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Dhaka Tribune

Election 2014: Onus on democracy

Update : 12 Jul 2013, 03:42 AM

In both Bangladesh and India, newly elected governments have been enjoying the support of a new breed of voters since 2009. What is different between the two nations is how Manmohan Singh was re-elected.

We must recognise and be proud that unlike many other countries in Asia and Africa, we have seen rotation of two democratically elected governments headed by the AL and the BNP since the 1990s. At least in the academic sense, this is democratic consolidation.

Democracy holds a very special meaning depending upon its user. It is not about believing in a political party, as our civil society and media would like us to believe, but about having faith in a representative system, where the people ultimately govern. One of the most comprehensive surveys of public opinion on democracy, titled the State of Democracy in South Asia reports that 94% of the citizens surveyed in Bangladesh agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that they “preferred to be ruled by leaders elected by the people.”

What is pertinent is that the city corporation election results, at the minimum, echoes the democratic sentiment. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether voters are more inclined in electing deserving, and honest, candidates, or whether there is simply an anti-incumbency tendency at play.

For instance, according to the Nielsen Bangladesh survey, ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury, who had been the longest-serving mayor of Chittagong, lost the June 2010 mayoral election to the BNP-backed M Manjur Alam because he had received less support from young, middle-income and female voters. However, in the recent Gazipur mayoral election, although the AL-backed candidate had no criminal cases filed against him, it appears that voters paid little heed to this fact.

Nevertheless, myopic interpretations by some academicians and civil society stalwarts have done little to advance our democratic interests and understanding of the driving factors behind the prevailing political discourse. What is seriously disappointing is the comparison between local and national elections. They have been successful in diffusing the concept of government by giving equal importance to its legislative and executive branches.

For example, Selina Hayat Ivy’s victory in Narayanganj was interpreted by some as the start of a third political force/voice in Bangladesh. But the Gazipur results indicate the opposite.

To equate local elections with parliamentary elections and ignoring the structural and financial requirements is not fair to the two female leaders who were elected by us to run the country twice each.

As a member of the younger generation, who got to exercise his democratic right for the first time in the 2008 elections, I strongly feel that one has to be cautious and reminded of past lessons in making such interpretations.

Local governance is essential, but it is only part of a well-functioning democracy. No doubt that if we consider parliament as the heart of a thriving democracy, political parties are then the veins on whom the responsibility lies to uphold democratic norms and processes.

Five city corporations will now be run by the BNP. Now, if the AL gets re-elected in the tenth parliamentary election, it will be very interesting to witness a separation of political powers between the executive and legislative branches of the government. In view of the inter-party rivalry, the progress of development in the near future may be tested through established democratic norms pertaining to checks and balances, which will be generated if the aforesaid context comes into effect.

It has been reported that recent forced retirements and discriminations in promotion have further deepened the polarisation in civil bureaucracy. This became evident after the government undertook new efforts to promote its preferred officers near the end of its tenure. It is also reported that the Superior Selection Board had prepared a list of deputy secretaries for fresh promotions.

Will the BNP not delve into issues, which will potentially cast a shadow on its recent successes, if they are brought back into power? Will the AL get re-elected if it opts for new candidates in 2014? Are we unconsciously voting in a check and balance system with a separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches?

Only time will tell. Voters will ultimately decide, no expert can be confident in asserting that rotation of people’s representative in the name of cleaner and honest candidates will lead to better politics, unless we are there to make them understand that the top of the pyramid is not detached from the bottom. 

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