Thursday 7 May 2015

Fixing a Broken (Electoral/Governance) System in Bangladesh

Mo Chaudhury

Fixing a broken system

May 7, 2015


The ruling regime keeps claiming that elections held during its tenure, including the April 28, 2015 mayoral elections, have been free and fair. Prior regimes of different colours recited the same mantra too. The truth of the matter is evidently quite the opposite. To fix the overall governance system that is grossly broken we need a package of reforms, as will now be proposed.

The most widely reported failure in the latest mayoral elections was that polling officials were incapacitated by ruling party hooligans operating under direct/indirect orders from influential members of the regime, Members of the Parliament, or senior officials of the public administration.

The officials' career and personal security were in severe jeopardy if they did not yield to the hooligans. Ground level law enforcement forces had to permit the incursion and mischief, by all likelihood under directions from the hierarchy above.

The EC officials / magistrates didn't act since either they also feared for their career and personal security, or they had no real recourse to disobedience by the law enforcement forces (constitutionally under the EC's directive during elections).

The aggregate picture is one of a broken system that permits transgressions with impunity of ruling regime activists, driven by a sense of entitlement that leaves the citizenry disenfranchised, insecure, and helpless.

As previously identified by many, this abyss resulted mainly from the constitutional reforms that overly concentrate governance power in the hands of the PM and an electoral system where the winning party/alliance takes it all. There are no checks and balances, and once elected, a regime can and does operate much like an autocracy. It unfortunately necessitates upheavals to unseat an autocracy, often resulting in undemocratic and violent transitions.

To address these debilitating circumstances on a long-term basis, the following key changes are recommended as a package. Some of these are not new, but the emphasis here is on a package of congruent and mutually reinforcing measures as well as some essential specifics.

Presidential powers

The Presidency should be truly empowered with some key powers transferred from the PM and the Cabinet to the President. These should include governance of the Armed Forces and the BGB, the discretion and power to conduct binding referendums on constitutional changes (proposed by the legislature) or other matters of vital national interest, and appointment and disposal of the members of key constitutional institutions like the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, and the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Presidential elections

To make the newly configured presidency truly effective, the president should be elected by popular vote in a direct national election, not as currently selected by parliament. The presidential election should be held midway through a mandate by parliament. To guard against an abusive presidency, the parliament should be empowered to conduct a binding referendum to remove the president.

Fair proportional representation in parliament

Third, instead of the current constituency level election system for the parliament, number of seats in parliament for a political party should be based upon the percentage of votes received nationally by the party (not electoral alliance).

This will serve several key purposes. It will ensure strong presence of a true opposition (not like the current government selected one) in parliament, reduce incentive as well as opportunity to rig elections at the constituency level, make election alliances less effective thus allowing the major parties to free themselves from their current extremist partners and to be more conciliatory, make an absolute parliamentary majority for a party quite difficult ("Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", Lord Acton), and make a ruling party or coalition more accountable (may lose governance power with loss of confidence in the parliament on key legislations including the budget).

Constraining anti-Liberation ideologies

If an individual currently belongs to or previously belonged to a party that opposed the 1971 Liberation Struggle, then the individual cannot be a Member of Parliament, Minister, Supreme Court Judge or the President without a legally binding affidavit that it was a grievous mistake for the party to do so at the time, and that the party unconditionally apologises for its anti-liberation stance and role.

This should help ameliorate, if not bring a closure, to the thorny issue of anti-liberation forces conspiring to thwart elections and restore the sanctity of the key offices of governance under all regimes.

Decentralisation of governance

Very importantly, governance should be meaningfully decentralised by delegating broad powers to a mezzanine local level, such as the district (and Municipal Corporation for major urban centres).

Three key areas of targeted decentralisation should be management and oversight of government contracts and projects / public works including infrastructure under a threshold level, law enforcement (police only, not BGB or Armed Forces), and judicial affairs.

Three key local government offices (governor / city mayor, police chief, and public prosecutor) should be elected based on popular votes. In a similar fashion to the US system, these elections should be spaced out.

For example, the governors should be elected on the same polling date(s) as the presidency of the country, while the local police chief and public prosecutor should be elected at the time of general election for parliament.

Resources / funding allotted to local government should be on a per capita basis to minimise the influence of national politics, and to make local governance transparent and accountable.

Additionally, police forces in the country should have two parallel but congruent / transferable structures, such as national police and local police. To aid quality control, effective coordination and cost control, local police forces should be drawn from the national police force, once again on a per capita basis.

Very importantly, however, the local police force should report to and be under the command of the elected local police chief. The national police force will continue to be centrally administered by the ruling national regime, and will look after national security and intelligence issues, and coordinate law enforcement efforts across the local government jurisdictions.

Together these decentralisation schemes should meaningfully distribute and diversify the countrywide governance powers among competing parties. Due to the local management of public resources, the economic dividends of governance that drive much of the quest for gaining and maintaining governance power by any means, will be better distributed among the competing parties as well as non-party citizens serving their local residents.

Since party activists and hooligans would no longer be able to seek assured refuge along the entire chain of administration, law enforcement, and judiciary, political parties will find it difficult to entice, use, and retain them for perpetrating unlawful acts while in or out of national governance.

In this context, it is worth noting that the judiciary is undone if the proper enforcement of law fails. Thus, strangely enough for Bangladesh, an independent judiciary is neither necessary nor sufficient, but preferred nonetheless.

To conclude, the essence of the package of reforms outlined above is a meaningful and democratic redistribution of the powers involved in governance up to the presidency and down to the mezzanine level (district / major municipality) of local government.

Importantly, this does not require an interim non-partisan / caretaker government – apparently the thorniest divide between the Honourable Jananetri and the Honourable Deshnetri. As such, the two leaders may after all agree to the package of reforms.

Mo Chaudhury, Ph.D., is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

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