Peaceful co-existence or 2/11?
That’s a shot of Farmgate during today’s hartal (from the Daily Star). Bangladesh seems to be heading towards another spate of political violence. For over a year now, I’ve heard speculations of 2/11. Now I am beginning to believe this might be a real threat.
Is there no way out of this cycle of election-andolon-coup?
Five years and five days ago, I posted my first piece on Bangladeshi politics. Over the fold is that UV piece reposted.
But is this a satisfactory story? Suppose we somehow did away with these rotten politicians (by exiling them through deals or jailing them through a fair trial) and a relatively untarnished leadership came to power in a free and fair election. How confident can we be that the honest leaders of 2008 will not turn into kleptocrats by 2018? After all, many viewed BNP as the party of relatively honest and able politicians in 1991. Why did they, as well as those in AL, turn out the way they did? If we are to avoid a return to the pre-1/11 politics, then we need to answer this question squarely.
I contend that the reason our political leaders turned out the way they did is because of the winner-takes-all nature of the pre-1/11 democracy. In the system devised with the 12th Amendment, we elected a parliament that chose the Prime Minister who had unbridled executive power for five years. We didn’t, and still don’t, have an effective local government. Parliamentary oversights need not have been enforced. If the Prime Minister’s party had absolute majority in the parliament (which was actually the case under all three governments), the opposition could be ignored altogether. The ruling party could pass any law as they saw fit, appoint anyone to any post as they saw fit, distribute relief materials as they saw fit, give out procurement tenders as they saw fit – they could control everything from Bangabhaban to your local cricket club for five years. The Prime Minister and whoever had her ears (or whomever she delegated her powers to) could behave like dictators. There was no ‘accountability moment’ save the election once every five years. Meanwhile, the opposition party had nothing to do for five years. Shut out of the political system altogether, they had no every reason to be obscurantist and no reason to cooperate with the government.
In a competitive market, businesses have to produce what consumers want at a low price, and inefficient firms go out of business. In a competitive political system, parties have to deliver what voters want, and unpopular parties lose office. To avoid a defeat, politicians have to improve their performance. That’s how the theory goes. In our democracy, parties were really afraid of losing. So instead of improving their performance, our politicians tried to rig the system any which way they could. This I contend was the fundamental flaw in our political system. We had a system where the logical thing for the ruling party was to bend every rule to coerce the opposition, and the opposition’s best strategy was to obstruct the government every step of the way — we had a system that made peaceful co-existence very difficult.
It took a while for the politicians to realise the complete nature of the system devised under the 12th Amendment. The first democratic government of Begum Zia started out being tolerant, but spooked by a series of set back halfway through its term, they changed tack. The then opposition for its part saw nothing to gain from co-operating. Hardline actions by one side resulted in hardline actions by the other. The Hasina Wajed government realised that the opposition can be muzzled within the democratic set up and election results could be ‘engineered’. The second Begum Zia government, of course, turned these into an art form.
We should note that this kind of non-cooperative behaviour is not unique to Bangladesh. In the US, both houses of the Congress as well as the presidency was under Republican control between 2000 and 2006. The GOP majority ruled in a very partisan manner while doing everything possible to stop a Democrat victory in 2006. But the US political system has a few in-built features against the winner-takes-all situation. Separation of powers between different branches and levels of governments makes it impossible for any one party to control the country for long. Other mature democracies, including our neighbour India, also have similar features. As we demand corrupt politicians be brought to justice through due process, and while we stress the need to return to democracy, we should also discuss and debate reforms that will help peaceful co-existence amongst our politicians.
Let me finish on an upbeat note. I was in Bangladesh in January. I visited three constituencies: one in northern Dhaka where Gen Ershad was expected to run as the Grand Alliance candidate; one just outside Dhaka that went BNP in all three elections and where Begum Zia was expected to run; and one in greater Mymensingh that swung from BNP in 1991 to AL in 1996 to BNP in 2001 and was very much ‘in play’ this time. Most of us would be aware of the role of wall-writings, chika, during election campaigns. In all three constituencies, as far as I could count, wall-writings were pretty evenly split between the two camps. Now think about the context when these were written. By all accounts, one side was hell bent on rigging the election while the other side was ready to resist it violently. By all accounts, we stood on the precipice of a civil war. And even in those weeks, local political activists shared walls for their chikas. Our neta-netris may have found it heard to deal with each other, but at a grass root level peaceful co-existence was possible even in the dark hours of early January.
So, dear readers, what kind of political reforms do you think will help peaceful co-existence amongst our leaders?