Divided civil society no silver bullet

Analysts say the gap between politicians and the civil society got wider during 2007-08

Since democratic process began in 1991 through the toppling of HM Ershad’s military regime, none of the civil society initiatives to resolve political crises has ever brought any results.

On Monday, Nagorik Samaj, a platform of civil society members, sent letters to President Abdul Hamid, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia, urging them to take steps to initiate talks to end the political unrest that has already claimed about 70 lives in over a month.

While the BNP appeared to welcome the initiative because it is in harmony with their current demand, the ruling Awami League gave the matter a cold shoulder. Senior ministers and ruling party leaders expressed suspicion that the platform might be serving their rival’s agenda.

The history of distrust between politicians and civil society members is nearly as old as the journey of democracy in Bangladesh.

It dates back to 1994, when the first of a series of political crises erupted just three years after a BNP government had come to power through the first democratic election in a couple of decades since independence.

Following the ruling party’s massive victory in a by-poll, the Awami League, then in the opposition, questioned the neutrality of arrangements by a political party.

That gave rise to a political brawl that rolled on for another two years. The civil society took an initiative to mediate talks between the two battling camps, but that initiative never got any response from the political arena.

Eventually, the parties reached a political settlement paving way for the first non-partisan interim government to oversee the 1996 national election.

Although the Awami League and the BNP refused to sit in civil society-mediated talks, the interim polls-time government included several members from among them.

Just like what the losing sides did after some of the other national polls administered by caretaker governments that followed in the next one and a half decades, the BNP never accepted the 1996 results and blamed the then administration of favouring the Awami League.

Political scientist Professor Rounaq Jahan told the Dhaka Tribune yesterday: “The civil society played an important role in bringing all political parties to a common platform when the Awami League and the BNP were fighting during the anti-Ershad movement. They managed to do that because everyone was part of a movement to bring back democracy.”

She explained how the political parties and civil society later took contradictory positions on several issues.

“After 1991, the civil society got divided into two camps – the pro-Awami League and the pro-BNP. A small group that maintained neutrality, has always had to face the music from the sides that lost in elections or were in power,” she said.

Noted economist Rehman Sobhan, journalist Foyez Ahmed, barrister Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed, former Justice Kamal Uddin Hossain and former ambassador Fakhruddin Ahmed were among those who tried to mediate talks in 1996.

Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), told the Dhaka Tribune: “It was a ‘common threat perception’ during the anti-Ershad movement. That was why together they [politicians and civil society members] managed to dethrone the regime.

“But after multi-party democracy was revived, it changed to a ‘mutual threat perception.’ The two major camps became enemies. Therefore, whenever the civil society tried to move in favour of a cause, the political camps started looking at them with suspicion and disbelief,” Iftekhar said.

The Awami League lost trust in the civil society because they think the
civil society highlighted their misrules before the 2001 elections which they lost.

Similarly, the BNP think that one of the reasons behind their 2008 election debacle was civil society highlighting their corruption, analysts say.

The gap between the political parties and the civil society got wider during the two-year tenure of the army-backed interim government in 2007-08.

That government had several advisers who represented the civil society and that administration was
blamed for the repression of many
politicians.

Former chief election commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda, who signed the letter sent to the president, PM and the BNP chief on Monday, told the Dhaka Tribune yesterday: “Let me assure everyone of one thing: we do not have any political interest and certainly we are no rival to any of the political parties.”

Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said: “Because there are loopholes in the state mechanism, the civil society has to raise voice. It is a positive gesture. The more the civil society takes initiatives, the more it will benefit the state.”

Political analyst Mizanur Rahman Shelley hailed the civil society’s latest initiative but said: “The way the ruling party has rejected the proposal, it puts the future of the initiative into darkness. The president has nothing to do in this regard because he cannot put a step forward without the prime minister’s advice.

“But someone had to take the initiative and the civil society did it this time. It is hard to say now whether they will be successful or not, but this will most definitely remain as a good reference for the future.”

TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said: “This letter is a collective expression of concerned citizens. It should be welcomed. It is a reflection of what the people believe. The political parties can see this as complementary to their endeavours.

“Anyone can try to find loopholes if they want. But even if this initiative was taken by someone entirely neutral, even then the politicians would not have faith,” Iftekhar said.

Source: Dhaka Tribune

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