Election manifesto & political parties’ accountability to the citizens

Published : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018 at 12:00 AM

All the political parties of Bangladesh are much energized now-a-days eyeing on the 11th National election scheduled to be held within less than three months. Everywhere we are experiencing the hype of the upcoming election. Local markets, tea stalls and any other public gathering places are filled with political discussions especially the issue of a free and fair election. Moreover, voters are betting on their favourite candidates to receive the party nominations and are getting often involved in heated arguments. 

But till now the political parties are yet to declare their election manifestos. Our citizens seem to be very reluctant to wait for the manifestos and to compare the promises of different political parties from which they can actually judge which party will more effectively meet their desires. In democracy, this election manifesto or political commitment can play a vital role and the voters must check on it before hitting the polling centres.

An election manifesto is a set of promises made to the selectors especially the voters prior to an election by the political parties. It explains what the voters will gain if a particular party is elected. It also depicts the policies of the respective political party hence, allow the people to learn about the ideology of the political parties. It is also a representation of the ideas that a party or candidate has regarding the development of a constituency letting the voters understand different developmental concepts that parties can offer for facilitating social and economic enhancements.

Most importantly, an election manifesto provides a judgment criterion to the people as they can check if a government or political party has performed as it promised. This judgment can play an important role in the next elections and can even decide on the fate of a political party. 

In developed countries, election manifesto plays a great role in elections as the voters critically analyze the promises made by the political parties. They also make sure that the government is on the right track to achieve those set goals. For example; the launch of a party’s manifesto is among the most decisive moments in a British general election campaign. Manifestos are not just strategy to yield votes at election time for them. They establish the agenda for government that the party will chase in office. Manifestos have a quasi-constitutional authority in the British political structure. If a party has secured a parliamentary preponderance in the House of Commons on the basis of its manifesto, the government’s programme cannot be vetoed by an intractable House of Lords.

But in developing and least developed countries, the situation is very different and Bangladesh is also included in this trend. Here, the voters are least concerned about the election manifesto rather they blindly follow a particular party or candidate. They even do not consider the background of a candidate. If the voters cannot get any commitments from their leaders, they cannot hold those leaders accountable. 

In recent days, we are hearing a lot about different movements from different political parties focusing on the elections. Country’s largest opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led 20-party alliance formed a national unity alliance with few prominent political figures like Barrister Kamal Hossain, ASM Abdur Rob, Mahmudur Rahman Manna and few others. Initially they have declared a five-point demand. 

These five points contained issues like – forming a neutral government to ensure equal opportunity for all parties; constituting a new election commission with acceptable people to ensure a free, fair, and neutral election; withdrawing the false cases filed against leaders and activists of all political parties; deployment of army, magistrates, and law enforcement agencies and allowing the Election Commission to exercise its full authority over law enforcement agencies; dropping the use of EVMs in the elections and ensuring a level-playing field for all political parties.

If we look into the above mentioned five-point demands, it is all about creating an environment which they feel will maximize their chance to clinch victory in the election. But it does not project any coherence with the people’s concerns. It seems like these politicians are only worried about the change of the government. They might even claim that, without change of power, people’s welfare cannot be ensured and hence, it completely relates with people’s welfare. But the truth is these five-point demands completely fail to relate with the voters.

Later a new alliance named Jatiya Oikya Front was formed which provided eleven-point goals including ensuring checks and balances in the state power, decentralization of administration, freeing MPs from the stringent restrictions imposed on them under article 70 of the constitution, formation of a constitutional commission to make appointments to all constitutional and other important posts and full independence of the judiciary. 

They also declared new seven-point demands including the one for holding the next parliamentary election under a nonpartisan government, dissolution of parliament before the polls and recasting the Election Commission. Looking into their goals and demands, it is evident that people are not their priority rather they are only focusing on creating a field to form the government. But if citizen’s concerns are not addressed, there is no point for the citizens to vote for them.
In the history of Bangladesh, many movements were conducted with specific demands and the successful ones always held people at centre. 

The Six Point Movement, spearheaded by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, called for greater autonomy for East Pakistan to end the apparent abuse of East Pakistan by the West Pakistani rulers. The demands included providing for a Federation of Pakistan based on the Lahore Resolution; vesting all residual subjects except defence and foreign affair to the federal states; two separate, but freely convertible currencies for two wings; vesting power of taxation and revenue collection to the federating units; separate foreign exchange accounts for two wings; separate military or paramilitary force for East Pakistan. From these demands, it is easily understandable that empowering the people of the East Pakistan was the main goal which eventually led us to independence in 1971.

During the movement for restoring democracy in Bangladesh by replacing autocratic ruler HM Ershad, BNP announced a 19-point ideology as their election manifesto which included points like ensuring people’s participation at all levels of administration, development programmes and in maintenance of law and order; strengthening rural economy and thus the national economy by according priority to agricultural development; making the country self-sufficient in food and ensuring that nobody has to starve; setting up cloth production so as to ensure supply of at least coarse cloth for everybody; taking all possible measures so that no one remains homeless; bringing the country out of the curse of illiteracy; ensuring minimum medical care for everybody etc. All these ideologies were actually people oriented and so, BNP was successful at that time.

Bangladesh Awami League led 14-party alliance also provided a people-oriented election manifesto prior to the 9th national election with five priority issues including maintenance of economic stability and control over commodity price hike; effective action against corruption; power and energy; elimination of poverty and inequity; establishment of good governance. They also had 18 other issues. This people oriented manifesto helped them to relate with the people and hence clinching win in the election.

Ideas of Democracy are rooted in accountability. A manifesto, hence serves as a vital standard for analyzing the performance of a government and ensuring it’s accountability to the voters as per the policies and promises envisioned. 
From the election of 1970 to elections in 1990, 1996 and 2008 – all had a strategic or policy based blueprint which provided a clear direction to the citizens. Based on those blueprints, many political parties directly or indirectly formed alliance despite having individual party manifestos. The newly formed Jatiya Oikyo Front is a combination of parties with very different ideologies and they are yet to form a common political blueprint or even a common manifesto. With election so close, there is almost no time to prepare and relate citizens with that. Hence, people will have not much understanding of their social and political commitment.

We must remember that in an effort to acquire power, manifestos can often contain supercilious standards and unrealistic agendas. The boundaries between politics and national aspirations can be blurry in many manifestos. Hence, it is very important that, our political parties produce well thought and realistic election manifestos prior to the next election. They should be careful to make it people-oriented, measurable and detail with specific plans. 

The political parties or candidates individually should widely campaign based on their party manifestos. The citizens should also go through these documents before voting any particular party or candidate though it can be very challenging considering widespread illiteracy in our country.

Our citizens should be careful in comparing the election manifestos of different political parties and also should judge if the earlier governments performed on their promises. Only on that consideration, they should vote as it will set a practice of accountability and transparency in our electoral process. We hope that the Bangladeshi citizens will elect leaders who will work only for people’s welfare and country’s progress. It is high time to get aware as the next election will be held very soon.

The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)

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