BAKSAL was constitutional, but could it be democratic?

Political parties use the word ‘democracy’ only at the time of elections which to them are a competition to go to state power, says Mahmudur Rahman Manna, convener of Nagarik Oikya, in an interview with Taib Ahmed

an03New Age: Democracy is not all about election. But do you think that democracy is possible without elections?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: An election is a must for a democracy. It is a relevant question right now because of the situation we have in Bangladesh.
The word ‘democracy’ is used repeatedly on the people of Bangladesh. But the main essence of democracy — rights of all people, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of press and publication — is not upheld here.
When I speak of the rights of a person, it falls under the purview of fundamental rights. Democracy cannot exist without ensuring fundamental rights of the people. But in our country, they (the country’s political parties) use the word ‘democracy’ only during elections and the election to them is a competition for going to state power.
When going to state power becomes the primary objective of an election, the election no more remains a democratic one. Then it (election) enters an autocratic and repressive circle, going beyond the limit of democracy. Democracy cannot be in place without election, but the question is what type of election does it have to be?
an04An election was held on January 5, 2014 but it was not an election. Election will have to be held in such a manner in which the people can determine who will be their ruler. If the people have that consciousness, they will be able to identify their true ruler.
Both the parties in the bi-partisan political system in Bangladesh —the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party — only mean election when they talk of democracy, to enjoy state power for five years and amass wealth. This is why the democratic process has been thwarted here in Bangladesh.
Elections were not held after the Soviet Revolution. But a revolution which was bigger than Soviet Revolution took place in Tahrir Square in Egypt; they even had to go for an election. Our mass uprising in 1969 was not a small one, but even after that, we had to go for an election. Till now, election is an internationally recognised legal mean to go to state power.

New Age: How, in your view, elections are related to democracy?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: Again, democracy is not all about election. Democracy is a system. You will have to guarantee fundamental rights of the people in a democracy. The question is how you will guarantee the fundamental rights. You need to have some laws to guarantee them.
an05Speaking about our parliamentary system, Dr Akbar Ali Khan once compared our prime minister to a Tsar in Soviet Russia or a Mughal emperor. The power of our prime minister must be balanced out. The prime minister should not be given so much power.
There is parliamentary democracy in many countries across the globe. But our one is a parliamentary autocracy. It must be stopped. The sovereignty of the parliament should be established effectively. The freedom of expression of members of parliament has to be established. And in relation with this, steps should be taken to make all of our constitutional institutions truly independent so that there is no scope to politicise the administration so that judiciary can function with complete independence and so that the media can play its role freely.
These are preconditions to an electoral democracy.

New 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?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: They [the Awami League] are claiming that. There is law but at the same time there are loopholes to bypass laws. There is a provision for uncontested election in the law. But this provision is relative to time, space and situation. It cannot be universal.
The constitution says that the people will determine their ruler by exercising their franchise. When as much as 153 out of the 300 members of parliament are elected uncontested, people lose their voting rights. It has gone against the basic principle of the constitution.
It is very painful to see that this government has destroyed all ethical values and principles — the essence of democracy — by trampling on the constitution. It has taken up an evil strategy.
This election was in no way representative of the people. Everyone saw how the election was held. It was held through manipulation. All of us witnessed that election was held under coercion. A situation was created in which the opposition could not participate in the polls.
Even after that they [the Awami League] are saying, ‘We are within the constitution and law.’ It is like an accused in a murder case claiming to be set free after securing bail. This government often says that the accused in cases slip through loopholes. What does that mean? Are the accused no longer criminals then? They are, of course, still criminals.
In the same way, I am saying that this election is a forgery.
Forty per cent of votes had not been cast as the Election Commission claimed. The commission itself admitted that there were flaws in the counting of votes. I do not think even 5 per cent of votes were cast in the January 5 election. I found no voting in Dhaka. The commission has trumped it to 40 per cent and it was even evident in statement after statement coming from them. This is all a made-up story. That after carrying out unfair and immoral acts, you will say that you are within the law is not acceptable. The law does not accept breach of morality and values.
This election is not legal. This election can in no way be an election. It is not legal and even constitutional. But the Awami League is trying to call it an election.
Suppose, for example, BAKSAL. BAKSAL was constitutional because it was drafted into the constitution, but will we also call it democratic?

New Age: Do you think democracy exists at all in Bangladesh given the circumstances you have mentioned?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: No, democracy is not in place in Bangladesh. But the ruling party — be it the Awami League or the BNP — understands the power of democracy and understands how necessary it is for them to become a fascist. They play both roles. So, when I say there is no democracy, it means there is no democracy in the real sense.
There are small displays of democracy at times from the government. Sometimes an election is held and sometimes the ruler concedes to one or two demands of the people. But that is not democracy.
As this is not an elected government, it is not a democratic regime. This is fascism. This is a parliamentary autocracy of an individual — the prime minister.

New Age: What do you consider the foremost important task for establishing a true democratic practice in Bangladesh?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: We will have to go to people along with what we have talked about just now. People, barring some beneficiaries of the ruling party, understand this. People will have to be made confident that these ideals or principles and the truth will be established and it will become victorious. We will have to call them to stand by them.
It is unfortunate that there is an opposition which is waging a struggle only for state power. The party does not practice the culture, principles and the beauty of a democratic struggle.
When do the people sacrifice their lives? They sacrifice their lives only when they consider something true and when they think that there are ideals and values in it and when they find no meaning in life until the establishment of that truth. There are many examples of sacrificing lives for ideology and principles. We can name Noor Hossain, Khudiram and Surya Sen. When do people reach such a stage? It is when they think they are struggling for truth.
The problem of our time is that there is an unelected, deprecated and infamous government in place while a wretched and defeated political party is opposing them. They could not build up a moral space for themselves. They undertook no political programmes when lakhs of people were turned flat broke. But they announced programmes when Begum Zia was ousted from her residence. They waged movement when cases were filed against Begum Zia’s sons whereas it does not speak up when banks are looted.
Against this backdrop, a thinking has developed in people’s mind that the ruling Awami League might stay in power till 2021 or 2042. When a mentality of being defeated grows among the people this way, it is dangerous. It emboldens fascism.
The BNP will not be able to fight this struggle. This fight will have to be waged through people. They will have to be encouraged.
I want to pass a message to the people that these (undemocratic practices) cannot continue. They never do. In some places, fascism carries on for five years, in some 10 years and 32 years in others.  Even after the fall of fascism after 32 years in Egypt, its problems were not solved. Why? Because an alternative democratic force had not developed there.
What we should do now is to develop that alternative democratic force in Bangladesh that can answer to fascism and establish democracy. I can call it a ‘third force’. Discard the Awami League and the BNP. Do something new. A much better result will be achieved if we try this in a proper way. People will respond readily.
People think that if the BNP assumes power after the Awami League is ousted, what is the benefit of it? We will have to make people understand that neither the Awami League nor the BNP will come to power; a truly democratic force will, rather, need to come to power.
One of the two parties could be chosen if they correct themselves. But as they (the BNP and the Awami League) are not correcting themselves, we have to find an alternative. There are examples of this. Why did Selina Hayat Ivy win in Narayanganj? She won as people wanted neither the Awami League nor the BNP there.

New Age: When should you think that the next elections be held?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: I think that the elections should be held today —  right now. It was supposed to be held in January this year but that did not happen.

New Age: What are the steps, in your view, that the authorities concerned should take to ensure free, fair and participatory general elections?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: This government will take no steps to organise a free and fair election. It is that simple. The government should call all, including all political forces, to discuss how we can have an acceptable election. A charter will then be prepared and the election will be held according to that charter. Dialogues must be organised for holding an effective election. Let there be a national consensus and then let the election be held in line with the consensus.

New Age: Who should organise the dialogue for a national consensus?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: It is the responsibility of the government. But the government will not do it.

New Age: What if the incumbents do not agree to the timeline?
Mahmudur Rahman Manna: Movement, street agitations. You will have to force the government to agree.

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