Democracy is a wondrous thing!

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Victory slipping away from the ruling party in the recent British elections, and the unexpected rise of a left-wing back-bencher, certainly has caught the attention of many in Bangladesh too. There are some people in Bangladesh who still dream of a Westminster-style democracy and they have been mulling over lessons learned from the British polls. These people argue that if Bangladesh takes lessons from Britain, then a free and fair election could still be possible under an incumbent prime minister without a caretaker government in Bangladesh

It is always good to hear about qualitative changes in Bangladesh’s politics.  But then again, we can’t forget how very different our reality is. We have advanced from competitive elections to elections free of contest. This contest-free culture has permeated from politics to the teachers associations, the business chambers and to professional bodies. The new trend is to hold on to a post at any level for life. Similar sentiments have been expressed about our Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament), that too by a member of parliament from the so-called opposition which is also a part of the government. On 8 June, Jatiya Party’s Khoshed Ara Huq said in her deliberations on the budget, “We don’t want any more elections. We have a prime minister and she will run the country for another five to ten years.”

The scenes in the British House of Commons on Tuesday cannot be forgotten. This was the first session after Tory leader Theresa May lost the majority after calling for mid-term polls to further consolidate the party’s position in parliament. She came to lead a minority government. And it was a grand and festive entrance for opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose own party members didn’t even want to acknowledge him in the last parliament. This time the applause just wouldn’t end.

At the beginning of the session there was the Speaker’s election, the address by the prime minister and by the leader of the opposition, all of which was rather dramatic and somewhat traditional. There was something new. The words that still resound in the ear are opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in congratulating Prime Minister Theresa May. He said, “Democracy is a wondrous thing!”

The newly formed parliament's official opening will be next week. At the brief session on Tuesday, the Speaker was elected, and the prime minister and leader of the opposition greeted the new and re-elected MPs. The prime minister’s speech contained indirect admission of her party’s election defeat, when she congratulated Speaker John Bercow, who was elected uncontested, saying that at least someone had a landslide victory. Next Jeremy Corbyn also congratulated the Speaker, making a political joke about democracy being a wondrous thing that could throw up very unexpected results.

During her election campaign, one of May’s main contentions was that only she can offer 'strong and stable leadership' and if her party did not win, Britain would be saddled with a coalition of chaos under Corbyn’s leadership. In his speech Corbyn said he looked forward to the Queen’s speech just as soon as the ‘coalition of chaos’ was negotiated. The entire house, including the prime minister, broke out into laughter and Jeremy Corbyn added, “Just to let the house and the rest of the nation know, if that’s not possible the Labour Party stands ready to offer strong and stable leadership in the national interest.” He said that they would pay attention to this parliament as a voice of change, no matter how brief its term may be.

There certainly is no doubt that democracy is a wondrous thing and can yield unexpected results. But this cannot be expected if the playing field is not level. The upper classes and the media that feeds off capitalism, had painted Corbyn as a villain. But once the election schedule was announced and the broadcast media as obliged to adhere to a code of fairness, the people discovered a new Corbyn. He benefitted from the policy of television giving equal coverage to both parties.

It is obvious that it is just a matter of time for Corbyn to confidently cross another election. He knows that Theresa May’s minority government cannot last long. Then given the chance, he too will have to form a minority government. The majority members in parliament will then be obliged to go for another election. It is not the opposition leader alone who is concerned about the tenure of Theresa May’s government.  May’s former colleague, finance minister of the Cameron cabinet, and presently editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, has already termed Theresa May as the ‘Dead Woman Walking”.

The understanding with Northern Ireland’s regional Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that helped in forming her government will hardly be long-lasting. There is discomfort within her party about this too. Among the former prime ministers, it was John Major of her own party who was the first to caution her against this deal. John Major can take much credit for the peace talks with the Republicans that led to the end of the armed conflict in Northern Ireland. He clearly said that if an understanding was forged with a particular group in the communally and politically divided Northern Ireland, the British government would lose its standing as an honest mediator in resolving conflicts. As it was, DUP’s politics was controversial. Their stand on equal rights and abortion went against women. Even though Sinn Fein had dissolved the Republican Army following the Good Friday accord, DUP still has links with the Ulster militia groups. The British government’s neutral mediation is needed more than ever before. On Thursday, Sinn Fein leader Jeremy Adams clearly said that an understanding with DUP would be a violation of the Good Friday accord.  So negotiations with DUP will undoubtedly slow down running the state.

The minority government will have to run by winning confidence as demanded. The experience of running a government for the full term based on confidence and supply is not unthinkable in Britain. In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) ran for a whole term in that manner and won absolute majority in the next election. But the Tories face many hurdles in running the central government. The seven-year austerity measures have displeased a large part of the population, particularly as it made the rich richer and increased the gap between the haves and the have-nots. That is why Corbyn’s slogan, ‘Labour for the many, not for the few’, and his manifesto, gained such popularity. So it is not unrealistic for the Labour Party to prepare to form the government. Theresa May at any time may face a confidence vote which will create an opportunity for Corbyn. Of course, if May loses, that does not mean that an election will be held. When her predecessor David Cameron formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, he enacted a new law for the parliament term to be five years, thus keeping the government in power. According to that law, if the prime minister loses the confidence vote, she will have the first opportunity or else she will have another chance to win confidence over the next 14 days. But if the prime minister wants early elections, she will require the support of two-thirds of the MPs.

In Bangladesh we have heard a lot about the British example of elections under the incumbent prime minister. But we do not hear about the most important factor. We all know how important the role of the administration is in organising and holding the election. That is why we seen the candidates in a flurry of lobbying and pulling strings to get government officials of their ilk posted in their own constituencies during the elections. Former cabinet secretary Sa’dat Hussain last week on a TV show raised the issue. The summary of his deliberation was that the behaviour of the administration on election day was a clear indicator of the results. The anchor tried to get him to expand on the issue, but he refused to elaborate further. Politicisation of the administration has long been a priority of the successive governments.

Let’s look at the British experience in this regard. A kind of purdah comes into effect in Britain’s pre-election period, to ensure the neutrality of the bureaucracy. Under this system, the ministers cannot assist the bureaucrats outside of everyday routine work. The bureaucrats too cannot extend any extra favours to anyone. This tradition of purdah is effective during local government and council elections too. In the past, the cabinet secretary would publish a code of conduct for the bureaucrats. Then in October 2011 during David Cameron’s first term, a cabinet manual was drawn up concerning an election-time code of  conduct for the bureaucrats and that became a standing regulation. The manual even specifies the role of the bureaucrats in the event if no party wins outright majority in parliament. This purdah code applies to the government officials after the election when a government is formed or if the government loses in a confidence vote.

It is quite meaningless to try to learn from the Westminster system until we sort out the question of ensuring such neutrality within the administration. And before that, of course, it is imperative to have confidence in democracy too.    


* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and Consulting Editor at Prothom Alo. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir, Consultant (Content) Prothom Alo English Online.  

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