Bangladesh is passing through a political crisis, giving rise to a grave social and economic situation that has taken many lives already, and caused many lost days of income. Political parties are in dangerous confrontation. The latest political conflict arose with the issue of the coming general election. The only means to control the fire is a national consensus on the coming election. Democracy may be our ultimate goal but, unfortunately, at this critical juncture our democracy is at stake.
One may say, and it is true, that only election to form a central government is not enough to establish democracy, but it is surely a big step forward that can do a lot towards achieving it.
The fire that is seen in the political horizon is growing every day. It is, however, still possible to quench it before it engulfs us. All necessary experience and logistics are available in the country to handle a general election peacefully. The immediate step to fight this fire is to hold the general election in due time. However, it has to be decided whether the existing government or an interim government will rule the country during the election.
Bangladesh had the provision for a running government to continue during national election. But in 1996 the constitution was amended for a caretaker government to take charge of governance during general election. This was introduced after some chaos as a temporary measure. In many countries, political governments in power continue to hold power, while in some other countries interim governments are constituted as per provision of respective constitutions. Independent election commissions conduct the elections without any interference from the government.
It is assumed that we do not want political government in power to continue, as we had some bitter experience in the past. If an interim government rules during the election in our country, should it be political in character or non-political?
The system is unique. A non-political government may be manned by persons drawn from either the civil society, including bureaucrats, or civil and the armed forces personnel. The civil society is divided, politicized and polarized politically and, therefore, it is not possible to form a neutral care-taker government with them. Question also arises, who will select them or issue a certificate of individual neutrality?
In Bangladesh, viability of non-political government has been tried many a time, and the present crisis proves that it is not a sustainable system of governance at all in a society that believes in democracy, and cherishes “a government by the people, of the people, and for the people.” It may be reasonable to infer that the concept of a non-political caretaker government is dangerous and wrong in a growing democracy.
Despite this, people of some countries seek remedy in caretaker government, why? Is it due to lack of faith in the government they themselves elected to power? This is contradictory. As a matter of fact, people who voted their chosen people to power may not say so, but it is the people who voted against them who protest. Their protest is cognisable and should be reckoned with concern and can be solved by negotiation.
Democratic culture is an attribute of civilized societies, and lack of this culture is, of course, the reason for the present crisis in our society. Democratic culture does not mean only the exercise of voting power to elect the members of parliament; it is also the people’s power to select government at every level, and to be governed with their consent. A bottom-up decision making process can ensure faith in democracy, and consequently can build a corruption free society that we cry for.
There is no room for magic, or being impatient for a long range sustainable solution. People have to practice democratic norms through the years to achieve that. It is the responsibility of the leadership in politics and civil societies to guide people to the cherished goal with patience. But are they competent enough to do it?
The situation requires the government to hold an immediate session of the parliament. If the contestants continue to stick to their respective points then there cannot be any solution. However, we all recognize the danger of such a situation. We appeal to all concerned to hold negotiation in a win-win environment, sacrificing some of their respective points to reach a consensus, and save the nation from disaster.
The party in power has the opportunity to take the bold step. An announcement of election date under an interim government can quench the fire.
A longer version of this article appeared in The Daily Star, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper. Click here to go to the original.
The writer is former chairman, DESA.