Except for a very small minority at farthest ends of the polarized political spectrum and a few habitual skeptics thrown-in, there is general agreement that Bangladesh should have a democratic system of government. With such broad consensus on the basics, it is exasperating for most citizens to be caught in the battle over how the next election is to be conducted. This controversy has been driving the political crisis for some time now, manifested in endless agitations, disruption of normal life, loss of work-days & income, property damages, violence, even loss of lives. It is extracting exorbitantly high price from individuals as well as society as a whole. Expression of dissent is expected in a democracy, but anarchy serves no useful purpose.
It is true that Bangladesh did not become the ‘basket case’ Henry Kissinger predicted. It is praised for its modest increase in GDP, and is able to, more or less, to feed itself, even with a very large population. A recent UNDP report states that it is doing better than other SARC countries in educating women. And it has a cricket team that is not too shabby either, notwithstanding the recent unflattering revelations about unethical behavior by players! It is doing well by some measures, but not so much when it comes to political stability. This can have repercussions for areas in which it does well, as the review of the latest budget by Center for Policy Dialogue points out.
Fact is that the victory in the 1971 Liberation War was not sufficient to settle all the thorny questions that arose after 1947 and some lingering from before. Besides being a class divided society, it contains other differentiations and some vestiges of feudal traditions, all of which, singularly or in various permutations trigger instability. This was on display last spring when murderous fanatics caused mayhem demanding imposition of theocracy in the name of a religion that is purported to be synonymous with peace! The Shahbag Square movement represented other aspects of the differentiation. In spite of all that, and to some, as a way to cope with the inherent heterogeneousness we live in, an emphatic commitment to democracy has emerged overcoming several attempts at its derailment. Given what the country has gone through to get to this stage, the continuing controversy over a Care-taker Government (CG) to hold the elections seems ridiculous.
The public position of the two major parties on conducting the parliamentary election is well known. Yet, speculation goes on about what might be the internal readings of the Awami League (AL) & the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of their chances with the electorate, and how much that informs their respective uncompromising positions. In a recent opinion piece well known leftist scholar Badruddin Omar (http://www.ejugantor.com/2013/05/19/index.php,) predicts near elimination of AL in the upcoming polls. Other sources indicate that BNP is perceived as rudderless, especially without the hire-apparent on the scene. Both parties seem to have painted themselves into corners! That however could change; BNP has been fielding candidates in local elections with AL in power; so, it may ‘find’ justification to do so in the national elections eventually.
What is disturbing however is that while the debate over ‘form’ rages on, the ‘content’ is getting ignored: very little attention is being given to what would be the basis, beyond just ‘trust us’, for the voters to choose between AL & BNP, or anyone else, if we are lucky enough to have a choice? Little attention is given to what they will do differently to address myriads of problems that people face.
Consider the economy: what distinguishes AL & BNP in terms of economic policies? The policy to privatize the economy, initiated by Khondoker Mustaque, who was put in charge by the military junta after assassinating the Father of the Nation and with him his version of socialism, remains in effect. The failed attempt at socialism in early years persuaded most, including many on the left that neither the objective nor the subjective conditions for following a socialist path obtains at present; it seem to have led to the policy reflected in the formulation: “Revolutionary democratic transition towards socialism”, with loaded meanings & implications.
After 1975 the door was opened to all manner of enticements for private entrepreneurs to try their luck at making fortunes, on the assumption that it would-trickle down to public good. However, inadequate capital & investment, a week and unprepared entrepreneur class, lack of infrastructure, pressures to find jobs for a large, mostly unskilled work force, and a host of other problems needing attention since liberation, agency for mediation/intervention became essential, and the state apparatus had to step in to the role of facilitator and patron of the emerging capitalist class. Most nationalized units were sold off to the well-connected often for a song; also made easy were bank loans, sometimes requiring nothing other than ‘connections’ as collaterals. World Bank and other international funding agencies were invited in to help with a development, especially to restore and expand infrastructure; non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were allowed in for the purpose of delivering services (and resources) to needs that often get neglected under mega-projects. Most important steps taken were to facilitate ‘export’ of Bangladesh’s (surplus) labor power abroad, especially to Middle East; and, helping with the creation of an export-based garment industry made & kept attractive by offering the labor power of one of the lowest wage earners in the world. Steady increases of state involvement and liberalization have progressed hand in hand. Both AL & BNP have embraced this model whole-heartedly. This version of neo-liberal economic model that includes a prominent role of the state has given rise to crony capitalism. It entails protection of the owners of wealth at a cost as punitive to the working class, the poor & middle class as they will put up with. Consequences are values that tolerate practices which lead to tragedies such as the Rana Plaza massacre or the Tarzeen Factory fire. Such tragedies have occurred during both AL & BNP’s watch.
Front & center among issues for the next election should be how to empower the workers to protect themselves, and which party has the best idea on how to do so without shutting down the factories. Those who are seeking state power should be required to try to convince the voters that they have realistic plans to improve the quality of life of the working people & address the growing disparities between segments of the population and the economic stress on the poor. A colossal problem facing the country is life after the garment industry: what happens after it leaves, as it inevitably will when workers willing to work for even less, may be in countries of Africa, start to compete? Where is the accumulated capital from the garment sector going, where is reinvestment? Where is diversification of the economy? Where is a plan for employment of the millions without jobs? True, in the neo-liberal scheme, much of these decisions are supposed to be made by the private individuals. However, given the role the state plays in facilitating private profit, surely it can use its leverage to encourage, even incentivize reinvestment in the country and penalize capital flight to overseas bank accounts. What is the purpose of a national election if it is not the occasion to engage parties and voters in these issues?
The two parties also converge in public perception for their less than stellar performance in governance. Both are notorious in their incompetence, propensity for corruption, nepotism, abuse of power and heavy-handedness towards the opposition, dissenters and the press. Cities are overcrowded no matter who is in power; public health is threatened by air pollution, lack of access to safe potable water; pollutants are chocking the waterways; degradation, outright occupation of the commons by the private sector goes on.
Controversy over CG is a distraction from the serious problem of growing nefarious influence of money in politics; the electoral system is thoroughly infected by money-virus. Both parties are spending large sums to get elected and are eagerly financed by the businesses. According to a report from Transparency International Bangladesh (http://www.ti-bangladesh.org/oldweb/crc/EPT_Ex%20Sum_English_Final.pdf), on the 2008 election, by the last day of withdrawal of nomination, on average Tk. 15 lacs were already spent per candidate! The implications are ominous: no one spends that kind of money without expectation of return on the investment. Politics has become a commodity. Garment industry owners or persons connected are increasingly seeking & wining seats in the Parliament under both AL & BNP banners, thus strengthening their direct & indirect grip on state power.
The other side of the coin is that high cost of election keeps smaller parties out of competition, depriving the country of independent voices in the Parliament. It precludes challenges to the status quo and severely limits the promises of democracy. Indeed, deep rooted resentment with preemption of political space by AL & BNP was clearly visible in the uprising led by the mostly non-partisan young bloggers who gathered at Shabag Square. They loudly declared their support for democracy. The unprecedented spontaneous protests forced the purveyors of ultra-reactionary politics to reveal themselves, as well as their patrons, funders and manipulators. Though probably reluctant to indulge in electoral politics, the generation that was not intimidated by assassination attempts on their lives, will surely have little incentive to do so because of the heavy financial burden of participating in the electoral process.
The key role of the state in the neo-liberal economic system in Bangladesh outlined above and the political structures that have come into being as a result make it abundantly clear that the two major parties are both parties of the capitalists; they and the bourgeoisie they represent constitute the ruling class of Bangladesh. Persistent resistance against usurpation of democracy by few is essential to limit the extent of control by the moneyed minority and expose the hypocrisies & limitations of bourgeois democracy.
Problem is that in spite of commitment to democracy, institutions to make it work are few & weak; the unsettled issue of how best to conduct the elections is emblematic. Free and fair elections are fundamental requirements of democracy. It is essential that the system set up for this include an institution to be responsible for managing the election from start to finish; and, a financing mechanism making it feasible for all serious candidates to compete.
There already exists the Bangladesh Election Commission (EC) to manage the elections. But the demand for CG is indicative of lack of trust regarding its ability to perform its duties neutrally and especially, without being influenced by the party in power. It would seem that the real and permanent resolution of the current stalemate over CG for election is for all parties to engage in designing a system that would strengthen the EC, ensuring that it is shielded from external influence, no matter who is in power, but is itself empowered to do all that is necessary to conduct elections that voters can trust. There is nothing wrong for the government to stay put during the election as long as it has nothing to do with running the election. It could have eliminated the fear of interference with the election by entering into a discussion with BNP & others on how to make the EC impervious to external influence. Our neighbor India, with as cantankerous a collection of political parties as ours, seems to have solved the problem by creating such an instrument, and we should follow suit; no point wasting time and resources reinventing the wheel.
Limiting influence of money in politics in general, and during elections in particular, are essential if the democratic process is to have any credibility. We should revive and extol the virtues of public service for its own sake, much respected in Bengali culture – recall public’s respect for many of our people fighting the British, for rights of workers, oppressed people, for the right to speak our mother tongue, etc. Also necessary is to make the candidates more accountable to the constituency and not just the party. If a free, responsible press is allowed to operate and if all politicians are pressed to make public all their financial dealings, influence of money might be less. This is possible, but only if the public demands it.
It is also necessary to make running for elected office at all levels affordable to any serious candidate who is willing to serve the public. Consideration should be given to public financing of elections. This can be administered by the EC and expenditures made part of the budget for EC. With these funds, time in mass media (TV, radio) can be paid for all candidates. Further control on the process can be exerted by limiting the private expenditure as well. Additional reduction can be gained by limiting campaign time. This can be done by either imposing limits on available public funds, or by limiting allowable expenditure, or by a combination of the two, per candidate. What is needed is earnest public debate on how to minimize the undermining influence of money in Bangladesh’s political life. Current strong hold of the duopoly is not in the best interest of democracy, and the way to end it is to make competing for elected offices affordable. Both the issues of influence of money and that of making running for public office affordable can benefit from vigorous debate. None of the steps that need to be taken are easy even when everyone agrees. But since most also agree that democracy is how we can best manage our collective lives, surely, most will agree on the need to take the necessary steps to make it work.
Democracy has evolved to serve the objective social-political need to function as the instrument of negotiation between conflicting classes, and other differentials (religion, ethnicity, language, etc.) that reflect our heterogeneity. While the privileged have tried to dominate its use, the multitudes have demanded its extension to include increasingly more, resulting in gains such as universal suffrage. It is in that constant struggle between the privileged dominants of the society and the dominated that democracy will reach its true promise beyond bourgeois democracy phase, provided society is able to rid itself of the root cause of dominance and conflict: shortage of necessities for sustaining all lives. The challenge of our time is how to provide for that necessity.
Democracy is indispensable for building consensus to determine what that necessity ought to be. Having the experience of capitalist economy’s devastating impact on the decreasing habitability of the planet, we are confronted with the most complex challenge: conceiving and forming sustainable societies that recognizes: (a) resource constraints; and, (b) limitation of the assimilative capacity of our environment to mitigate the unavoidable deleterious impact of our presence in it. However, this cannot be accomplished under capitalism, which depends on individuals making selfish economic decisions, in the process pushing us to the brink of possible extinction. Sustainability on the other hand is collective need, requires collective responsibility & engagement. Sustainability is not possible while poverty, oppression and injustice persists for many, and the privileged few indulge in conspicuous wasteful consumption. Capitalism thrives on this, but its reign must end if human race is to survive. For that, revolutionary changes will be needed, and democracy can help with transition towards that goal. But first we need to simplify elections the public can trust, and then spend our energy on what the elections are supposed to be about.