A Harder Path

by irfan chowdhury for Alal O Dulal

Photo @Rowan Watts
@Rowan Watts

In a land where many still live in rural areas, paths through the paddy fields delight our hearts. Children smile and play about on dirt roads oblivious of the hard future they face; low-earning teachers, vendors, traders, farmers, fishermen, labourers and women go quietly about their business to make ends meet – determined to have a better future, if not for themselves, for their children.

In cities to which the rural population has been migrating, poverty is said to be less; amid hustle and bustle, the poor, the middle class, the rich and the powerful mill about as they get on with things. As in any nook of the world, cities are where most of the services and business activities take place, where employment opportunities prevail. But unlike the rest of the world are the political upheavals they face – hartals (general strikes) or andolon (mass agitation) that choke people’s lives, interrupting economic, social and educational activities.

This has been the usual way in which governments are forced to change hands here. It means that in the months before an election, (in fact, perhaps as soon as an election is lost) the opposition devotes its energy to organising disorder and chaos, albeit based on the government’s many failings.

While the population, urban or rural alike, never knows whether the next government will be any better, a naïve hope that the other party might be better tempts it to vote for a change – a hope that sows seeds of dissatisfaction– and the cycle perpetuates.

Even though temporary and transient, the lure of power forces rulers to do the strangest things, the hallmarks of many recent and previous governments. It is as though they were not democratically elected but assumed power forcibly, and, like dictators, must continue to rule, fearing ill treatment once out of power. This, in turn has caused sufferings for generations and interrupted political stability.  Complaints are voiced, but it seems through the once-loved-later-hated pedagogy of leaders, particularly those who promised a lot but delivered on little. Nobody has succeeded in shifting the political centre of gravity towards the people, to empower the people.

So it is hardly surprising that nearly five years ago an overwhelming majority voted for the current government: a blend of experienced, young and educated campaigners. Along with its pre-eminent promises: that it would try war criminals, develop mega-infrastructure, create a digital Bangladesh, establish the rule of law and protect the weak and vulnerable — and its record of transferring power (relatively) less grudgingly in its last term, many were persuaded that giving this government another chance could start a tradition of unfettered democratic governance where electoral procedures are not compromised to favour the incumbent. This might then set in train a basic change in our political culture – a willingness to allow the people’s verdict to be heard, free of manipulation.

It has not turned out that way. With a sequence of incredible incidents which took place this year, a raft of draconian attacks on freedom of speech and shuffle in the machinery, the future can appear fuzzy. Indeed, a new phase of politicking could lead to more street agitation and violence.

Yet the relative calm of recent time (and specially during the mayoral elections which have returned overwhelming majorities for the opposition) and an increasing number of opinion polls confirming the opposition’s ascendant popularity mean that the opposition would be willing to participate in the election. They sense a victory.

After all (and I sincerely hope that I have not spoken too soon) there may be a chance of peaceful transition to the next election and to a next government. But, if voters up until now have always voted against the incumbent, they must have hoped for the better in the alternative.

Would the next government be able to provide that? One would imagine the real issues for people are universal and simple: employment, education, health, housing, food prices, electricity, fresh water and transport. In plain terms citizens want to live a peaceful, prosperous life and work towards a better future for their children. Over forty years into independent existence, naturally we have institutions – public and private – processes and infrastructure, however imperfect they may be, in place which can be reshaped to achieve this.

Still, if developments in the aftermath of the past four elections are any guide, there will be retaliation and revenge – how vehement it would be though is a matter of conjecture and reliant on a set of future unknowns – following a change in government that the opinion polls suggest. In line with the long-standing tradition of retribution, what may be a goose now for one will soon be a gander for the other. If this holds true post the election, the foci will give way to asphyxiating partisan politics, at the expense of the people/nation.

The need to adhere to following an agreed set of laws does not come from moral arguments alone; the consequences are increasingly inescapable. If anyone suggests that the reasons why the bitter political upheavals have become worse and more abusive lie in the difference between the two sides on policy issues, s/he would be wrong. Issues exist on which clear alternatives are offered, but they are few.

We may think, for example, that there is a big difference between the players on supporting religion-based politics, the trial of war criminals or our affairs with India, but it has become clearer in this year’s events that the supposed differences are more contrived than real.

The leaders who today boast of presenting democracy to a country formerly suffering from autocratic rule fail to see the deep rift that they have carved among the people. They claim to have united the nation, yet people caught in this terrible impost, men persecuted on political agendas, are citizens too. A day in which its citizens may dream of peace and prosperity is not yet in sight.

The parties are as one in their refusal to acknowledge the truth that ordinary people are tired of their bickering; they want respite, they want governments to govern, law enforcement services to protect them, and parties to accept the people’s verdict about an end of their tenure.

Just as there is hardly any incentive for the rich and powerful to change inequality in a society, which is also very hard to achieve, our politicians albeit know and understand the need for peaceful participatory politics, but find it too hard and inconvenient to put into practice. The status quo of mistrust and vengeance is much easier to continue with. The perpetual accumulation of wealth and power can only be guaranteed by investment in existing politics. The slightest change could disturb the equilibrium. They have arrived as leaders after overcoming perilous circumstances, some even life-threatening. They have seen others perish on this journey; if it were a cakewalk others would have wanted to do it too.

Politics, it seems, is left for the audacious risk-takers. It is largely a thankless job, the incentive being to make as big a buck as possible.

An elusive alternative

An alternative seems unlikely. Good reasons underlie the prevalence of dynastic politics, not only in our region but also in the west. And blaming dynastic politics for all the short-falls, while easy, will hardly rescue us from our woes.

One of the lessons from Imran Khan’s loss in the recent Pakistani election is that even a hard- working, dedicated individual, standing in sharp contrast to our would-be third party leaders of civil society, would find it extremely difficult to transfer popularity into election wins for a number of reasons – for example, the First-Past-the-Post voting system, the stark differences between the urban relatively well-off and educated middle class and the rural or extremely poor population, and the diversity of regions and issues.

In spite of Khan’s loss, though, he gained significant votes and the right to form a coalition provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa which could provide lessons for future ‘reformist politicians’ on what to do – this is, of course, something our centralised state doesn’t permit. Even though we have independents and quasi-independent parties such as Jatiya Party with regional clout, and even with a hardworking reformist like Imran Khan, with FPP voting, unitary state, unicameral legislature and a ban on floor-crossing how would such a candidate demonstrate governance credentials?

Muddled history wars

Argument about history is universal. Who did what to whom and when is crucial in the political history of any nation. We are no different, but our history wars are still alive, they resurface to dictate our politics far too often and in the absence of an agreed national narrative, versions suitable to political parties are promoted – sadly, opinion makers as well as intellectual figure-heads remain partisan. This fans further digression and effectively retards our way forward – a future when politicians, and hence their followers, are not quibbling over past injustices or using them for emotional blackmail, is not in sight.

Nothing would illustrate this issue better than the various accounts of what happened during 1975, a great example of our partisan history wars. And if you are wondering how we got into this — and where the well-informed, cogent, passionate voices in are the media – just consider the debate around what happened on 5 May 2013 in Matijheel. The incident and number of fatalities will be debated for years. How many differing views might prevail in 25 years on the event of the year, ‘Shahbag’? Offering conflicting conclusions on, let’s say: whether it had ordinary non-partisan citizen’s participation/support? Was it, rather, a mere political ploy? Would these conclusions then, in the distant future, make sense or prove to be important to the coming generations?

On a harder path

Except for the violent demonstrations that took many lives, the events of 2013, as in any democracy, are supported by political interests, mainly to gain momentum for the next election. Issues, subsequent movements and counter movements relating to the trial of war criminals, albeit successfully thwarted, remain astir.

While you could find a sea of write-ups – for and against, ridicule as well as appreciation – it is sure that the nation has not gained from these events.

Yet it is fair to expect that many would turn up to vote in the next election. Interestingly the voter turnouts have consistently increased in recent elections: from about 55% in 1991 to about 85% in 2008. Higher voter turnout reconfirms people’s optimism and persistence within the political system.

However, if it was natural to imagine that reforms (or major policy initiatives) have the best chance of happening under governments with strong legitimacy among citizens, this has not happened. Two successive governments with two-thirds of the majority in parliament should have initiated major reforms which have not happened.

Regardless, would the next election (if it is free and fair and held on time) return another government with an absolute majority? Probably, but the rift among the population may be reflected in the formation of a coalition government.

The most optimistic view is that economic development has somehow taken off without those qualities such as sound institutions, the rule of law and the abandonment of graft, for which opinion-makers yearn. A rough growth of about 5-7% per year allowed improvement in living standards and human welfare, and these human development index figures were praised by reputed publications in 2012.

Yet, in those economic development terms what could have been a giant leap remains to be a mere piece-meal progress. The big infrastructure projects such as the Padma Bridge, expressways, metro rail or power plants which take years to build and need an unselfish, long-term view and dedication to the improvement of the nation never get priority, when political parties are unsure about re-election, ‘investing’ their political capital in such projects hardly makes sense.

Just as ever-increasing pledges to eradicate poverty and inequity, from the global leaders, do not necessarily contribute significantly to the cause, tireless pledges from politicians for a brighter future and their claims of apparent success in achieving such targets seldom help the real issues: better governance, improved accountability, transparency or effectiveness.

So, the nation seems to muddle through challenges. For example, those at present faced by the RMG sector. A number of accidents and nothing happens – until the big one comes. Then everyone is shaken up and perhaps things will improve at the margins. No radical changes. No revolution. Perhaps some tangible improvement in working conditions.  Maybe the worst factories will be shut down.

Notwithstanding wide-ranging social, political and economic issues and arguments on poverty eradication, even when ‘growth’ is favoured over ‘equity’ as a preferred way to address iniquity and extreme poverty for its promised ‘trickling down’ effect, in Bangladesh all this muddling is making the path to development ever harder.

Would the new government – whether it is formed by the opposition, the current government or a third entity – be able to take us through that harder path?

A pique

Not so far back, in the very same land, there was a time when government officials – petty and powerful – of the newly formed independent republic hesitated to ask for bribes. Accepting bribes, even though not countered with a mob lynching, a common treatment for thieves who were caught, was not as undisguised as it is now. Back then it was widely frowned upon. Yet unable to treat the root and cause of this moral erosion, a woeful society has gradually embraced kick-backs as part of its economic and administrative norms. Citizens, however inopportune, have learnt to co-exist with it.

At about the same while back the ordinary population could also be inspired, motivated, mobilised and asked to join a cause to dedicate their time, career, future or even lives. Perhaps, then, in a newly formed country there was still an innocent hope that politicians (and their descendants who were vying to be at the helm) could be trusted.

Following the dictator’s fall in 1990 through a prolonged and bitter campaign participated by a large number of university students in urban areas, and though the four successive five-year terms of democratically elected governments, alternatively led by the two major parties since then have diminished the revolutionary spirit, the population may still be nudged: some commentators believe that the first few hours of the Shahbag sit-in during February, after when it was allegedly sabotaged by pro-government forces, proves that the spirit (even if found only among  the tech-savvy, well off urban youth and the middle class) can be rekindled.

But what would a next revolution be for? Dominance of two opposing parties/ideologies is ubiquitous, specially in our winners- take-all structure, allowing no constructive roles for the losing party. This is particularly the case, if the winning margin is by two-third of the total seats as it has been during the last two elections. The losing opposition can debate but cannot block any legislation – essentially leaving them in a political wilderness for five years, which then develops into a PIQUE both for the party and the citizen – agitated they leave the parliament and take to the street.

A pipe dream

Now that we are at quandaries discussing issues and hurdles, groping for a solution, and even when we know that in the short to medium terms a ‘peaceful and prosperous’ co-existence of political forces is unlikely, with most divisive politicians (and the powerful), folks who are out to exploit any prejudice to reap a harvest of money and votes, perhaps we ought to see it from their perspectives.

What incentives do they have? For example, in the current system MPs cannot be seen as independent or to have a strong role to play as legislators or reviewers of the bureaucracy injecting accountability and transparency. Instead, our leaders – in power as well as when in opposition – prefer laws to be written by bureaucrats of the Law Ministry on the direct instruction of the PM, to be passed by parliament without review or vetting processes.

With no incentive to be a good legislator, MPs then turn local: for five years they become the elected nawabs of their constituencies. When as a good MP you may look after your area, you would also try to curb competition from a chairman or a city council mayor withholding local government empowerment.

The leaders, on the other hand, being forced to find 151 MPs who can win elections (not legislators with credentials) usually nominate the locally influential: descendants of a dead leader, a local strong man or a wealthy landlord/businessman. This creates an untenable situation: the people who get elected are unqualified to make policies, yet those who are qualified are unelectable or unable to win elections.

Therefore, change of leaders or parties is unlikely to be a lasting solution. An overhaul of the electoral system is needed for our democracy to be revived and vibrant. We need to explore other voting systems to move away from the inherited (from the British) First-Past-the-Post system which is susceptible to returning lopsided results. For example, a Presidential structure with Proportional Representation could be explored – where Presidents will be directly elected by the voters, will have term limits and can be impeached by a two-third vote in the parliament. A complementary decentralised framework empowering local and regional governments will ensure power and accountability is spread, not only amongst regional and central politicians but maybe also across the political spectrum – of parties and independents. Of course, this is an over-simplification to illustrate a point. But certainly a way of representing people’s wishes can be devised by studying various models in the context of the country. There will be no shortage of constitutional expert-scholars when needed.

Still, there remain two rather large uncharted elements: who will instigate and lead such a movement for change and how effective would be the adopted system be, as all electoral systems have deficiencies to be exploited.

We could look out for a messiah till the cows come home. We could appeal to and urge the present and future generations of youth to lead a change movement – premised on all the ‘good and ideal’ ways in which we can reshape our nation, institutions and fortune.

But pining for it is not a solution. And in the present context, expecting such large-scale change is a mere pipe-dream.

A pass through the path

Instead, a realistic (and incremental) expectation from youth, the opinion makers or other influential forces could be that democratic process is allowed to evolve. For example, in short to immediate terms if party leaders/followers can put an end to ‘revenge and retribution’ there may be a potential that a culture of holding free and fair elections on time would be established. A following step from that could re-examine opportunities to strengthen local governments and decentralisation.

One of the parties has to start this, why not the one that is expected to win the next election?

Irfan Chowdhury is an opinion columnist.

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