Monday, May 09, 2005

What is free is not always fair

If we do not ask people what they think, why should we expect them to take a stake in our policies? After fourteen years of democratic rule, the political leaders are as far away from the people as they could be. Try though they may to “meet the people”; they are kept apart from their “constituents” by a phalanx of sycophants. They hardly ever hear the truth. If they do, it is indirectly via local party activists who relay the frustration of the electorate. Sixty million voters have little or no stake in this democratic system. Combined with a faltering, under-performing economy and precarious security situation, and one understands that the legitimacy of the democratic experiment is in question.

Infrastructure Politics:
How do people vote? Do they “think local” and “act local” too? And why should n’t they? They now mistrust all politicians. The electorate may be functionally illiterate but they are nevertheless tactically astute and also judge their local candidate by how much they can deliver. The voter wants to see tangible signs of “development”. That means a bridge, culvert, school, clinic, canal, road or electricity. They correctly judge that most existing candidates come from dubious backgrounds. They can see that the election is being bought as candidates spend Tk. 10 million for rural seats and Tk. 50 million for urban ones. Cigarettes (biris) and Tk.100 bills are literally given away. On top there are feasts to attract poor voters. Election rules are flouted. Manifestos are ignored. Ideology is dead. It seems to boil down to a question of which candidate can provide the most infrastructure.
Once these criteria are satisfied, other considerations come into play. For example, the background of the candidate is important. How much time has he spent in the area over the last few years? If he is an absentee politician, that counts against him since he is more likely to forget to secure funds for that road or bridge than one who is based in the constituency.
Voters still vote for the big two parties since they are likely to be in government. Independents rarely do well. ”New party” success at the polls is almost unheard of.
Now, we are asked every five years to stand in line and then vote for a local candidate. We get all very excited on election night to see who are our political masters will be and then get on with our normal lives. Our local candidate gets elected, and that is the end of that. Promises are forgotten, people are betrayed and the new MP gets comfortable in Dhaka, “doing politics”. We have had our one-day of power. We have sent our ‘representative’ to Parliament. Job done.
We need to see a return to legitimacy. That means citizens need to see a benefit from democracy. In terms of jobs, economic upliftment and social change. They judge the system by its output, not its input.

What’s free isn’t always fair
We used to marvel at our ‘unique’ caretaker system. Whereby the incumbent government steps aside for 90 days to allow a ‘neutral’ administration to handle the elections. Now even this is embroiled in controversy. It is a pity that this was not immediately conceded, an inquiry launched, the appropriate changes enacted and made into a non-issue. Instead, it is the latest lightning rod. Whole rafts of proposals are about to come out. The opposition party machines are ready to enlighten us, and then take to the streets.
However good the ideas, I find it hard to believe that the quality of politician will suddenly improve. Only because so many of the proponents for political reform are alumni from the old “school of corrupt politics”. They are not fresh faces. Their track record does not inspire. The barometer for change will be how many old ‘leaders’ step aside or are forced to retire. Dhaka City has had its cleanliness drive. We need to see one or two political parties cleaned up too. The impetus can only come from enlightened leadership, bold enough to try a new approach.
Until then, it appears to the layman, that a “free and fair electoral process” gives us a false choice between two almost identical groups. Political reform may eventually lead to a new generation entering politics, but that will take time. Time that this nation does not have.
So, can we make a little request? As you engage in the battle over the electoral mechanism, bear this in mind. Do not spend all your political capital telling us how you would like to get to power. Save some to tell us what you are going to do when you get into power.

Printed Daily Star, May 9th 2005


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