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Stop the charade, pave way for credible polls

THE 49-member cabinet of the Awami League-led coalition government, which was sworn in on Sunday and is made up of treasury and opposition members of the tenth Jatiya Sangsad, looks to be an extension of the elaborate charade that the ruling political elite is enacting in the name of ‘democratic consolidation’ and ‘constitutional continuity’. In essence, the cabinet is just as hollow as the tenth parliament itself, in terms of social and political legitimacy, and democratic credentials.
Thanks to the ruling political elite’s addiction to power, and an unconscionably pliant Election Commission, Bangladesh currently has a legislature that does not have an opposition per se. Theoretically, the Jatiya Party is the opposition but its chairman, the deposed military dictator HM Ershad, has been made a special envoy of the prime minister while a couple of his colleagues have been inducted in the new cabinet. The conflict of interest is so glaring that any expectation of a built-in check and balance would be nothing but delusional.
The comical cabinet is, as indicated, merely the manifestation of the anomalous elections to the tenth Jatiya Sangsad, which were held on January 5 but the fate of which had been settled much earlier. With 153 candidates elected without a single vote cast, the January 5 elections were merely of academic interest. Amidst boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led opposition alliance and widespread violence, the lone challenge that the ruling camp had was to give the voter turnout a semblance of respectability.
However, that was not to be, as the vast majority of the voters in the remaining 147 constituency who made up 48 per cent of the electorate had chosen not to turn up at the polling stations. Subsequently, in a brazen face-saving exercise, the ruling camp invoked the demons of the past and resorted to ballot-stuffing, vote-rigging and doctoring turnout figures — practices made notorious by the military and pseudo civilian governments and practices that people thought had been consigned to history.
If the farcical elections were not shameless enough, the ruling political elite had the Election Commission issue the gazette notification of the results and thus hasten the oath-taking of the members of the tenth parliament with the ninth parliament still in existence, thereby giving rise to yet more controversies and possibly creating the scope for litigation against the current legislature’s legality even.
Overall, regardless of the carefully and painfully crafted euphoria of the ruling political elite and their cohorts, the fact remains that their insatiable thirst for power has resulted in a parliament that lacks political and social legitimacy, and a government that stands bereft of political and moral authority. The only way that the incumbents can prolong their politically illegitimate tenure in power is through employment of the repressive state machinery but not for long. Yet, if the prime minister’s recent statements and continued harassment of opposition leaders and activists are any indicators, they appear inclined to take that course.
The incumbents need to realise that governance with an ‘iron hand’ ultimately does not pay — that is the lesson of history. Hence, instead of carrying on with the charade, they need to pave the way for credible and contested elections under non-partisan authorities.

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