-partisan man to ensure the recast of the Election Commission," he observed.

Abdul Jalil, Awami League General Secretary, was addressing a press conference at the Dhanmondi Awami League office in the capital on Saturday afternoon.

He urged the president to create a congenial atmosphere for holding a free and fair election by removing CEC Abdul Aziz, three election commissioners, and some 327 upazilla election officers and updating the existing voters list as per the order of the Supreme Court.

"We don't believe in any alternative but a fair and credible general election. So no blue-print election will be allowed to be held under this EC which has already lost its acceptability and objectivity, Abdul Jalil said urging the held of the caretaker government to prove his neutrality by November 11.

Referring to the two advisers-Shafi Sami and Sultana Kamal-who met the Awami League president Sheikh Hasina as the representatives of the caretaker government recently, he said, "they met the chief of the 14-party combine as per the president's order and sought more time to prove their neutrality."

"BNP demanded their removal but it did not say anything about the comments of adviser Fazlul Haque against 14-party," blasted the Awami League general secretary saying, "justice Fazlul Haque proved his partisan role and he must bed apology for this comments."

He called upon the CEC Abdul Aziz to resign from this post respective the people's demand in order to save the country from a political crisis.

Abdul Jalil reiterated the demands for cancellation of all political and contractual appointments and reforms of the Election Commission to prove the neutrality of the chief adviser of caretaker government.” On the other hand, BNP’s web site does not contain any information on the current political situation. Virtually there is no information in that web site, except the message of the site being ‘under construction’. But, according to press reports, BNP led 4-Party coalition has already raised objection about the neutrality of Caretaker Government’s advisor C.M. Shafi Sami and Advocate Sultana Kamal for their recent secret meeting with Awami League chief during mid night. The advisors went to Sheikh Hasina’s residence in a private car without taking any police protocol. On the other hand, it is also alleged that Advocate Sultana Kamal is an active member of a particular pro-Awami League political front. She also works for Dr. Kamal’s Ain-o-shalish Kendra. According to constitutional provisions, politically affiliated figures are not supposed to be included in the care taker government. But, this time it did happen. Because, at least six of the advisors in the caretaker government are directly nominated by the political parties. Under any debate, there is no room to believe that, the present care taker government in Bangladesh is neutral. Rather, it is a combination of some people, duly nominated by two of the major political fronts. Although request or nomination from other political forces, such as Jatiya Party or Liberal Democratic Party were not taken into consideration for reason unknown. According to political analysts, fate of Bangladesh’s politics and democracy unfortunately goes into the tights grips of BNP and Awami League. And, very interestingly, there is no democracy within the two major political parties. Even Ershad’s Jatiya Party is a mere ‘private limited company’ for the former military dictator. Basically both BNP and AL have established a kind of family monarchism under the garb of so-called democratic politics. Everyone knows for sure, who is the next kin of AL or BNP. Leaders, who are sacrificing their blood and sweat for the parties, certainly shall not be ever blessed to become top figures in any of these political parties. They will have to continue dedicating their energy and time, either to become a minister, when their party gets into power, and make some million dollars through corruption; and remain as ‘faithful’ devotees of the members of any of the two ‘royal families’. Although Bangladesh does not have monarchism, but, it has even worst form of governing system called ‘family monarchism’. And, unfortunately, there is no way out of this extremely difficult situation. Fate of democracy, constitution and very sovereignty of Bangladesh, absolutely depends on the ego of the members of two families, who will possibly rule this country for next several decades?

Posted on 08 Nov 2006 by Root

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