A government with no political legitimacy

The road to democratisation will not be smooth if people cannot unite against the political process that only brings the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or the Bangladesh Awami League to the power, ousting each other by turn, says Zonayed Saki, chief coordinator of Gana Sanghati Andolan, in an interview with Taib Ahmed

an01New Age: Democracy is not all about election. But do you think that democracy is possible without elections?
Zonayed Saki: No,democracy is not possible without elections although democracy is not all about election.

New Age: How, in your view, elections are related to democracy?
Zonayed Saki: Here in Bangladesh, as the state is centralised, it wears a strong autocratic character. A democratic system will work after we decentralise the centralised state. How democratic a state is depends on how strongly the democratic system can balance the centralised tendency to power of the state. A democratic system is based on how sovereign the people are. So, we have to look at a number of means that are active in a state that uphold the sovereignty of people. Democracy depends on how people are given the space to express their opinions, on how many systems are active in society to facilitate the people to express their opinions and on how many institutions are in place in society to create a scope for making people active in state functions.
At the same time, democracy essentially speaks of establishing an egalitarian society. When you speak of upholding the sovereignty of people, you speak of the sovereignty of an individual too. Then, you need to bring equality in the question of protecting the rights of each people. Democracy speaks of upholding rights of an individual and the rights of a person in other words are also about the opportunities accorded to him or her.
Maintaining equality in ensuring opportunities for all is the ideological basis of democracy. When democracy is made centred only on election, it cannot address all these questions. But at the same time, election is such a means without which the question of democracy cannot exist. Election is an important tool to establish the sovereignty of the people. So, election is a fundamental part of democracy, even if it is not everything of democracy.

an02New Age: The incumbents are now claiming that theirs is a democratically elected government and that they have the people’s mandate for a five-year tenure despite the fact that they had secured 154 seats of the 300-strong parliament before a single vote was cast while some 10-12 per cent of voters went to the polling stations for electing public representatives in sham elections boycotted by the opposition parties. What is your view about the stance of the incumbents?
Zonayed Saki: There is no scope of terming this government democratically-elected. We have for long been saying that the January 5 general election can in no way be acceptable. It was not a democratic election. It was not even like the conventional elections that we have been seeing since 1990 in Bangladesh. There is no scope to disagree that the election was not democratic. The prime minister Sheikh Hasina before the January 5 election said that the election would be a perfunctory election. She said, ‘A constitutional vacuum will be created and the country will fall into a constitutional crisis if election is not held. So, in order to avoid the country being thrown into such a crisis, an election is being held only to maintain formalities.’ She also said, ‘Talks on how a participatory election can be held will be arranged after this [January 5] election.’ Through this statement, the prime minister had admitted the fact that the January 5 election was not a perfect election. So, it is beyond controversy that the January 5 election was not an acceptable one.
But after the election, the government is saying it has been elected for five years.
As much as 153 out of the 300 members of parliament were elected uncontested. Where the number of people’s representatives — depending on which the government can be formed — are elected without people’s mandate, you can call it correct on technicality, but that election cannot get moral and political legitimacy. So, this parliament was formed without people’s consent and mandate. This government has no political legitimacy. Against this backdrop, the country needs a participatory election urgently.

New Age: Do you think whether democracy exists at all in Bangladesh given the circumstances that you have mentioned?
Zonayed Saki: A democratic system is not in place in Bangladesh. Many are arguing that war criminals must be tried right now even if it requires a compromise with democracy. I think the government is legitimising itself using the argument.

New Age: What do you consider the most important task for establishing true democratic practice in Bangladesh?
Zonayed Saki: A democratic system has not developed here in Bangladesh. The crisis of democratisation in Bangladesh is related to the process of the formation of the state. Since our independence, the ruling class has turned state power into a tool to amass wealth. Whoever assumed power has amassed wealth and that is why they were never interested in building up a system for a smooth transfer of power. They tried to hang on to state power and tried to monopolise power.
The constitution might have brought about a balance here. But the constitution itself has been modified in such a way that the balance in power structure cannot be maintained. Every institution has been kept under an individual. Thus a prime minister-centric autocratic system has developed here. So, no institutions, which can ensure a balance against each other, have developed. Thus, the ruling party has often been successful, to some extent, to monopolise power. People had to oust such regimes through uprisings, and when people failed to overthrow the government, regimes have been ousted through coup d’états.
Besides, the two political parties entered into dynasties where the dynasties gained so much strength that it was impossible to bring a balance of power any more. In this way, the desire to monopolise state power emboldens the constitutionally-stipulated autocratic power structure; it also emboldens dynasties and it results in the development of a transcendental power structure. Against this backdrop, it has become almost impossible to establish a system for a smooth transfer of power. So, an election cannot be held in a befitting manner in Bangladesh without democratisation of the state machinery and the development of independent state institutions. Primarily, they tried to bring about an ad hoc solution to this problem by introducing the caretaker government system. But that did not work.

New Age: When should you think that the next elections be held?
Zonayed Saki: A participatory election is already due. An election will have to be held right now, today. The sooner an election will be held here, the better it will be to pave the way for democratisation in the country.

New Age: What are the steps, in your view, that the authorities concerned should take for ensuring free, fair and participatory general elections?
Zonayed Saki: The Election Commission should be made independent and at the time of election, the Election Commission will have to have full control over all forces and agencies of the government. It will have to be made the de facto government at the time of election. Even if there is a government in place at that time, it will carry out daily, routine works only. But all the powers, particularly those related with the election, should be vested upon the Election Commission. Again, there is the question about how commissioners will be chosen for the Election Commission. It is not possible to ensure an independent commission keeping the existing constitutional framework in place given the way it contains prime minister-centric autocratic system. So, undemocratic structures stipulated in the constitution will have to be removed first to pave the way for establishing an independent Election Commission. We need to frame a democratic constitution first. To get a free and fair election without fulfilling these requirements is essentially day-dreaming.

New Age: What if the incumbents do not agree to the timeline?
Zonayed Saki: The incumbents have occupied power, using force. It seems that they will try to stay in the power as long as they can, using force. At the end of the day, it will do no good to them. Rather; it will jeopardise their political future. But when the ruling regime wants to stay in power using coercion and when solution does not come through lawful means, people have to take to the streets. There are already signs that the people will take to the streets. This government has come to power not only through a voters-less election but it has also resorted to corruption, looting, repression, coercion and fascism, after capturing power. It is even using war crimes trial as an instrument to stay in power. These have already started triggering grievances among people. I do not think that the ruling party will be able to stay in power for long using force. But we will have to bear in mind that the road to democratisation in Bangladesh will not be smooth if people cannot unite against the political process which only brings the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or the Bangladesh Awami League to the power, ousting each other by turn.

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