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Democracy is what the winner says it is
Tuesday, 06 December 2016

Twenty-six years ago the autocratic rule of Gen. Ershad came to an end in the face of years of mass agitation leading to the restoration of democracy and reinstatement of the representative government in 1991.  Since then 6th December has been celebrated as Democracy Restoration Day.

The irony is that the autocrat we toppled is now a special envoy to the present prime minister with the rank of a minister and his party, the one that people shunted out of power, is the formal opposition in the parliament led by the autocrat\'s wife with three of its members occupying ministerial slots. This makes us the only parliamentary system in the world where the so-called opposition party is also a part of the government.

Meanwhile the second largest political party in the country that formed the government and was the biggest opposition party twice respectively after restoration of democracy, cannot hold party events without the government\'s permission, cannot hold public rallies without the fear of police repression, whose leaders run from pillar to post appearing in cases lodged in various parts of the country and, most alarmingly, some of whose members have simply disappeared.

We have built an inclusive democracy indeed. The party that was toppled from power as an enemy of democracy is now an integral part of it, and the party that helped to topple the autocrat, and whose role was second to none, is labeled as an enemy of democracy.

The most important thing to recall today is the promises the political parties collectively made to the people at that time and how, over the years, every one moved away from them. What is known as “Teen Joter Roop-rekha”, (The Joint Outline by the Three Alliances, comprising of the 15 party alliance led by the AL, 7 party alliance led by BNP and 5 party alliance of the Left leaning parties) had set out a very clear outline for a democratic and egalitarian society committed to the welfare of the people especially through good governance and building a corruption free society.

There were two basic issues against the Ershad government: the illegitimacy of the regime and the widespread corruption of the administration. The purpose unflinching, the feeling unambiguous, the goal clear that Bangladesh would never be governed by a military dictatorship howsoever sanitised through formation of political parties and holding “managed” elections.  There could not be any government that was not elected by the people through a free and fair election.

The Joint Programme of the Three Alliances-- from now on “The Jote”, therefore, had a very clear  focus; to constitute a “legitimate” government-- meaning one that came through people\'s vote and expressed through a free and fair election, thus setting up a successor transitional government to that of Ershad that would conduct the all important election, occupied a lot of thought and energy of the political parties resulting in the formation of an interim caretaker government under the chief justice, Shahabuddin.

So sincere was the intention of the “The Jote” to make the election truly free and fair that they voluntarily prepared a code of conduct to ensure that the election was truly reflective of the “will” of the people. We reproduce below some the main points:

- The political parties in the three alliances will follow general democratic norms of mutual respect and tolerance of others\' views in their electoral statements and activities. The parties in the alliances will always try to instill democratic spirit in their workers.

- The parties in the three alliances will refrain from publicising slander or make derogatory remarks about other parties\' patriotism and religious beliefs. The parties will not support communalism and will resist communal propaganda.

- The parties in the three alliances are making a pledge to shun confrontation in carrying out electoral activities. Our earlier announcement of not taking into the political parties of the three alliances the identified collaborators of Ershad\'s autocratic government and holders of illegal arms will be strictly enforced.

- The parties in the three alliances will not try to influence the administration or law enforcing agencies in their own electoral interest. They will try to uphold the neutrality of the administration.

- The three alliances will try to ensure that the mass media can play an independent and neutral role.

- The parties in the three alliances will take forward the democratic process by accepting people\'s mandate given through the elections.

The above “code of conduct” voluntarily proposed and accepted by all the political parties in the alliances shows the extent to which our politicians were committed to the idea of a genuinely representative government to run the affairs of the country.

However, with the removal of the “common enemy” and after the holding of the first election after the restoration of democracy, the unity began to fall apart and partisan interest began to overtake national interest. Democracy building was back-burnered and has remained there ever since.

Today as we “celebrate” Democracy Restoration Day we need to introspect on what we “restored” 26 years ago, and whether the democracy that we have today resembles what was envisaged then. How many of the promises made during the anti-Ershad struggle have been fulfilled? What are the possible costs of the non-fulfillment of those pledges? And, most importantly, what lies ahead in our march towards building a genuinely democratic society that has been our persistent dream since our Liberation War. Is democracy what the winner says it is, or will democracy be what the people say it is?

This is a commentary written by Mahfuz Anam, The Editor of the Daily Star on DEMOCRACY RESTORATION DAY