Imprecise & wide agenda diminishes political efficacy of dialogues

Published : Tuesday, 6 November, 2018 at 12:00 AM

One word hovering around all the Bangladeshi citizens in recent days is ‘Dialogue’. In light of the current context of the national politics as well as the propinquity of the next national election, it was the demand of every stakeholder. This dialogue was supposed to break the ice among the political parties. It was also anticipated to reach an equilibrium point which will facilitate to hold an election with all parties’ participation. 

The existing ruling party Awami League is taking everything by the book and is moving towards holding the 11th parliamentary elections resolutely. On the other hand, country’s largest opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies are trying to alter the modality of the elections to craft a free and fair election atmosphere. On November 02, the much awaited dialogue was held between the government and Jatiyo Oikya Front – an alliance BNP is a part of. But the dialogue’s success or failure is still a matter of judgment though in plain eyes, it brought no change.

The opposition parties were pushing for dialogues with the government for a long time especially eyeing on the national elections but they were often denied of that opportunity until recently. Immediately after the end of the last parliamentary session of this government, the ruling party agreed to hold the dialogue and invited the Jatiyo Oikya Front leaders for talks and dinner at Ganabhaban. 

The much-anticipated dialogue started at the Ganabhaban on Thursday evening. The closed-door meeting started after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s opening speech. The 20 leaders of the Oikya Front and 23 leaders of the ruling 14-Party coalition conversed on several political issues before the prime minister gave them a 20-course dinner treat.

During the much-hyped dialogue, the key demand that the Jatiyo Oikya Front placed was the release of jailed politicians, including BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia and dissolution of parliament before the general elections to be overseen by a nonpartisan government. Their other demands included lifting hindrances to political programmes, reforming the EC through talks with all the political parties, deployment of the army with magistracy powers during the polls, extraction of cases started against politicians and students during recent protests and no use of electronic voting machines or EVMs in the elections.

We, being outsider, cannot really know which issues were really discussed during the dialogue and who said what. But from the reactions of the Oikya Front leaders, it was evident that, most of their demands were not fulfilled through the dialogue. BNP leadership is strongly divided on the choice of conducting strong movement or continuing with dialogue and other peaceful measures. But it is truly a bit late considering the elections knocking on our doors.

National dialogues have come out in recent years as influential paraphernalia for peace-building across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Today there are attempts to commence national dialogues in Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Lebanon and Myanmar. National dialogues are used as means to bring the major stakeholders together when political institutions and governments are delegitimized or collapse. 

National dialogues may take many forms including national conferences as was evident in Benin, Congo, Togo, Mali, Niger, Zaire, Chad, roundtables as in Poland or Germany, constituent assemblies like in Bolivia or Afghanistan and multi-party negotiations as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. National dialogues can also be deployed in contexts such as a political stalemate as it was found in Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Lebanon. Moreover, the scope of the dialogue must be clearly defined to make it realistic, achievable and manageable. 

In Yemen, a National Dialogue Conference was held – very inclusive in nature with 565 delegates comprising all conflict stakeholders. But that sphere might not be the case always. Despite the fact that national dialogues take a lot time, energy and harmonization countries in transition often value such mechanisms because they can stimulate all parties and the public to focus on issues of national significance.

Moreover, every triumphant national dialogue has certain phases and duration. According to experts, for an effective dialogue to occur, the timeframe must be sufficient like between a few months to a few years. Other than that, certain factors like credibility of the convener; confidence-building measures; inclusion of all key stakeholders; clearly defined phases like pre-consultation phase, the actual dialogue, implementation, and post-dialogue plans etc. plays a great role in the success of a dialogue.

In comparison to the ideal context, if we evaluate the dialogue situation that we are going through right now in Bangladesh, several abnormalities will be identified. Already Jatiyo Oikya Front led by Dr Kamal Hossain and Jukto Front coalition led by Dr AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury had dialogues with the ruling coalition headed by Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina. While Oikyo Front sounded pretty frustrated after the dialogue, Jukto Front was happy despite both the alliances’ demands were mostly the same.

For example, Jukto Front and Oikyo Front both placed a demand of dissolution of the parliament before the elections and holding the election under a nonpartisan government along with complete freedom of the Election Commission (EC). The ruling party offset the idea of a nonpartisan government as there is no provision of that in the constitution right now. But assured that, the government will not interfere by any means in the electoral process while the EC will act in total freedom. While Jukto Front saw that commitment as a positive sign, Oikyo Front is still sticking to their seven-point demands. 

Right now, different political parties and alliances are getting into dialogues with the ruling party. But these dialogues actually miss out few features of successful ones. Firstly, the dialogues are bringing few critical matters on the table which require tracing out constitutional scope as well as adjustment. But, considering the election schedule to be declared on Nov 8 as the EC decided, it is pretty much impossible to make those changes now. No matter what, the election should be held on time as the people expect and these demands are just making that very difficult.

Moreover, there are several demands which actually questions the decision of the courts like; the bail of BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia. The government cannot actually take that decision as that is completely a matter of the judiciary. Having those agendas on the table will divert the focus of the dialogues and will fail the attempt to protect democracy.

People’s issues are not prioritized in the agenda of the opposition parties or the coalitions. But without any people’s issues on the table, there is no subsequent pressure on the ruling party. From a neutral viewpoint, there is no point for the ruling party to move from their stance while they are enjoying clear edge with no apparent conflict with the citizens. The government is actually pretty generous to allow these dialogues as there was no substantial pressure on them from any context with voters’ non-participation in the process. But these dialogues will actually clear the face of the ruling party to external stakeholders as this will be considered as a democratic practice.

Most importantly, the unity among the opposition coalition parties are still under severe questions and still it is unsure if Jatiyo Oikyo Front, considerably the largest opposition of the country right now will participate in the elections in the current format. There is a clear difference between BNP and other alliance members over the demands, willingness to participate in the elections, issues of arrested leaders and activists etc.

It is high time that, all the parties start their election campaign right now by declaring their election manifesto. They have very limited time in hand to connect with the people. BNP and their alliances also should turn their focus towards the election as it is a fact that the election will be held on time and they should be alert to not miss the train like they did in 2014.

Moving into the dialogues with vague and lengthy demands will not help Jatiyo Oikyo Front in any way. They should focus on nomination process by identifying good candidates who remained with the people during the last decade despite adverse environment. The alliance members especially BNP must bridge the gap with the people because there is nothing for the people in their movement for restoring democracy in Bangladesh. 

BNP should come out of the illusion of people’s support with them. Most importantly, they should leave the hand of Jamaat-e-Islami to reach the heart of the general people of Bangladesh. Whatever the situation is, BNP should partake in the 11th parliamentary elections for the sake of their political existence. Their only goal should be to re-enter the parliament. It is proved that, BNP has failed on the streets as people were not intending to get hurt to bring them in power. Now their only option is to try their lucks in the parliament which might safeguard BNP’s existence in the politics of Bangladesh.

We hope our leaders do not waste any time footing so close to the next general elections as Jatiyo Oikyo Front looking for another round of dialogue on Nov 07 with the same agenda. It is no time to talk about big changes rather it is imperative to capitalize the possibilities. We expect that whatever the situation is people become the eventual winners. We hope, whoever forms the government remains concerned only about our countrymen.

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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