On Sunday Professor Yunus, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and consequently seen by the people here as both their pride and saviour, finally decided to get his hands dirty and enter politics.
Over the last four months it has struck me as strange that the Nobel Peace Prize recipient should travel the world receiving accolades and free dinners whilst back home his country falls to pieces, but I suppose he’s decided that now is the time to actually do some peace-keeping.
He’s chosen his moment well, because currently, with no legal government, all political protests banned, some fundamental human rights suspended, he can enter the political vacuum and fill it with his beaming smile, use his moral authority to force the interim military-backed administration to hold elections at some point this year (which otherwise would not be likely), and win with a landslide. Easy.
Of course, I only want Bangladesh to develop as a country, with a legitimate democratic government that rules in the best interests of the people with their consent. This is what Yunus might be able to achieve. But he would achieve it in a most unusual fashion, and is starting from the wrong position.
On Sunday Yunus published an open letter to the ‘people of Bangladesh’ announcing that he was ready to enter politics, but with the caveat that only if the people backed him. Yunus wrote: “If the people and civil society want, I shall enter politics and float a party. I am mentally ready to do it,” adding “People will determine the propitious moment of my entering politics. If they do not want my entering politics I am ready to accept that situation also. I always keep myself ready to respond to the challenge of doing a new thing.”
This is the first time that I have been aware of someone apparently only willing to compete and enter elective politics, go to all the trouble and expense of creating a party, if the people have already stated that they will support him. Yunus has invited Bangladesh to contact him via letter, email, or sms and outline how his party should function, what they should do, and whether they the people will support him. And then, presumably Yunus will go ahead, win power, and have absolute authority to exercise it, with perhaps only a nominal, despised political opposition representing the ‘dark old days’.
This is what politics in Bangladesh has descended to. Historically, the way parliamentary democracy operates is that a group of people have particular beliefs, form a party, and then the onus is on them to win support from their fellow people; to prove to the general public that they are such upstanding citizens that they should win their represent the public in a legislative chamber. It’s a social contract.
But politics and democracy have become dirty words in Bangladesh, because they now symbolize 15 years of corruption, mis-management, hartals and violence which has hugely damaged Bangladesh internally, and somewhat disgraced it internationally.
The Awami League have been hoist by their own petard; by mounting constant protests and fighting tooth and nail to postpone the 2007 elections in the name of ‘democracy’, they succeeded only to discover that the demos themselves aren’t that keen on democracy anymore.
So now, the two main parties and their leaders have successfully demonstrated to their fellow people that they are such greedy, incompetent and self-obsessed citizens, that the people and army have decided that they never want them to represent Bangladeshis again. It’s a social coup, of sorts.
And enter Professor Yunus, taking advantage of the vacuum to assume control. Even if his party didn’t win an absolute majority, it would still win enough seats to play a crucial coalition role, and the necessary check on any abuse of privilege and power. Obviously Professor Yunus is a great man, and his wisdom, dedication and leadership is what Bangladesh sorely needs. But the fact that he can step in to save his country this way is tragic. Why did he not cancel his dinner dates and step in three months ago? Was ‘politics’ then so dirty and mired in corruption and self-interest for him to risk staining his virtuous reputation?
The BNP brazenly tried to rig the election in their favour, but now all the parties through their irresponsibility have rigged the next election, whenever that may be, in Yunus’ favour. He will be able to claim a solid elective mandate from the people and international support to clean up Bangladesh, but the true political opportunity, the democratic legitimacy will still not have been won fair and square.
Yunus writes in his letter that it “is now clear to all that it is not possible to reach the goal maintaining the existing political culture; it is only possible by bringing a comprehensive change to the culture”. To begin this change through being effectively installed by the military is not the way to do this.
For politics to be a topic of polite conversation again, for democracy to be a word one says rather than spits, then the current quasi-military administration must begin to set the standards that they want a civilian, democratic government to maintain. This means full transparency, rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights and most importantly reform of political institutions, but through a political manner rather than threat of prison. You can’t reform a legal system through illegal means.
The day Yunus published his ‘please support me’ letter, the human rights organization Odikhar published a report stating that 29 people were killed by law-enforcing agencies and 52,027 were arrested in the first month of emergency.
According to the report, of the 29 people killed:
· Eleven were killed in connection with the Rapid Action Battalion, nine with the police, six with the army and three with the joint forces.
· Ten were killed in the ‘crossfire’ of the associates of the crime suspects and the Rapid Action Battalion and four in the ‘crossfire’ of the police.
· Three were tortured to death in police custody. One, arrested by the battalion, later died in hospital, and two died in hospital after being arrested by the police.
· Four were tortured to death in army custody, one died when he tried to get away from an army van, one jumped off a six-storey building and died while he was in the custody of the joint forces, two, arrested by the forces, later died in police custody and one died in hospital after being arrested by the army.
How is this a better time for Yunus to decide to enter Bangladeshi politics than before? Better for Yunus, but not for Bangladesh. Yunus succeeded in civil society, and it is Bangladesh’s civil society and corporate leaders that must ensure that institutions are reformed so that politics can function as normal, with good leaders enjoying the true support of the people that they won in a legitimate contest, rather than a few wise men smiling their way through power in the light of virtue, with all their foes beaten up, locked up, or frightened away in the shadows of ‘politics’.
The Awami League and BNP are begging for elections to be held as soon as possible, and whilst it is right that the interim administration first reforms the electoral commission, expels partisan civil officials, creates an independent judiciary and a empowered Anti-Corruption Commission, it must then arrange for polls to be held again – because otherwise the excuse that ‘the country is not ready for politics’ will be all too convenient.
Yunus’s condition: ‘support me first or I’m not going to try’ is not the spirit of democracy, it is not how true political leaders emerge. It is time for him, and all Bangladeshis to show courage and insist that politics is brought back in to Bangladeshi public life – it might be dirty at times, but it is fundamentally real, it can only be what the country lets it. And so whilst the worst sores should be removed now, politics should be imminently revived, and then cleaned up from within, not blasted at from the outside.