|A Reform Agenda by the Civil Society
Politics in Bangladesh has increasingly become confrontational and violent. The situation is now that whatever democratic institution we now have could breakdown. We must take immediate measure to fix this problem which could be done through reforms. We need to bring about reforms in the instructions and process to strengthen democracy and ensure good governance.
In this paper an attempt has been made to bring together some of the burning of current confrontational politics and some indigenous solutions. The authors believe that if innovative idea of ‘caretaker government as a homegrown solution to political confrontation, then many such special ‘fix’ could be brought in to resolve some of the current crisis. Such a strategy may also help to develop a democratic governance structure over a period of time. Time is ripe to explore different paradigms to establish political stability and democratic institutions. We call for creativity and openness in thinking among the societal stakeholders in order to overcome some of the present impasse.
This paper is not meant a theoretical exposition on definition, role and development of civil society. Briefly, one could observe that in recent year it has been recognized that the issues of globalization and the change of world politics have revived the concept of civil society. A academics and others have given differing interpretations on that revival. Historically, this region has depended more on social forces than on the state. Scholars have described medieval rural Bangladesh as ‘Swanirvar Gram Sanaj’, a reflection of long historical heritage of social activism. During the colonial period, through the intervention of new economic and administrative system, the state has emerged as the main arbiter organization. This had hindered the natural growth of a robust civil society. That deficiency is still being felt and one of the outcomes is of confrontational politics of today.
Politics of confrontation:
Politics in Bangladesh has increasingly become whatever democratic institutions we now have could breakdown. The major political parties have boycotted the parliament on such pretext that they are not being given fair time to talk and all unable to bring their motions. Today, for all practical purposes Parliament is nonfunctional. The major political parties have also abstained from elections on the pretext that the ruling party would ring the elections.
The country’s tumultuous politics is having another lethal dose of its own kind in the form of AL’s and BNP’s take your turn’ demand, all in the name of making the electoral process free and fair, wrote Professor Dilara Chowdhury. Even through an innovative institution of caretaker-government’ was incorporated into our constitution (13th amendment) it seems that it was not enough to bring trust among the political contenders. She further observed that in spite certain reform of the system we are at the verge of a political abyss. The demand now is that of all elections to be held under the supervision of a caretaker government.
Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud, President of Bangladesh Economic Association and also an adviser to the 1996 caretaker government, wrote recently “We are unnecessarily wasting time and energy on political disputes. Our real problems and challenges lie elsewhere. Poverty incidence in Bangladesh is still among the highest in the world.” He further wrote that it is not beyond our means to make Bangladesh poverty-free achieving uninterrupted high equitable economic growth for the next 10-15 years.
A joint statement, issued by the international donor community, stated, among other that political instability was inflicting a serious cost to Bangladesh. “It slowed down the economy, disrupted the flow of exports and prevented Bangladesh from earning a livelihood for their families and themselves.” Political instability exacerbates law and order problems and discourages domestic and foreign investors. The real challenge is that of elimination of poverty, which would require “a whole range of reforms in financial sector, legal sector, the public sector, state operated enterprises and in development of broad based and effective healthcare and education facilities. Continuing political instability slows reform and seriously diminishes prospects for reducing poverty.”
The problems of Bangladesh largely stem from lack of commitment by the political parties to basic norms of democracy. The civil society is once more faced by a challenge. The civil society seriously needs to explore the possibilities of strengthening the democratic institutions and demand from the politicians’ greater social and economic development.
One of the most difficult concepts for political parties to comprehend is that of “loyal opposition”. It means, in essence, that all parties in a democracy should be equally committed to the basic values. Political competitors do not necessarily have to like each other, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge each other’s legitimacy. The right of the minority (opposition) does not depend on the good will pf the majority (treasury bench). The losers in an election must not be threatened. On the contrary they must feel comfortable to continue participating in public life. The role of the opposition is essential and equally important in a democratic state.
Professor Rehman Sobhan in his recent article in The Daily Star stated, “Each party questions the legitimacy of its rival unto a point where they behave as if they would like to drive out their rival from the political arena.” He further said that the confrontational approach to politics in Bangladesh in now a decade old. The very issues, which now find the opposition on the street, have kept the Awami League on the streets during the term of office of BNP. In fact the source of the problems lies in the culture of tolerance, compromise and confrontation among the principle political parities.
Attempts are being made by a section of intelligentsia to redefine democracy in the form of number of proposals to over come the present political impasse. In recent discussion meetings held by many civil society organizations and from opinions expressed by eminent persons several suggestions have come forward to strengthen democracy and consolidate the democratic gains. Some of the important are as follows:
Elections under caretaker administration:
Holding of national elections under a caretaker government was a widely supported issue and was finally was recognized through the passing of constitutional amendment by BNP government. However, the prospect for holding a national election under caretaker government has done little to solve the problem of by-elections or local elections. The same set of apprehensions, which gave substance to the demand of caretaker government for national election, applies to local elections. To avoid election malpractices by ruling party and eliminate opposition’s scope to go for agitation political following may be done.
- All elections could be held under the supervision of the caretaker government.
- Extend tenure of caretaker government so that it can administer all elections, which are to be held at the same time.
- No provision for by-elections. In order to comply with this introduction of a system that the seat will be filled through nomination of the has earlier won the seat. If an independent candidate held the seat the person who has obtained second highest vote shall fill it.
Fixed Term of Office:
To avoid desperation and cause of confrontation we may need to rethink the maximum tenure pf an elected government. A five –year term in effect makes the ruling party despotic and the opposition desperate. The resulting confrontation is neither beneficial for the political contestants nor the people, as we have seen for the last one decade. Political parties don’t want to stay in the opposition. A four-year term, therefore, will be better suited than a five-year term in our socio-political scenario. This will help make the system stable by obliterating the demand for mid-term elections. Even the dates of elections could be preset. This would allow parties to plan their campaign and would also prevent political manipulation of election dates.
Making the Role of Speaker neutral:
One of the contentious issues is the role of the speaker in the parliament. He/ She are the most important figure in the parliament. The public perception is that the speakers are not being able to perform their duty impartially or in a manner, which would create confidence among the opposition. His role as custodian of parliament means that all members of parliament are given the opportunity to operate in such a manner that makes the parliament’s business effective. The speakers exercise some vital powers as the Chairman of the Committee on rules. With such power and with the majority of the adoption of special rules to favor or delay certain measures. In order to address this issue following may be done.
- The speaker will resign from party position as s/he is soon as elected to the position.
- Speaker will discard his her party color and not attend any party gatherings.
- The speaker must be neutral in all respect of political activates.
- Because of his neutrality the speaker will not be opposed and s/he will automatically get re-elected to the next parliament if s/he is willing.
- S/He should be paid attractive remuneration and benefits including handsome person after his/her retirement.
Political party reform:
We cannot build proper democracy and institutions of democracy without reform within the political parties. The history of party politics in the country is marked by personality cult, factionalism and internecine conflicts since the reintroduction of parliamentary democracy in 1991 bears a different testimony. The opportunities have not been utilized because BNP and AL have failed to bring about a national solidarity and consensus through the art of negotiation, compromise and accommodation. In its place the culture of political opportunism and the tendency to treat the opposition as opportunism and the tendency to treat the opposition as an archenemy has continued unabated. As a result the nature of our politics has become fractured and confrontational. In the midst of such confrontational politics democracy cannot function, however, many innovative institutions are added to it. The fact of the matter is that only redefinition of democracy is not going to work without qualitative change in our political culture, starting with the parties themselves. A lot of suggestions have come forward. Some of the important ones are:
- Party must have a list of their subscribing members preferably showing a minimum membership from all the 300 political districts or even from 64 administrative districts. That list must be submitted to the Election Commission and be available as public document.
- Political parties should be registered with the election commission.
- Party must have regular meetings as written in there constitution.
- Party must have annual genera; meetings and the proceedings must be submitted to the election Commission together with their annual audited balance sheet duly approved in the party council.
- Party requires a periodical, secret ballot vote for party leadership, such votes to be overseen by the independent electoral commission. There must be a minimum of two candidates for every party executive position at the election.
- Greater genuine public participation at the grass roots level could encourage the development of a bottom-up nomination process within the political parties.
- Party leadership (President, Secretary General) should not be allowed for more than two terms.
- Party must prepare accounts of its receipts and expenditures, and those must be available for public scrutiny, and public accounting firms audit these accounts.
- Party leader’s authority should not be so overwhelming that people with diverse opinion can’t remain within the party.
- Political parties should not have armed political cadre in educational institutions.
- Parties must have election manifestoes and they should not be utilized to as devices and hoodwink the electorate. Such manifestoes should include a clear commitment to fulfill their promises.
- Political parties need to be funded by the state to circumvent the ill effects of obtaining funding from businessmen and rent seekers.
Political parties wishing to participate in elections at any level will have to follow the above.
Effective and Meaningful Parliament:
Surely the chief function of parliament (legislature) is the enactment of laws. The modern legislature is much more than a mere lawmaking organ. In Bangladesh the MP’s have to deal with many issues and attend to needs of the people that they represent. In modern democracy it serves as a forum of public debate and opinion. The representatives of the people should freely and fairly ventilate the grievances of the people. The parliament should conduct adequate deliberation, debate and discussion on the problems and issues raised.
Parliament has to provide a lead role in raising issues and putting then on the national agenda. Therefore the parliament should also work as the organ of inquest. It should open up and try to find out real information upon which the public polices may be intelligently made. It should try to make public inquiries into matters of great public interest and general welfare.
Here are some general issues for discussion in order to bring some reforms to ensure effective and meaningful parliament.
1. Parliament is a representation of the society in a democratic state, and therefore the parliament should work with and for the society.
2. People want parliament to be truly citizens’ parliament, with which citizens can work without much complexity and responsibly. This has to be done by; (a) opening the committees to civil society groups allowing for more open consultation and discussion ; (b) Opening important issues of national significance for public debate through circulation of draft among concerned and interested groups /peoples .
3. In all democratic states especially parliamentary democracies, all parties should be involved in the running of the parliament. Both treasury and the Opposition must together run parliament, whilst the majority reforms the government .A member of measures are needed to be taken majority such as: a) Distribution of important parliamentary position among able statesmen from the Treasury and Opposition; b) Invite opposition members to head Important committees or at times head government delegations; c) Appoint competent opposition leaders to head government /semi - government organization.
Corollary to dynamic parliament is strong supporting institution, which will ensure effective implementation of its recommendations. It is therefore important to separate the parliamentary secretariat from the public service. This will ensure it’s political neutrally. The secretariat has to recruit and / or train parliamentary staff in relevant fields and establish a research support unit within the parliament, which is geared to the needs of and responsive to MPs. In addition, the secretariat could make use of outside research facilities that already exist.
The rule of members of parliament in strengthening parliament is pivotal. Once elected MPs should undergo training in order to understand better their responsibilities as people’s representatives. They should also be provided with adequate infrastructure support, including staff and officers. MPs should also be freed from local responsibilities by strengthening local government institution. A code of conduct for MPs could be drown up in consultation with other government actors such as civil society and the private sector.
Two Chambers of Legislature:
The legislature, one of the three organs of government, performs the function enactment of laws. But in reality its influence extends much further. The farmers of the Constitution of Bangladesh thought that Bangladesh should have a unicameral legislature (one chamber). Probably they were right at that time. Some people now think that bicameral legislature (two chambers) would be more suitable to our present needs. In fact most modern states have bicameral legislature. While there are arguments against for two chambers, however the following comments be considered:
- The second chamber could work as check and balance on hasty, rash and sometimes ill considered legislation.
- Single omnipotent democratic chamber has the tendency to become hateful, tyrannical and corrupt, which needs to be checked by the co-existence of a house of (equal) authority.
- Protection against despotism and guarantee of life and liberty there is a need for second chamber.
There could be other justifications for second chamber given in the current socio-political scenario of Bangladesh. Generally, the general election is a difficult and troublesome affair. The best, the wise, the honest, the experienced and the able citizens, may not come forward for reasons of age, finance or health. Moreover there may be of other independent spirit and outstanding personality who may fail to catch popular votes. In both cases the nation is deprived of the service of worthy citizens. Such citizens may be included in the second chamber either through limited franchise or nomination.
A second chamber with small number of members (not more than 75) could be useful for the country. The majority of the members of the second chamber could be elected by an electoral college comprising of the members of parliament (the first chamber) and the sixty-four Zilla parishad chairmen (of course elected chairmen). A small number shall be nominated by the president from among persons whose services will benefit the nation from a panel of candidates constituted under certain rules.
Reforming the Electoral System-Proportional Representation:
The election system prevailing in Bangladesh is that of “first past the post” (highest vote-getter wins). The “system” also known as ‘single–member district, simple plurality” electoral system (used for example, in Great Britain and United States). It is invariably based on geographic representation. Its principal effects are to under represent minority parties in the legislature and to over represent the majority. Under this system it is not even assured that the majority party in the country will gain a majority in the parliament, while a large minority may be quite inadequately represented. In our country we can see its effects when one analyzes the results of past several elections. We have seen how parties have been penalized in terms of parliamentary seats in spite of receiving a significant percentage of the total votes cast in an election. In other words, the distribution of parliamentary seats among political parties is not reflective of respective share of votes as a whole.
This electoral system also discriminates with a vengeance against third-party movements, which have no change of placing their representatives in the legislature unless the party’s electoral strength is geographically concentrated. This system at the moment is inequitable as the district boundaries are not frequently and fairly drawn to take account of the growth and shifting of population is being seriously under represented.
To remedy some of the defects and promote inclusion of various political opinions and encourage dispersed interest groups to be represented in the legislature the proportional representation system may be considered. Even emerging democracies have adopted some form of PR system.
Holding Free, Fair and Democratic Election:
It is desirable to undertake periodic review of electoral laws. the present election laws are inadequate which needs reforms and have loopholes that need plugging to enable conducting of genuinely free, fair and democratic elections. Past and recent incidents of by-elections exemplify the weakness within the present electoral laws. In addition, new laws need to be made to suit the time and changed circumstances.
Several civil society organizations have already suggested various reforms. Many political parties have also suggested changes to the existing electoral laws. FEMA has put forward a package of recommendations for electoral law reforms after consultation with the stakeholders. Such change of laws and making of new laws are administrative, legal and even political in nature. However, there are some important ones for discussion:
1. Making the election commission an independent body, which must operate independently of the executive, including financial autonomy.
2. Strengthening of the election Commission with manpower and adequate funds.
3. Making the electoral process more open and transparent by involving the contestants as well as independent observers at all stages of the process.
The Independence of the Government Owned News Media:
The news media in democracy plays a very important role. The news media in a democracy has a number of overlapping but distinctive functions. One is to inform and educate, to help citizens make intelligent decisions about public policy. Citizens not only need accurate but also unbiased information. They must have access to different opinions. The second function of the media is to serve as watchdog over government and other powerful institutions in the society. In time of elections it has a significant role to play as it helps citizens to make decisions regarding candidates, parties and programmes. The following should be done immediately:
1. An independent broadcasting authority (example: BBC) is set up to run state TV.
2. An independent broadcasting authority should be set to run Bangladesh Betar ( Radio)
Women’s Participation in Legislative Process:
The country’s half the populations are women. Without meaningful participation of women is the legislative process we cannot make real progress. We must ensure effective participation of women in the law making process. The present system of 30 reserved seats is not only contrary to democratic practice by also gives undue advantage to the majority party. Much has already been talked about regarding this issue for the last two decades. The following should be done immediately, that is before the end of the current system. Provisions should be made for direct elections to reserved seats for women and the present inadequate number of seats to be increased to 64 seats representing 64 districts. In addition, the political parties should nominate at least 25% women candidates to participate in general elections. Adequate training provision for women MPs is also needed.
Civil Society-a Proactive Role:
The fallouts of confrontational politics are many and the effects are far-reaching on our society. The environment of confrontational politics is encouraging a new breed of people into mainstream politics. They are exclusively motivated by personal greed and are prepared to deploy muscle and ‘mastaan’ to realize their private goals as people’s representatives. Progressively the political parties are becoming the abode for this new breed of politicians. As a consequence the political parties have become violent, abusive and disconnected from popular concerns. The debasement of politics itself could be considered as a failure of the civil society to play its legitimate and positive role. The civil society should able to influence political parties from a position of ‘equal’. The reality is that the political parties feel insufficient pressurized by the civil society to be accountable for their abuse of democratic process. The political parties could, therefore, with impunity ignore the pronouncements and pleading of civil society groups.
If the civil society is to be heard by politicians than it has to take on a proactive role. It is not the intention of the authors to outline a blueprint of future action plan but a few suggestions could be highlighted. The civil society’s role should not be confined to just exhortations from the sideline as exemplified by the outputs of all the seminars, workshops, dialogues, statements and appeals. It must seek to put together a program, which will bring together a large constituency of citizens and organize activities to demand specific actions by political parties to reduce confrontational politics. The yardstick for measurement of success of such an effort would be the adherence of political parties to established democratic norms and values. The civil society could draw up a “Magnacarta” of such norms and values. The civil society should then monitor the activities of the political parties in relation to the agreed standards. The bottom line is that the political parties should resolve their conflicts through democratic discourse rather than through confrontational politics.
The civil society needs to have the strength and organizational capacity to demand accountability from political actors, the government and bureaucratic institutions. The various stakeholders of the civil society must get involved and mobilize their constituencies in support of the issues at stake. The civil society should reach our to the communities, neighborhood groups, families and citizens. Only a broad- based movement can exert pressure on the political parties and their principal actors to change the present politics of confrontation and prepare a people’s agenda. Creating such a vibrant civil society, which would work for people – orientated goals. Demand responsible citizens. The exercise of that responsibility, or not to, remains the challenge of the day.
Feroz M. Hassan
President, MSS/SRG and Secretary General, FEMA
Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh