I’ve been issued with so many security updates in the last two weeks that I’ve stopped posting them. The political situation shifts and changes every day; the pendulum of fortune is swinging between the Awami League alliance and Bangladesh Nationalist Party coalition so rapidly it’s been hard to follow.
For the politically interested observer, who cares about Bangladesh, the situation has been both fascinating, in some ways thrilling, but often maddenly frustrating. I’ve been witnessing the country socio-political implosion over the last month, and seen how gradually all nearly public institutions are being maligned and weakened. It’s like a civic war is taking place; a conflict not so much between the people, but within the principles, ideas, institutions and political foundations that the country is built upon.
The economy is suffering greatly, from the biggest businesses to the street hawkers. Universities have stopped enrolling students for the new year. And the judiciary, in astonishing scenes last week, showed its partisanship when senior lawyers and judges who supported the AL rioted inside the Supreme Courts. Three writs had been issued: against the unconstitutional assumption by the President of the office of Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Government (CTG), against the President’s handling of those powers (not consulting his advisors), and against the Electoral Commission announcing the electoral schedule before the voter lists had been finalised. Minutes before the High Court were about to pass judgment, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court issued an unprecedented stay order, and all hell immediately broke loose. Now everyone is counter-suing for responsibility, so the Supreme Court has stopped functioning, and the crucial writs still haven’t been adjudicated on.
Some interesting reports have recently been published about the state of Bangladesh. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2007 Democracy Index classed Bangladesh as a ‘flawed Democracy’, equal 75th out of 167 countries. But the EIU classes the bottom 85 countries as ‘hybrid’ or ‘authoritarian’ regimes, so out of the countries that can be reasonably described as democratic, Bangladesh’s is one of the very worst functioning. Its weakest category is ‘Political Participation’, and this is neatly reflected by the fact that a recent survey by the National Democratic Institute [of America] has found that around 12 million names on the electoral rolls shouldn’t be there. Nearly 15% of the total eligible voters can not be accounted for, and yet the Electoral Commission still announced the date of the election, on January 21st.
The Drishtipat blog has a very good catalogue of the incompetence, ineptitude, brazen partisanship and corruption that has produced this situation. I’m tired of sitting on the fence, because it simply is so frustrating for someone working to try and improve the country to see it be destroyed internally by egos, greed, and personal animosities. Unlike other political clashes with nationwide significance yet that are confined to the elites who inhabit the corridors of power, this has been extraordinary in that those corridors are constitutionally sealed off. The country’s political leaders followed the constitution at the end of October and gave up their power, descending to the level of the streets, dependent on the masses to attend their rallies and follow their rhetoric.
And this has achieved results. More than fifty people have died, mostly from mob brutality. Thousands have been injured. Millions of people have had their daily lives disrupted. The Awami League has been imposing blockades over Dhaka, and the President’s residence, and staging rallies around the country. Since the last brutal weekend of October, these have nearly all been peaceful, but four days ago I was cycling down the main streets of Sylhet in the evening and was met head on by a procession of a few hundred very angry men holding a corpse wrapped in a shroud on their shoulders. The worst possible reminder of the human costs of political corruption.
Slowly these protests, peaceful and non have had a political impact, as first the widely derided Chief of the Electoral Commission MA Aziz has gone on ‘leave’, and just two days ago the Electoral Commission has decided to try and correct the voter lists, using 140,000 staff to make door-to-door checks across the country, in just eight days. Whether this can be achieved effectively is extremely unlikely of course, but at least it’s an effort in the right direction. Today a new election date is scheduled to be announced, but it will most likely still be within the constitutional deadline of January 25th, which is insufficient.
With all the protests and disruption, the AL has been making a huge gamble on the ability of the ordinary people to withstand the country’s turmoil without losing patience with the AL and ceasing to support them. A poll of 2,252 people by the Centre for Alternative Reform, Dhaka conducted in December 2004 found that 80% wanted a free and fair election (FAFE). But with every concession to the AL-led demands by the corrupt institutions, the AL immediately launch a new one. Now they are focussing on getting the resignation of the President as Chief Advisor of the CTG, which is one of the reasons why the AL-supporting lawyers ransacked the courts in protest last week. If public opinion is an elastic band, surely it must be close to snapping now.
With the AL’s increasing success, the BNP is going increasingly apoplectic, decrying the Caretaker Government (which under the BNP’s President had until the last few days been running things still in the BNP’s favour) as the AL’s ‘underlings’. The BNP for the last two months, has been largely powerless in the face of the mass protests and reduced to insisting that all institutions and public figures discharge their responsibilities as specified by the Constitution. The Constitution is what must be sacred, they cry, it’s what holds the country together. Of course, the BNP spent five years loading the Constitution in their favour, so they would try and protect its sanctity. The (BNP appointed) President’s assumption of Chief Advisor of the CTG was brazenly unconstitutional, but the BNP haven’t yet mentioned that.
The AL’s leader Sheikh Hasina and the BNP leader Khaleda Zia have been relying on the winds and currents of public opinion to carry them forward over the next two months towards the safehaven of an elected five year term, and this last month has seen them frantically trying to catch the momentum and hold some modicum of control over it.
Just beneath the rafts that the parties are drifting on lie the offices and institutions of State, and the pressure against the Electoral Commission and CTG is, for me, akin to watching sharks circle their prey, which is protected only by a fragile cage created by a constitutional document. As much as the BNP have tried to maintain that the cage is solid and cannot be attacked, the AL, on the other hand, state that they are fighting for the freedom of the Bangladeshi people – an election organised by partisan institutions would not be worth their contesting.
Every time the AL force a concession, the sharks bite through the cage, the BNP claim that the constitution has been damaged again. But the constitution should not be trailed by the political parties in the murky waters of a bitter populace in the first place. It should serve as a gleaming sail, pulling the parties towards Parliament where they can safely reside.
And even though many of the obstacles to a FAFE are being finally removed, the core problem is that the root cause of the crisis still remains.
As no public office is seen as untainted, and very few public officials can speak with universal acceptance. The domination of the Bangladeshi political sphere by power-hungry cliques and personal animosities has created a vacuum of integrity and authority in the offices of state. It was through the political manipulation of the constitution that the parties following it became directed in to the current chaos, and now, no one can predict whether in the future things can be fully righted again. A proposal by the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Younis, the pride of Bangladesh almost the only public figure left with any neutral authority, to share power in a coalition government, has been summarily dismissed by the two main party blocks. The prizes that power affords are so great that they can’t be shared. And so when the election does take place, the precedent of the last month suggests that there will be more protests contesting the result.
The public fiscal cost of a national election is great, the socio-political costs of a flawed election even greater. In 1986 and February 1996 Bangladesh held elections without the involvement of one of the key parties, and the resulting governments lasted less than six months. Although the BNP still maintain that the Constitution is steering the parties towards an election on Jan 21st, the opposition, civil society groups and most public commentators are demanding that this course is abandoned and a new one set towards a fully FAFE, regardless of constitutional protocol. It seems absurd to obey a clause in a document rather than act for the good of the country and its people.
This is the crux of the debate in Bangladesh, regardless of all the day-to-day political turbulence and machinations. With no elected government in place for the next two months – assuming the January elections do occur – what is left as sovereign? In this scenario is the Constitution the only thing left maintaining the State? Or is the well-being of the State, and the people that constitute the State, what the Constitution represents? If following the Constitution in fact would act against the well-being of the people and the State, does the Constitution cease to become a valid document, and therefore breaking it is morally justified? And lastly, who has the moral right to make that decision?
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote to the journalist Albert Hodges “My oath to preserve the Constitution imposed on me the duty of preserving by every indispensable means that government, that nation, of which the Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life, but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground and now avow it.”
Lincoln felt that to save his nation he had to act against the Constitution, in order to ultimately preserve it. For the Constitution is only worth saving if there is an existing State that is worthy of its protection. And it must be the duty of the elected representatives of the people of that State to govern it to the best of their abilities, with the best interests of the people at heart. It is clear, even for someone who has been in Bangladesh for a short time, that this hasn’t been the case. But the biggest issue now, as the situation develops, is not only whether Lincoln was right, but who, in Bangladesh now, holds the Lincoln role? The President, the political leaders, or the people?
President Iajuddin felt nearly six weeks ago that he had no choice but to act unconstitutionally, but the rot started years before. The only way all of this may be redeemed is for his institutions, in the interests of the people who they serve rather than their overlords who appointed them, to perform their roles with neutrality so that there may be genuinely free and fair elections in January. The people must not act with violence. And the political leaders must refrain from inciting it.
It’s worth remembering that the democratic country with the longest serving single Constitution has held two national elections that would be difficult to describe as free and fair. Yet rather than take to the streets, the people of the United States trusted their political leaders and institutions, some of which are brazenly partisan, to ultimately work in to the country’s interests, with the knowledge that if they didn’t, they’d be discredited and lose power. This is what must happen in Bangladesh. The election must be as free and fair as possible, and if that involves breaking the Constitution and delaying the election temporarily, then so be it. For the people must be given the best opportunity they have to express their will, which is ultimately what the whole Government is there to enable, and what the Constitution exists to preserve.
And thus under a FAFE the people can express their will, and it must be respected by those they grant authority to. This respect must come in the shape of reforming Government institutions, creating real accountability and transparency and a sense of responsibility so that this situation can not arise again. For if the Constitution to be repaired as a sovereign document, if it can act again as a great sail which directs public opinion out of dangerous waters of chaos and anarchy, the people must all play the Lincoln role, and must insist that their nation is worth saving. They have the moral right to act to save their Constitution.
This isn’t a task just for the ordinary Bangladeshi. Bangladesh’s rich companies which have spurred an annual growth rate of 5% invisible to the impoverished masses, must undertake better corporate social responsibility. But primarily, with no parliamentary government, both professional politicians and their supporters are reduced to the same level, and it is their responsibility to stop attacking themselves and start governing themselves with greater integrity, so that their country can be governed also.