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Dhaka Tribune

Rewards and punishment for winners and losers

Update : 24 Apr 2013, 08:40 AM

Since the passage of the 15th amendment to the constitution on June 30, 2011, abolishing the caretaker government (CTG) system, public debate has centred around the form of government under which the next parliamentary elections will be held; whether it should be a non-party CTG as demanded by the BNP-led opposition or the incumbent government going into a caretaker mode with an independent Election Commission as proposed by the AL-led ruling alliance.

Over the last 20 months, both the government and the opposition have remained inflexible in their respective public stands on this issue. The opposition has threatened to boycott the elections, and has engaged in hartals and street mobilisations, which are turning increasingly more violent. Civil society, professional groups and ordinary citizens are pleading that the two sides engage in dialogue and come to a peaceful negotiated settlement about the possible shape of an election-time government.

While an agreement about the composition of a government under which the next parliamentary elections will take place is necessary, what is more important is to come to an agreement about how the winners will treat the losers after the elections. Unless both sides make a genuine commitment that they will give up their “winner takes all” style of politics, stop abusing each other in parliament, and shun violence as a means of settling inter-party differences, simply having another round of free and fair elections with strong participation will not solve our problems.

We need to understand why, before each parliamentary election, we face such uncertainty and crises. Elections determine who will be the winners and who will be the losers. In every country winners get rewarded. But in a democracy the losers need not fear punishment. Unfortunately in Bangladesh, the winners are disproportionately rewarded. They get to monopolise the distribution of public resources. They can break laws without worrying about accountability.

The losers, on the other hand, get frozen out of all official patron-based distribution systems, which are the lifeblood that keeps political parties alive. More significantly, the losers face various forms of harassment and oppression.

The opposition leaders and workers have to fight a plethora of legal cases lodged against them, some trivial and some serious, which require repeated court appearances and sometimes result in prison terms. They get beaten up when they try to organise street protests and agitation programmes. They also run the risk of getting killed. For example, during 2001-2006 several opposition members of parliament were assassinated and grenade attacks on an opposition meeting nearly killed the then leader of the opposition who is now the prime minister. At present, most of the top leaders of the opposition, including the general secretary of the major opposition party, are in prison.

When punishments meted out to losers are so excessive, it is easy to understand why none of the contesting sides wants to lose an election and each side tries to win at any cost.

Therefore, unless we can eliminate the disproportionate differences in the rewards for the winners and the punishments for the losers, we will not be able to create any sense of trust, and ultimately bring civility between the two major political forces in the country. Any dialogue between the government and the opposition on the arrangements for the next parliamentary elections must include a discussion on how to establish a level playing field not only before and during the elections but also after the elections, so that neither side needs to fear dire consequences of a prospective electoral loss.

Some observers of Bangladeshi politics have argued that the losing side needs to be given some positive incentives to sit in the opposition.

I will not go so far. We have seen how the opposition has continued with the practice of boycotting plenary meetings in successive parliaments, despite enjoying equal salaries and other privileges such as constituency development funds and import of duty free cars. There is no need to give extra incentive to the opposition so that they behave responsibly as a democratic opposition. But the government also needs to act responsibly and recognise that in a democracy the opposition has an important legitimate role to play. It has the primary responsibility of critiquing the government and propagating an alternative.

What is really hard to understand is why such a hostile government-opposition relation has continued for more than two decades. After all, both the AL and the BNP have won and lost two elections each since 1991.

The incumbent has always lost the elections despite its control of public resources and administration for five years. Since the “winner takes all” style of politics has not yielded any positive electoral outcomes, is it necessary for the two major political forces to pursue their violent confrontations? Is it not high time that they stop worrying about being winners and losers and work out an arrangement where both can coexist on a level playing field so that the citizens can get on with their daily lives?

Dr Rounaq Jahan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Dhaka.  

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