The Goal is Institutionalization of Democracy

Khandakar Qudrat-I Elahi

Democracy, as Churchill said, is not the best form of government. It has, however, qualities which offer better prospects, to promote public welfare, than any other system known to us. But, it is indeed the worst form of government, if political parties do not follow its principles... Institutionalization of democracy is our goal.

Great men have one virtue in common they never lose hope in their fellow beings. Socrates refused to blame Athenian court for condemning him to death. He taught, "Man does not err voluntarily." Religious leaders suffered all kinds of atrocities to preach and teach that God loves all, including those who disobey Him out of ignorance.

Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed is a great man. In a land that headlines as world's most corrupt country, his honesty and wisdom are legendary. His devotion to democracy is impeccable and his patience in the political process to institutionalize democracy in the country is unshakeable. He recently reiterated his belief to a delegation of Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU). "It will take time to institutionalise democracy in Bangladesh. If two or three more elections are held, political stability will prevail and democracy will take an institutional shape in next 15 to 20 years."

There is no insincerity in his expectation. Yet, the nation must examine his thoughts carefully.

The system of caretaker government (CTG) was first introduced in 1991, and then institutionalized in 1996, with the expectation that it would act as a catalyst in country's democratic transition, which had been under military rule for too long. The experience of past 10 years, however, has shown otherwise. The perception that fair elections, held by nonpartisan people, would initiate the process of democratization is irrational: How could politicians, who cannot guarantee the fairness of an election, ensure fairness in exercising sovereign power in running state's business? All political conflicts arise from the wrongful exercise of the state power.

Democracy is popularly perceived as a political system in which government leaders are chosen through election. This perception defines the framework of democracy, not its principle. Democracy's fundamental principle declares that people are the sovereign authority of state. They choose their deputies to exercise this authority, which is vested in government. State exists only for the benefit of people General Will and politicians' fundamental job is to protect and promote General Will.

President blamed political parties for harbouring terrorism in the country: "Unfortunately, terrorists belong to the top parties. The fault lies with the party leadership who patronise them." He told that if someone is arrested, in most cases, AL or BNP identify them as its party person. The connection between political parties and terrorist groups proves that our political parties are implicated in creating a lawless society, because they are charged with the responsibility of creating one.

The Chief Advisor said in his inaugural address to the nation that, to create an environment for holding fair election, his first priority would be to collect illegal arms: "An all-out police drive would be launched in a day or two across the country to seize illegal arms and to round up terrorists to create a congenial atmosphere for the next general election." This seems to suggest that elected government creates all kinds of messes during its five-year term, and a CTG follows to clean them up partially to hold a so-called fair election!

The sudden appearance of Justice Shahabuddin in our political scene 10 years ago, is thought to be a very important national event. However, our political leaders do not quite agree with this national view. Ershad regretted for making Justice Shahabuddin vice-president, because he was put to house-arrest. BNP was unhappy with him too, because it was asked to settle its difference with opposition, concerning the form of government, quickly. Barrister Nazmul Huda tried to undermine him by publicly saying that President could resign; in turn, he undermined himself. Sheikh Hasina used to be praised for choosing him as the country's president. She now probably regrets her decision too; like Huda, she also undermined herself by saying President could resign.

Justice Shahabuddin will do everything according to constitution. He will hold the election and then leave by handing power over to the elected government. This is what is supposed to be. However, the political situation prevailing in the country makes people worried about what will happen next. President said "the main concern for democracy in Bangladesh is that none wants to accept defeat and recognise the verdict given by the people. They also fail to congratulate the winner, and instead, accuse the winner of rigging the polls."

After meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter, AL and BNP leaders have promised that they would make parliament effective by shunning their long-standing strategy of boycotting its sessions: "None should boycott the House which should be made centre of all political activities... The parliament should run as per decisions of its Business Advisory Committee which will be represented by all the parties in the House."

If they meant what they said, then this problem would have never arisen. Attending and debating in the sessions of an elected parliament is politicians' fundamental duty. Doing this duty signifies that they are accountable to people. By boycotting parliament and seeking reelection, our politicians have simply shown that they are not accountable to people. Their recent statement seems to certify that they care about what foreigners say, not the people who are supposed to be their boss.

There is a great apprehension that forthcoming government will be very unstable. Neither AL nor BNP is expected to get absolute majority. The stability of past two governments was brought through 30 women's reserve seats. Since these seats are not available, the party winning single majority will be completely dependent upon smaller parties for forming and running government. Given the characters of our politicians, anyone can guess what that would mean.

President hoped that political parties would restore women's reserve seats after election. Chances, however, are slim that they will do so. If BNP loses, it will not cooperate with AL for the same reasons it did not do it before. And there is no justification to expect patriotism from AL, if it loses. Thus, political instability in post-election period is an expected reality.

The system of choosing government through elections has no special virtue. Democracy, as Churchill said, is not the best form of government. It has, however, qualities which offer better prospects, to promote public welfare, than any other system known to us. But, democracy is indeed the worst form of government, if political parties do not follow its principles.

Institutionalization of democracy is our goal. The experience of past 10 years proves that CTG system cannot help this process. However, the system has presented a personality like Justice Shahabuddin in our national and political life, whose integrity and devotion to democracy are beyond question. The nation now needs to think seriously whether he has any role in fixing our national politics. For, once the election is complete and power is handed over, this great man will disappear from public life. The nation must think if it needs his service again! For, it is only less than half way through its process of institutionlisation of democracy.

Khandakar Qudrat-I-Elahi, a former Associate Professor of Bangladesh Agricultural University, lives in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

source: The Daily Star, Wednesday, August 8, 2001



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