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Interview of Rokhsana Khondker, Executive Director of Khan Foundation in New Age

It is a common phenomenon that political parties that are in government set the strategy to stay in power for a long time. People here are helpless and democracy, which is the rule of people, is almost meaningless as except on the day of elections, people do not virtually have any power to exercise their democratic rights. The ruling quarters do not uphold people’s aspirations, Rokhsana Khondker, a Supreme Court lawyer, executive director of the Khan Foundation and member of the Ain o Salish Kendra Board, said in an interview with Mahamudul Hasan.
New Age: Democracy is not all about election but do you think democracy is possible without elections?
Rokhsana Khondker: Election is just one of the major components of democracy, but it should also be free, fair, transparent and inclusive. Through elections, people can exercise their democratic rights to choose their representatives to administer the country. So, I cannot think about democracy without elections. However, democracy is not all about election. Rather, democracy becomes functional after ensuring good governance and the rule of law.
New Age: How, in your view, elections are related to democracy?
Rokhsana Khondker: A free, fair and participatory election is a prerequisite for democracy if we want to turn it into an institution. Election plays a significant role in institutionalising democracy. But the election must be held in a free, fair and transparent manner with the spontaneous participation of voters and all eligible political parties in the process. We can only witness real reflection of people’s verdict in a democratic system when the voters get the chance to choose their right representatives in the parliament through a participatory election.
New Age: The incumbents now claim 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 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 to elect public representatives in the election boycotted by opposition parties. What is your view about the stance of the incumbents?
Rokhsana Khondker: In our constitution, there is a provision to hold elections. In keeping with Clause 3 of Article 72 of the constitution, the term of a parliament is five years after the general elections are held. It is ordinarily dissolved on completion of five years, from the date of its first meeting after the general elections. As I have already said, in a democratic system, election would have to be participatory. If we look at the manner the January 5 general elections were held, we cannot call it a participatory election. Major political parties did not participate in the January 5 elections while a majority of the people could not cast their vote to choose their representatives as elections were not held for 153 seats. People also did not turn up at polling stations in large numbers. Therefore, we cannot call the present government a democratically-elected government as there was no reflection of people’s verdict in the elections. The government also realises that the January 5 election had not been acceptable to all but the government is now trying to stay in power by force. Before the elections, the ruling quarters said that they would hold the January 5 elections to maintain the continuity of constitutional and democratic process and go for a fresh election shortly but now they have changed their tone and started claiming that people had given their mandate to the government for five years. There is no similarity between pre- and post-elections voices of the ruling quarters. If people could not exercise their franchise in an election, how can we call it a democratic government formed through an election? In our constitution, it is said that the republic will be a democracy in which effective participation by the people, through their elected representatives, in administration at all levels, will be ensured. Therefore, in democracy, it is very significant whether people could express their opinions freely and reflect their choice in the elections.
New Age: What are the steps, in your view, that the authorities concerned should take to ensure a free, fair and participatory general election?
Rokhsana Khondker: The Election Commission in accordance with the constitution holds elections of members of parliament. We have been experiencing, significantly, the reflection of people’s choice in the elections from the very beginning of 1990s. In different elections, we witnessed how much confidence people put in a political party and how floating voters play their role in deciding which political party goes to power. We can do many things by force but we cannot hold elections by force as in a forcibly held election, there is no reflection of what people exactly want. In our country, it is a common phenomenon that political parties that are in government set the strategy to stay in power for a long time. Here, people are helpless and democracy, whose another name is the ‘rule of people’, is almost meaningless as except on the day of elections, people do not virtually have any power to exercise their democratic rights. The ruling quarters do not uphold people’s aspirations. It is the duty and responsibility of the government and authorities concerned, including the Election Commission, to hold a free and fair election and ensure the participation of all political parties in the electoral process. We always like to refer to the constitution but we have to keep it mind that it is for the people that the constitution was established. Therefore, to ensure a participatory election and secure people’s interest, if necessary, the government would have to take initiative to bring about an amendment to the constitution. The government could have done so before the January 5 general election to ensure the participation of all political parties in it. In my view, a dialogue should be held with the participation of all political parties to reach a consensus over how a free, fair and participatory election can be held in future. The government must take the initiative to bring all the political parties, across the table, to ensure a level-playing field during the election and present a neutral election to the nation. If the initiative is taken by any other quarter, it would not come out successful. So, I am advocating for the government to take the initiative for the greater interest of the nation. The important thing is that the political parties must have a compromising mentality before sitting for the dialogue. Here, the government and opposition parties should have the mentality of compromise, leaving their respective adamant attitudes aside. All the stakeholders should participate in the dialogue with an aim to reach a consensus over setting a permanent system for holding a free, fair and acceptable election in the future.
New Age: When do you think the next elections should be held?
Rokhsana Khondker: I think that the government should give the next national elections when the people want it. The government should consider people’s aspirations. The government frequently talks about upholding democracy but they should remember that they have failed to hold a participatory election, which is one of preconditions to democracy. Even though the present Awami League-led alliance government talks about having people’s mandate, but they know it well that they did not get people’s mandate in the January 5 election. People want participatory election but they do not have any virtual power, in our democratic system, to hold it. We generally look towards the government and political parties. Therefore, it now depends on the government and opposition movement when the next general election will be held. Generally, people’s participation in the movement of a political party depends on its effectiveness and acceptance to people. I do not think about the movement of a particular political party. I always think about the level of confidence of people in a political party that makes a demand popular and pushes it forward towards its realisation.
New Age: What may happen if the incumbents do not agree to hold early elections?
Rokhsana Khondker: It is a matter of concern that law and order is considerably deteriorating and incidents of rights violation are increasing. The situation may worsen. Bangladesh today is facing a crisis of decline in moral values and the challenge of growing corruption. Sadly, in every aspect of life, exploitation, cheating and manipulating the thinking process of ‘exploited individuals’ are the means to acquire power, wealth and control the mediocre and unassuming masses. It is unfortunate for the nation that everybody is being somehow managed out of his or her greed for money. Today’s generation of cannot get out of this without someone leading us. I believe that as time passes and we do not start teaching our children correctly, this society could eventually destroy itself. However, we cannot overcome the situation if the government does not ensure good governance and establish the rule of law at all levels by holding an election with the participation of all political parties, realising people’s aspiration and the present situation.
New Age: What is your opinion about women’s participation in political decision-making and democratic process in Bangladesh?
Rokhsana Khondker: It can be argued that equality of women in politics is an important element, not just for their empowerment in households, but also for the country’s socio-political and economic development as a whole. The culturally ingrained association of women with domestic responsibilities poses a great challenge for the entry of women into the political sphere. Given these obstacles, the system of reserved seats was introduced in 1972, soon after independence as an interim feature as indicated by the phrase, ‘a temporary or provisional arrangement,’ to allow women to attain skills and expertise to increase their political strength and gain popular support. However, 41 years have passed since then, but the temporary arrangement of reserved seats does not only continue but also gets augmented — the number of reserved seats was increased from 15 to 50. In order to achieve gender equality in decision-making, there needs to be a greater number of women contesting for general seats. I think that political parties are fundamental in enabling women’s political participation and empowerment because they decide the nominees as well as their order of placement. I would therefore recommend that political parties award a certain percentage of party nominations to women for general seats. It is also important to note that women MPs are not focusing on burning national issues such as women’s rights, or for instance, ensuring the protection of vulnerable groups, especially marginalised women, during ongoing floods. Citizens of this country still have a strong desire to see the institutionalisation of democracy and women MPs can achieve this by playing a more active role with the support of political parties.
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