Role of Civil Society in Bangladesh’s Democratic Transition

Professor Badiul Alam Majumdar, Vice President and Country Director, The Hunger Project–Bangladesh and Secretary, SHUJAN–Citizens for Good Governance

Presented at the conference on “Ideas and Innovations for the Development of Bangladesh: The Next Decade,” being jointly organized by Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI), Democracy and Development in Bangladesh Forum (DDBF), and The Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Boston, USA on October 9-10, 2009.

Democracy – rule by the consent of the people – requires elections. In fact, elections provide the starting point for a democratic transition, though whether or not a truly democratic system of governance subsequently emerges will depend on the future actions and behavior of the elected government. Elections must, of course, be free, fair and vigorously competitive. They must also be meaningful in that individual citizens who are honest, competent and committed to people’s welfare, rather than devoted to self or coterie interest, have a chance to be elected to run the affairs of the state. The Bangladesh Election Commission (EC) has a constitutional obligation to hold peaceful, fair and impartial elections – which may or may not be meaningful enough to elect honest and competent candidates – with the assistance of a constitutionally mandated Caretaker Government (CTG).

Free and fair elections require, among other things: an appropriate legal framework; a strong and independent EC; neutrality of the government, and an informed citizenry. Civil society or organized citizen groups can play important roles in this regard by providing a supply of ideas for electoral and institutional reforms and, at the same time, by advocating or acting as a pressure group for the adoption of such reforms. Such groups can also create a demand for reform by mobilizing public opinion. In addition, they can collect information about candidates’ backgrounds and supply the relevant information so that the voters are able to make informed choices in the voting booths, thus leading to meaningful elections. These groups can also play a watchdog role to ensure that everyone concerned adheres to the prevailing laws and thus performs their appropriate responsibilities.

This paper examines whether the civil society in Bangladesh played such a role during and prior to the national elections held last December to help achieve a democratic transition after nearly two years of rule by an unelected, military-backed CTG.  It begins with a brief account of the breakdown of the electoral system of Bangladesh. It then reviews the state of civil society in Bangladesh and identifies SHUJAN as the primary (and almost lone) independent voice shaping the country’s democratic transition. Next, the paper discusses the activities of civil society, led by SHUJAN, and how they, with the support of the media, created a demand for reform and change, provided a supply of reform ideas, and acted as a watchdog to ensure free, fair and meaningful elections. The paper concludes that Bangladesh’s civil society played a critical role in the recent successful democratic transition. However, whether on not concrete steps for democratic consolidation follow the transition remains to be seen. Such consolidation, according to some experts, will require going beyond the minimalist criteria of democracy.1

1.0  Breakdown of the Electoral System of Bangladesh

Bangladesh was born out of a bloody war of liberation in 1971 which, by some estimates, claimed the lives of nearly three million people. Following independence, the country faced turbulent conditions with elected governments, one party rule and military dictators each taking turns at the helm. The most prolonged dictatorial rule was under the strongman General Ershad. Enabled by managed elections, Ershad remained in power until 1990 when he was deposed by a popular mass upsurge. This was followed by free and fair national elections held in 1991 under an interim government, leading to the reintroduction of the parliamentary system of government in Bangladesh.

The 1991 elections were free and fair due to several important reasons, namely: (1) The interim government was widely recognized as being neutral, consequently the state apparatuses, including the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies, showed no political bias. (2)  The EC was non-partisan. (3) In the process of overthrowing Ershad’s autocratic regime, popular demand was created for free and fair elections and a peaceful democratic transition. (4) Elections were vigorously competitive. (5) Major political parties (namely, three alliances) signed a Joint Declaration and made a prior public commitment to abide by a “code of conduct” formulated for the purpose of free and fair elections. (6) The influence of money and muscle was largely absent from the electoral process.[1]

The next two national elections – in 1996 and 2001 – were subsequently held under a constitutionally mandated CTG. Although the conditions were less than ideal and allegations of rigging were raised by defeated parties, those elections were also considered to be reasonably free and fair. However, despite these periodic and vigorously competitive elections, democracy failed to establish deep roots in Bangladesh and continued to remain an illusive goal. In fact, the situation eventually deteriorated to the point that the whole electoral system collapsed with the promulgation of a state of emergency by the President in January 2007 and the subsequent cancellation of the national elections scheduled for January 22, 2007.

Many reasons account for the lack of democratic consolidation in Bangladesh. One problem is that democracy has become a one-day, “winner-take-all,” zero-sum game in our country with “elections” becoming synonymous with “democracy.” Such a reality fails to acknowledge that elections are only one component of democracy – one that transfers state powers through the consent of the people rather than by violent means. It is rather a procedural aspect of handing over power. Other vital components of democracy include: the rule of law; an effective parliament; transparent and accountable governmental actions; decentralized governance for effective service delivery; meaningful citizen participation; inclusiveness and social justice; respect for human rights; strong institution of checks and balances; democratic and transparent political parties; upholding democratic norms and values etc.

Unfortunately, the successive elected governments in Bangladesh since 1991 have failed to pursue these democratic practices with sincerity and vigilance. They have also failed to implement the commitments made by the Joint Declaration of the three alliances.[2] Consequently, Bangladesh has come to practice a system of “one-day-democracy”[3] with hegemonic control by the ruling party over state power and resources – a sort of a democratic charade which is more a slogan than a true practice of democratic rules and norms. It goes without saying that democracy is a rule-based system that encompasses rules to rule and rules to hold the rulers to account.

The democratic deficits of successive elected governments of Bangladesh became so flagrant over the years that the whole system came to be characterized by a kind of kleptomania, reflected in almost uncontrolled graft and corruption. Such degeneration meant that winning national elections gave the victors a “lease” to plunder both state and privately owned resources for themselves and their cronies for the next five years. Thus, a system of “lootocracy” emerged. The all-out and increasingly violent confrontational politics of Bangladesh of the last decade and a half is deeply rooted in a competition for this “right to loot.” To perpetuate this “right” through generations, the last Four Party Alliance government indulged in blatant manipulation, including: changing the retirement age of the Supreme Court Justices; making partisan appointments to the Election Commission, and subverting the constitutional process to appoint a partisan President as the Chief Adviser of the CTG etc., in order to win elections to the ninth Parliament. It must also be noted that, in a “lootocracy,” the rich and privileged benefit at the cost of the poor and the disadvantaged, and thus hunger and poverty persist. Such deliberate mischief made the system unsustainable, pushing it to its brink and ultimately to collapse. The events of January 11, 2007 and two years of rule by an unelected government were the result.

2.0  Civil Society in Bangladesh

In order to examine the role of the civil society in Bangladesh’s democratic transition, it is important to define what is meant by the term. However, defining civil society is a daunting task as the literature, although burgeoning, is full of many approaches and viewpoints. The concept of societas civilas is thought to have been first applied by Cicero in Rome to mean a “good society” ensuring peace and order among the people. At the time, no distinction was made between the state and society; rather, it was believed that the state represented the civil form of society and that “civility” was the requirement of good citizenship.[4]

Following the advent of the modern state (as created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1684), civil society has come to be viewed as the “third sector,” distinct from government and business.[5] Civil society organizations are now sometimes called “intermediary institutions” and include NGOs, community and social groups, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social and political movements, advocacy groups and the like. Although distinct from government and business sectors, civil society’s role is intimately linked to the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of the nation-state and the profit-making entities. In fact, civil society actors are often viewed as countervailing forces in a society.

Although the concept is at times confusing, several essential characteristics of civil society organizations emerge from the literature: (1) They are voluntary, self-generating and at least partially self-supporting. (2) They are engaged in citizen-directed collective action towards a worthy purpose. (These two characteristics obviously rule out the inclusion in civil society of organizations which are not home grown.) (3) The purpose of such organizations reflects a set of core values, such as honesty, neutrality, and public interest, to the exclusion of private gain. (Thus, partisan organizations or organizations with “uncivil” purposes, such as organized crime networks, are excluded from civil society. In addition, organizations with no moral foundation or those who fail to speak out for truth and justice, perhaps because of fear of recrimination, can hardly be called civil society.) (4) Civil society organizations are not for profit. As a result, corporate NGOs are often not included in the definition of civil society. (5) Civil society organizations are neither government nor family entities, although the scrutiny of government and business activities is part of their business.

In light of these characteristics, the space of civil society in Bangladesh is very limited and has become even more so over the years. Thanks to the extreme partisan policies of the successive elected governments since 1990, professional groups such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, artists etc. have become divided into warring camps based on affiliations, direct or indirect, to major political parties. Instruments used to achieve such divisions include appointments, promotions and other forms of rewards and punishments in various fields based on partisan considerations. These are, of course, in addition to the distribution of spoils. Over the years, an elaborate patronage chain has also emerged in Bangladesh to ensure continued party loyalty. In fact, today the “cost” of remaining neutral in Bangladesh has become so high that it means forfeiting rightful entitlements. In addition, neutral persons are sometimes intimidated, harassed and ridiculed. They are accused of hatching conspiracies, demeaning the image of the country, and even injuring the national self-esteem. They are at times advised to stay away from meddling in politics. “Give the dog a bad name before hanging it” is also a usual practice in Bangladesh. Thus, the term “civil society” has become quite controversial in Bangladesh, and some people prefer to call it the “citizens group.”

The legitimacy of NGOs, as civil society actors in Bangladesh, is also highly problematic. Most of our NGOs are service delivery types. Only a limited number of NGOs take on an advocacy role, that is advocating for human rights, inclusiveness, social justice, clean politics, transparency and accountability. Many of these organizations are also partisan. A large number of service delivery NGOs, on the other hand, engage in micro-credit, thus playing the role of “bankers.” Many other service delivery NGOs function like mercenaries and initiate activities based on the availability of funding instead of pursuing their own priorities. Such NGOs are neither self-generating nor even partially self-sustaining, and they generally shy away from taking positions critical of public authorities – even at the cost of sacrificing public interest. Many of them are also either aligned with political parties or are direct creations of political forces. Our largest NGOs are largely corporate entities. Thus, including most of the NGOs of Bangladesh into the civil society fold is problematic. They could at best be characterized as a kind of “benign” civil society, as opposed to the “pro-active” type.

The “pro-active” type of civil society seeks to keep the state, which has a monopoly on the use of coercive power, “civil,” non-intrusive and non-arbitrary.[6] The goal is to keep government as well as businesses honest, and their policies and activities transparent and pro-people. Such civil society groups must make efforts to inform the people of their rights, help them achieve those rights, and also fight for clean politics and good governance. Unfortunately, there is a great dearth of such organizations in Bangladesh. Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik, or “Citizens for Good Governance” – known as SHUJAN– is an exception. Founded in 2002, SHUJAN has become a significant actor in shaping the activities of civil society in Bangladesh. This paper largely focuses on the activities of SHUJAN (an organization which takes no donor support) and how it paved the way for a democratic transition through the national elections of last December.

 

Other than SHUJAN, there are few non-partisan groups in Bangladesh that played a significant role in the recent democratic transition. Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) is one such organization, although its main focus has been to diagnose and highlight corruption in various sectors of society. TIB has also carried out studies demonstrating the influence of money on elections. In addition, it highlighted both the inherent strengths and weaknesses in the functioning of the EC and Parliament. Furthermore, TIB worked with SHUJAN to disseminate the information disclosed by candidates running for Parliament. However, TIB’s most significant contribution was in demonstrating that thievery and corruption had become the order of the day in Bangladesh, an issue which ultimately became a major focus of the recent elections.

Another important civil society organization in Bangladesh was the “Nagorik Committee,” although it has been inactive since mid 2007. In March 2006, a partnership of the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), The Prothom Alo, The Daily Star and Channel-i launched a clean candidate campaign around the country to delineate “the role of civil society in accountable development efforts” and a “Nagorik Committee” was formed with a group of the most distinguished citizens of the country. The Committee held 15 “Citizens’ Dialogues” in different locations and received widespread media coverage, giving a much needed boost to the demand for clean politics.[7]

2.1 Media Partnership with Civil Society

Fortunately, in the last few years, SHUJAN and other civil society organizations have found a most willing ally in the media. Although made up of profit-making entities, the Bangladeshi media has been playing an increasingly significant role in articulating ideas for reform and mobilizing public opinion for change. They have been giving voice to citizens from all walks of life. Despite the corrupting influence of money and partisan ownership, the Bangladeshi media, with a few exceptions, has proven to be an effective partner to civil society in the last few years. In fact, the media and the limited number of civil society organizations, especially SHUJAN, worked shoulder to shoulder to generate public demand for reform, including a demand for clean candidates.

One reason for this positive role of the media is competition. In the last few years, more than half a dozen private satellite television channels entered the market in Bangladesh, all of which had to scramble for content to fill the airwaves. In addition, some private FM radio stations entered the market in recent years. They had to design new programs and initiatives. The print media also faced intense competition over the last few years due to some prominent entries into the market using the financial backing of large corporate houses. Such competition forced all newspapers to look for new content and to pursue their own niches.

The almost unhindered freedom that the media of Bangladesh has enjoyed over the years has allowed it to experiment with new types of programming and content. Experiments included in-depth coverage of issue-based seminars and roundtable meetings. They also carried out campaigns on social and political issues, sometimes in partnership with civil society organizations, such as the clean candidate campaign. Thus, in Bangladesh media activism has become an important phenomenon over the last few years.

 

3.0  Civil Society Interventions and Interactions

 

One of the first significant civil society interventions for the purpose of creating mass awareness on electoral issues occurred in 2002 when a group of concerned citizens formed the “Citizens for Fair Elections” (CFE) with the intent to help elect clean candidates in the forthcoming Union Parishad (UP) elections. Based on consultations with groups of voters, CFE developed a questionnaire to seek information from candidates contesting the UP elections. This information included background on the candidates’ education, professions, income, criminal records, assets and liabilities. Using this questionnaire, CFE volunteers collected information from UP chairmen candidates and were able to prepare candidate profiles, which they turned into posters and leaflets for distribution among voters. The volunteers then arranged “Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face” meetings, i.e., candidate forums, where contesting candidates had a chance to present their election “manifestos” and voters had the opportunity to ask questions. Despite warnings from well-wishers that seeking such information would put the volunteers’ safety at risk, the exercise was successfully carried out in 55 UPs, and the work received a great deal of acclaim from various quarters. A subsequent survey also showed that a significant proportion of voters changed their voting decisions based on the information they received. The same exercise was subsequently conducted in several Paurashava and parliamentary by-elections.[8]

Another far-reaching initiative toward creating mass awareness was the launching of a campaign for political reform in Bangladesh in September 2004. It was launched jointly by SHUJAN (which is the new name for CFE) and The Daily Star. Later, The Prothom Alo joined the campaign and, in a subsequent joint roundtable discussion held in April 2005, a comprehensive reform package was made public. The package included detailed proposals to reform the electoral process, the Election Commission and political parties, and also included a requirement for all candidates to disclose their antecedents. Subsequently, similar roundtable discussions and workshops on reform issues were held all over the country, and have continued over the years. Rallies, courtyard meetings and human chains in support of such reforms were also held throughout the country. In addition, SHUJAN launched unique initiatives like “Election Olympiad” and “Electoral Debates” in 2006, abridged versions of which were televised by Channel-i as part of its public service program. All these initiatives helped identify important electoral issues, which were then highlighted by the media, thus leading to public education and awareness and consequently a movement for reform.

In Bangladesh, there have been systematic efforts over the years to “criminalize” politics and “politicize” crime. Therefore, a major challenge in the process of democratic transition and consolidation has been to keep those who are engaged in such undesirable activities away from the electoral arena. One milestone event in this direction was the High Court judgment of 2005, in response to a writ petition filed by a group of lawyers, which required candidates for Parliamentary elections to disclose personal and financial information about themselves and their families.[9] Subsequently, a fraudulent appeal was filed against the judgment on behalf of an imposter named Abu Safa. SHUJAN unearthed the fraud and brought it to the attention of the Court, and, after much drama in the highest judiciary,[10] the judgment was upheld in early 2007.[11] The Court proceedings invited much publicity, which created mass awareness and a strong demand for clean and competent candidates.

Following the initial Court judgment, efforts were made by SHUJAN volunteers to implement it in five by-elections held in 2005-06, despite non-cooperation from the EC led by Justice M.A. Aziz. Summaries of affidavits submitted by the candidates were distributed to voters by SHUJAN volunteers and “Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face” meetings were arranged in three constituencies. These activities, after much persuasion, received significant media attention, contributing to greater support for such disclosures as a means of identifying clean candidates and sidelining tainted ones. In the course of these initiatives, it may be noted, SHUJAN units cropped up in many parts of the country, and the organization became a platform for those who wanted to change the status quo and were willing to work towards that goal.

Another watershed event in creating public awareness for reform and change was the fiasco involving the electoral roll. It may be recalled that, after the reconstitution of the EC with Justice Aziz as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in May 2005, the EC prepared a fresh electoral roll with more than 90 million voters. The authenticity of the electoral roll and the manner in which it was prepared generated considerable controversy. The matter was ultimately brought before the High Court for adjudication. SHUJAN prepared a database of the entire electoral roll and uploaded it on its website, www.shujan.org, and, in the process, helped bring to light its many inaccuracies. The drama surrounding the electoral roll caused a media uproar leading to widespread voter outrage. A coalition of four organizations, headed by BROTEE, also carried out a study and pointed out the errors in the electoral roll. SHUJAN’s massive efforts of posting millions of names were reported in Time magazine[12], and this initiative ultimately paved the way for a permanent electoral roll with photographs, an idea for which SHUJAN created popular support.

After the second Caretaker Government took over in January 2007, SHUJAN submitted to the government as well as to the EC a draft Representation of the People Order, which incorporated its reform ideas, and focused then its attention to mobilizing public support for reform. These efforts gave new impetus to the movement for change that was already underway. It should be noted that a big breakthrough in public opinion came with a news conference held by the Awami League President Sheikh Hasina on behalf of the Fourteen Party Alliance in July 2005, in which she proposed a unified outline for reforming the Caretaker Government, the Election Commission and the electoral process to ensure free and impartial elections – issues that had already been identified and put forward by SHUJAN. This reform movement received a further boost in November 2005 with the Awami League led Grand Alliance’s declaration at a mammoth public gathering of a 23-point “unified minimum program.”[13]

Strengthening local government is another issue which has received considerable media attention and galvanized popular support for reform in recent years. A large number of academics, thoughtful citizens and organizations like The Hunger Project have advocated reforms to strengthen our local government system for a long time. In June 2007, the CTG, primarily due to the advocacy of SHUJAN, formed a “Committee to Revitalize and Strengthen Local Government” – of which this author was a member. Based on nearly two dozen consultations with the stakeholders, the Committee recommended sweeping changes in the local government system. At that time, several roundtable meetings were also organized by SHUJAN, The Hunger Project, Governance Coalition, and Democracy Watch. These events, covered extensively by the media, elevated the demand for local government elections to a major national issue in order to fulfill the constitutional commitment, per Articles 11 and 59 of the Bangladesh Constitution, to have elected local bodies at each administrative unit.

As per the roadmap established by the EC, the first round of local elections – four City Corporations and nine Paurashavas – were held in August 4, 2008. These elections essentially served as a dress rehearsal for the coming national elections. Prior to the elections, SHUJAN volunteers arranged dialogues offering citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions regarding the kind of candidates they were willing to elect. During the elections, the volunteers collected copies of affidavits submitted by candidates in local elections, then went on to create candidate profiles and prepare leaflets with those profiles – profiles that were distributed among voters to help them make informed choices. In addition, SHUJAN arranged Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face meetings in all 13 City Corporations and Paurashavas where elections were held. BBC and Bangladesh Television, in partnership with the Election Commission, also arranged debates among mayoral candidates of four city corporations. Furthermore, the candidate profiles were released to the media by SHUJAN and were posted on SHUJAN’s website. SHUJAN also put pressure on the EC – by holding news conferences, for example – to ensure the full implementation of the reforms incorporated into law. Thus, SHUJAN volunteers played an effective watchdog role during this first round of local elections.

Another important civil society initiative was launched by the Sector Commanders’ Forum in 1997. This initiative, which called for the trial of war criminals, caught the imagination of many citizens and was quickly supported on by many citizen groups. In fact, thanks to widespread media coverage, the call for war criminal trials was on the lips of many voters by election time.

On the eve of the ninth Parliament elections held on December 29, 2008, a major initiative by SHUJAN attracted considerable media attention. SHUJAN volunteers collected the affidavits and tax returns, as applicable, of all 1566 contestants. They then prepared candidate profiles and distributed them throughout 299 of the 300 constituencies (the election in one constituency was postponed because of the death of a candidate). Leaflets and posters were distributed, urging voters not to vote for candidates with tainted backgrounds. Several news briefings were held to bring candidate profiles to public attention. The profiles were also posted on the website: www.votebd.org, which was widely visited by journalists and other interested stakeholders. In addition, the website included an archive of over 5,000 stories covering the criminal activities of political personalities as reported in major national dailies. The media widely distributed this information, highlighting the criminal records, educational qualifications, financial background etc. of the candidates. Some enterprising journalists even launched investigative reports based on the information compiled and made public by SHUJAN. These media stories and reports during the December elections helped many voters make informed decisions.

In its watchdog role, SHUJAN volunteers also arranged “Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face” meetings in 87 constituencies throughout the country, some in partnership with CCC (Committee of Concerned Citizens) formed by TIB and Durniti Protirodh Committee (Corruption Prevention Committee) formed by the Anti-Corruption Commission. As part of these events, candidates signed a declaration promising, among other things: to refrain from corruption and hooliganism; to disclose assets and liabilities each year, and not to interfere in the affairs of local government etc. The most significant aspect of these meetings is that attending voters took oaths themselves to vote for “candidates who are honest, competent and committed to public service.” They also swore to “not sell their vote for money” nor vote for those who are “corrupt, hooligans, toll collectors, liars, war criminals, abusers of women, drug sellers, smugglers, convicted criminals, loan defaulters, bill defaulters, religious fanatics, land grabbers, black money owners.” Many voters were deeply moved as they pronounced the words contained in the oath.

SHUJAN volunteers developed two other tools for its awareness campaign prior to the elections. They developed a video entitled: “Vote: For Whom?” which was shown throughout the country. They also developed “Awakening through Songs” – a package of songs articulating the relevant issues. These songs were used by many SHUJAN units around the country and were quite effective in creating voter awareness. Some SHUJAN units arranged cultural events during both local and national elections for creating voter education.

Due to intense competition, the electronic media also launched some unique initiatives of their own over the last few years. These include “Tritiyo Matra” and other free-flowing discussions on various issues using formats like the “BBC Sanglap,” all of which gained large viewership. In fact, watching talk-shows and similar discussion-based shows covering various issues has become a favorite pastime for many citizens. Even Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television entered the foray during the Caretaker Government. BTV not only aired talk-shows but also allowed programs like “Janatar Katha,” which contained candid voices of the citizens.

In addition, the innumerable number of post-editorials and articles regarding electoral reform issues published in major newspapers and magazines in the last few years have made a significant contribution towards creating public demand for change. When SHUJAN started putting forward reform ideas in 2002-03, the media published almost no post-editorials on relevant issues. To fill this void, this author became a newspaper columnist and, over the years, wrote several hundred articles in major dailies articulating almost every reform issue. Other concerned citizens were also encouraged to write columns and were assisted by SHUJAN with relevant materials.

4.0 Impact of Civil Society Interventions

 

It is clear that civil society, led by SHUJAN, initiated many interventions prior to and during the recent national elections of Bangladesh. What was the impact of these interventions, if any?

One of the most visible impacts of SHUJAN’s efforts could be seen in its contribution to public awareness and education, which has led to popular support for various reforms and change. Prior to the Parliament elections, a large number of print and electronic media journalists went all over the country interviewing many citizens from all walks of life. A remarkable feature of these interviews is that almost all those asked about the elections stated unequivocally that they would vote only for clean candidates. More specifically, they would not vote for anyone who was not honest, competent and dedicated to public service, and, if necessary, they would cast negative votes. A large number of citizens also forcefully stated that they would vote against religious extremists and war criminals. They would support only those who sought a change in the status quo. This was the sentiment of a large segment of our citizenry, irrespective of age, education, location and social standing – which ranged from uneducated housewives in distant villages to urban elites.

This level of voter assertiveness, it must be noted, was visibly absent even a few years ago. Issues such as corruption, clean candidates, war crimes, etc. did not become pivotal talking points in the elections until recent years. Past elections were essentially fought on the basis of slogans and personality cults. In fact, until recently, most citizens, except the diehard supporters of political parties, were resigned to the status quo. Many of them felt that their views and opinions did not matter and that they themselves did not count. Unfortunately, such a dejected attitude became a growing phenomenon over the years. However, this trend was clearly reversed during the recent elections, as reflected in significant increases in voter assertiveness and participation. Available statistics show that the voting rate was 55% in 1991, 76% in 1996 and 2001, and rose to over 87% in 2008.

Civil Society-Media Interactions and the Creation of Public Awareness

 

Civil Society Initiatives

 Media Coverage

Creation of Public Opinion/Awareness

During UP/Paurashava electionsCampaign for political reform

Campaign for strengthening local government

Legal battle for disclosures

Legal battle re: electoral roll

Clean candidate campaign by Nagorik Committee

Citizens’ Dialogue/Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face Meetings and distribution of candidate profiles during local elections

Citizens’ Dialogue/Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face Meetings and distribution of candidate profiles during Parliament elections

“Vote: For Whom?” video

Election Olympiad/Election debates

Awakening through songs and cultural activities

Courtyard meetings, marches and human chains

Issue-based roundtables/ debates/ election olympiads, etc.Citizens’ dialogues

Candidate profiles

EC dialogues

Highlighting inaccuracies in the electoral roll

Hosting talk shows

 

In favor of honest, clean and competent candidatesIn favor of reforming the electoral process and its institutions

In support of strong local government

In support of negative voting

Against hooliganism

Against vote buying

Against religious extremists/war criminals

Against corruption

Based on the reports of all national and international observers, the Parliamentary elections held last December were free and fair. A recent survey by the Institute of Governance Studies found that 82 percent of respondents felt that the Parliament elections were completely free and fair.[14] Similarly, 93 percent of the respondents of an exit poll from 150 polling centers by the International Republican Institute (IRI) considered the election environment as very good.[15] The reform of electoral laws, strengthening of the EC, creation of a reliable electoral roll, delimitation of constituencies, compulsory registration of political parties, and disclosure of candidates’ antecedents all played significant roles in making the elections free and fair. Bangladesh’s civil society, particularly SHUJAN, was the source of most, if not all, these reform ideas and was also instrumental in mobilizing citizens and creating public demand for the implementation of reforms with support from the media. In addition, SHUJAN volunteers collected and disseminated the information disclosed by candidates in the form of affidavits to help the voters make informed decisions. Thus, civil society’s contributions to holding free and fair Parliamentary elections – which is the prerequisite for a democratic transition – were very significant and cannot be overlooked.

Were the elections meaningful? Has there been a significant change in the quality of our elected representatives? The answer is a qualified yes.[16] Because of reforms, many undesirable individuals were kept out of the electoral arena. However, through the interventions of the higher judiciary, some such candidates were allowed to contest and be elected. Still, because of the disclosure requirements instituted through the advocacy of civil society, especially SHUJAN, and SHUJAN volunteers’ bold initiative to make the disclosed antecedents of candidates available to voters, many of the Old Guard with tainted backgrounds lost their elections. In fact, the ninth Parliament witnessed the largest influx of new faces ever. Based on available information, of the 293 persons elected from 299 seats (Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia and General Ershad each won in three seats) on December 29, 2008, 163 (56 percent) of them were elected to the Parliament for the first time. These new MPs are also better educated than their predecessors. In addition, a record number of women – 19 from 23 seats – were directly elected to Parliament.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.05.37 PM

On the other hand, many controversial persons with past and present criminal records were elected, despite SHUJAN’s efforts to track party nominations and expose the backgrounds of nominated candidates. Furthermore, no significant dent could be made to reduce the influence of money on the electoral process. While SHUJAN and other civil society organizations can claim credit for the watchdog role they played, it will take far more aggressive efforts on the part of all concerned, especially the EC and the main political parties, to keep undesirable elements from election contests in the future.

Obviously many voters were impacted and their voting decisions influenced through the interventions of civil society and the media coverage of those interventions. But, who are these voters? What are their identities?

Some simple arithmetic can be used to identify the segment of voters most influenced by the civil society interventions. According to knowledgeable observers, nearly a third of all voters are supporters of Awami League, and a slightly lower percentage has a similar allegiance to the BNP. Other parties, including Jatiyo Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, account for the support of roughly another 15 percent of voters. Thus, between 20-25 percent of voters, many of whom are young, are not loyal to any political party. During the recent Parliamentary elections, the issues articulated by civil society, especially SHUJAN, and publicized by the media found expression in this segment of voters, and they gave the Grand Alliance, which promised change, a thumping victory. This support, it must be noted, may disappear if the government fails to deliver on its promises.

5.0  Conclusions 

Democratic transition requires not only elections for peaceful transfer of power, but also free, fair and meaningful elections. Based on the evidence presented above, it is clear that free, fair and peaceful elections to the ninth Parliament were held last December, paving the way for a democratic transition. Reform of the electoral process, a reliable electoral roll, the independence and strengthening of the Election Commission, the delimitation of constituencies, and the compulsory registration of political parties contributed to this outcome. Pushing for the disclosure of antecedents by candidates and disseminating the information thus disclosed enabled the voters to make informed choices, which also contributed to this result.

Elements of civil society, particularly SHUJAN, have vehemently demanded these changes for the past few years; they have presented proposals and created public opinion in support of the changes, and have mobilized citizen groups for activism and engagement. Furthermore, the media has given expression to these reform ideas and publicized the information disclosed by candidates and distributed by SHUJAN volunteers. In this way, the ideas and information originating in a few civil society institutions have become the voices and aspirations of the people. Thus, the supply of reform ideas and the dissemination of information disclosed by candidates created their own demand­ – a classic illustration of what is known as Say’s Law.<a [17] The Grand Alliance, led by Awami League, embraced most of those ideas in their election manifesto entitled the “Charter for Change,” and was able to attract widespread popular support to gain a lopsided electoral majority. Thus, civil society has clearly played a significant role in our recent democratic transition. It may be noted that SHUJAN is not a donor funded organization and all its work was done by volunteers with little or no costs.

Although the recent elections were free and fair, they were not meaningful enough to completely bring about a much needed change in the quality and competence of our elected officials. The disclosure requirements mandated by the Court in response to demands by citizen groups, combined with SHUJAN’s watchdog role in bringing candidates’ antecedents to the attention of voters, prevented many of the tainted candidates from contesting. However, despite these efforts, many controversial persons slipped through the cracks and are now in Parliament. This obviously poses a risk for future democratic consolidation. Also posing serious risks to such consolidation are: the prospect of legitimization of arbitrary action by the ruling party with a thumping majority; the rise of religious extremism; dynastic politics; politics of confrontation; use of public office for private gain; influence of money in elections; lack of willingness to undertake both systemic and institutional reforms, and the syndicate-like behavior of political parties, etc. Additionally, poverty and illiteracy are major impediments to the long-term sustainability of democracy in Bangladesh. Thus, whether or not democracy will takes deep roots in Bangladesh will depend on whether further reforms are attempted and implemented with earnestness and sincerity by the EC and the major political parties. It will also depend on whether a democratic culture can be created in the country. Furthermore, it will depend on whether tainted individuals can be kept out of the electoral arena in the future. Lastly, it will depend on the freedom of civil society to function and to assume the much-needed, critical role of watchdog and pressure group in the coming days.


Footnotes

[1] Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Elections and the Future of Democracy,” The Daily Star, August 29, 2006.

[2] In 1990, the alliance of Awami League, BNP, Left parties, and their allies signed a historic Joint Declaration for the future democratic dispensation. The declaration, circulated on November 29, 1990, contained ten items under four categories. They included demands for a neutral interim government, a code of conduct to ensure free and fair elections, and some specific commitments for long-term reforms by the elected government. The commitments included the creation of an elected Parliament and ensuring the accountability of the executives to it. The alliance also committed to ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, thus ensuring a system of checks and balances. In addition, the alliance committed to the repealing of all laws which violated fundamental rights. Most importantly, the alliance’s commitment included renouncing the idea of removing any elected government through unconstitutional or extra-constitutional means or/by any excuse other than through elections. Undoubtedly these were bold and wise commitments to usher in a democratic transition. Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Betrayal and Consequences,” Forum (a publication of The Daily Star), December 2007.

[3] Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Eakdinar Gonatontro,” The Daily Jugantor, February 27, 2003.

[4] www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_society

[5] www.civilsoc.org.whatisCS.htm

[6] Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Civil Society: Concept and Role,” The Daily Star, March 6, 2006.

[7] The Election Working Group (EWG), consisting of 32 organizations, with the support of The Asia Foundation, also carried out election-day observations of the national elections, although because of the strong presence of the armed forces at the time of elections and the peaceful atmosphere prevailing during the poll hours, their observations carried less importance this time. Nevertheless, they had role in making the recent parliament elections free and fair. In addition, EWG carried out a limited voter awareness campaign to motivate voters to enroll.

[8]Muzaffer Ahmed and Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Shath O Joyggo Bakti Nirnoyar Lokha Thothovithik Voter Khomotayan,” The Prothom Alo, May 5, 2004; and Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Paurashava Elections: Finding Honest and Competent Candidates,” The Bangladesh Observer, May 7, 2004.

[9] Abdul Momen Chowdhury and others vs. Bangladesh, Writ Petition No. 2561/2005. The High Court directed the EC to collect, in the form of affidavits from candidates, information about their educational qualifications, profession, sources of income, past and present criminal records, assets and liabilities of themselves and their families. The Court further directed the EC to disseminate this information to voters using the mass media.

[10] For example, the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court had to recall, in response to vigorous protests, its judgment overturning the High Court decision within a couple of hours. Another example of the drama was that the lawyer for the appellant could not produce him before the Court when asked to do by the Appellate Division. Still another dramatic incident occurred when, through a one-sided hearing in absence of the original petitioners, the Chamber Judge of the vacation bench of the Supreme Court stayed the requirement of submitting affidavits by candidates with their nomination papers just two days before filing the nominations.

[11] See Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Protarak Dara Shorbucha Adalat Protarito,” The Prothom Alo, December 30, 2006; and Badiul Alam Majumdar. “Jaliyati Rodher Mamlai Podhay Podhay Jaliyati,” The Prothom Alo, February 15, 2007. Reprinted in Ganatantra, Nirbachan O Shushasha (Dhaka: Agami Prokashoni, 2009). Also see Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Highest Judiciary Victim of a Blatant Fraud,” The Daily Star,  January 5, 2007; “Blatant Fraud at the Highest Court,” The Daily Star, February 11, 2007; and “My Lord, We Beg You to Act,” The Daily Star, August 22, 2007.

[12] Simon Robinson, “Can Web Poll Prevent a Rigged Election?” Time, December 26, 2006.

[13] For a brief history, see Badiul Alam Majumdar, “Is Misgiving about EC’s Proposed Dialogue Justified?” September 10, 2007.

[14]Institute of Governance Studies, The State of Governance in Bangladesh 2008: Confrontation, Competition, Competition and Accountability (BRAC University, 2009), p. 106.

[19]http://www.iri.org/pdfs/2009%20January%206%20Exit%20Poll%20Bangladesh%20Parliamentary%Elections,%20December%2029,%202008.pdf

[20] In the Institute of Governance Studies survey, half of the respondents agreed that the CTG’s efforts to reform the legal electoral framework could prevent the participation of corrupt politicians in elections, while 28 percent somewhat agreed with the statement. The State of Governance in Bangladesh 2008, p. 107.

[21] Say’s Law is an economic proposition, attributed to French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, which states that in a market economy, the supply of goods and services, by creating an equivalent amount of income, creates their own demand.


  1. Rounaq Jahan, “The Challenges of Institutionalising Democracy in Bangladesh,” ISAS Working Paper, No. 39, National University of Singapore, 6 March 2008.
     

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s