The Ambassador of Switzerland to Bangladesh, Dr. René Holenstein, and the Editor and Publisher of the Daily Star, Mr. Mahfuz Anam, welcomed the guests at the event. Mr. Mahfuz Anam said that democracy remains our goal despite its flaws. Ambassador Holenstein pointed out that one of the main spirits of democracy in Switzerland was the constant search for consensus and, in the absence of it, the search for the best compromise possible. Power sharing was presented as another central feature of the Swiss democracy. Highlighting the fact that democracy was one of the fundamental principles of the Bangladeshi constitution, he also said the concept of democracy was not only important for Bangladesh but was also close to the heart of the people.
Mr. Peter Niggli, Swiss Author, Journalist and Development Policy Expert, made the keynote presentation, where he explained the Swiss system of Direct Democracy to the audience. With a view to describing how the Direct Democracy system works in Switzerland, Mr. Niggli said the people in Switzerland did not delegate political decision-making exclusively to the elected government and the parliament, as is customary in representative democracies. Instead, certain decisions of the elected bodies must be submitted to a vote, and the citizens can approve or reject them.
Three eminent speakers also talked about people’s participation, democracy and local governance from a Bangladeshi perspective. Dr. Sadeka Halim, the Dean of Social Science Faculty of Dhaka University, talked about decentralization, local governance and democratization in Bangladesh. She said people’s participation was a central element of any democracy.
Placing emphasis on social inclusion and citizen’s participation in democratic processes, Barrister Raja Devasish Roy, Chief of Chakma Circle, said it was important to facilitate a louder voice in governance and democracy for the indigenous peoples and minorities groups of Bangladesh.
On the topics of social accountability and governance, Dr. Iftekar Zaman, the Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, said Social accountability towards citizens was a crucial process for constructive engagement between citizens and the government to ensure accountable governance at both national and local levels. He also said accountable governance was the key word in any form of democracy.
The remarks made by the discussants were followed by a lively exchange with the participants on various topics of democracy. They underlined the importance of accountability and inclusion of minorities, good governance, decentralization and people’s participation in making a democracy functional. The event was attended by members of civil society, development practitioners, rights advocates, academia and representatives of the diplomatic community. The roundtable discussion was moderated by Brig. Gen Shahedul Anam Khan (Retd), Associate Editor of the Daily Star. Summarising the discussion he emphasized the role of the media, people’s participation, minority rights and youth’s involvement in a democracy.
In his closing remarks, Ambassador Holenstein said, the main idea of this roundtable discussion was to learn from sharing experiences with each other and not to replicate ideas or different models of democracy.
Earlier on 25-29 June 2019, the Embassy of Switzerland organized a panel exhibition depicting various aspects of the Swiss Direct Democracy model at Dhaka University, which was also displayed during the event.
With direct democracy, Switzerland offers its citizens a variety of ways and instruments for political participation and influence that go far beyond elections and voting rights. Direct democracy is a comprehensive system of decision-making, where the citizens have the right to force a vote on parliamentary decisions (called referendums) or to refer issues that they consider important to votes (so called initiatives).