Wisdom should prevail in political arenaby Mohammad Amjad Hossain
The flurry of visits by foreign dignitaries to Bangladesh in April-May has evoked inquisitiveness, in the analytical minds of commentators, on the present political impasse and anarchy in Bangladesh. This inquisitiveness is quiet logical indeed because all of a sudden these very important personalities have made their minds to pay a visit to Bangladesh, to exchange opinions on the political situation , with the leader of the opposition party in parliament, the ruling political party Awami League and members of the civil society.
The reason is simple. These leaders are from democratic countries which are bound by rule of law and honour of human rights of the people. Also, the countries they represent are major donor countries to Bangladesh. Therefore, they hold both carrot and stick in hand indeed, except India. A delegation from the European Union, deputy prime minister of Japan, secretary of state of America and finance minister of India (who maintains liaison with the government of Bangladesh) have been to Bangladesh. All these leaders want to see Bangladesh remain on a democratic path and make progress for the well-being of the people.
Since the removal of the provision of neutral caretaker government from the constitution, without the approval of major political party in the parliament, and ignoring the opinion of some constitutional experts in the country and abroad, there has been protests launched by opposition political parties led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party. A tense political situation prevails in the country following a number of extra-judicial murders of political activists, assassination of journalists coupled with enforced disappearances of opposition political leaders. High level of corruption in the country has caused concern in donor countries, which has resulted in cancellation of funds by World Bank for construction of a bridge over the river Padma, which has become a prime concern of Awami League. Japan, another major donor country, refused to finance for the construction of the bridge. The message they left is that rule of law and transparency should be maintained in the conduct of state affairs, and transparent and impartial elections should be conducted, wherein all political parties should take part. In other words, results of election would not otherwise be acceptable by international partners.
In the democratic set-up, an interim caretaker government is viewed as undemocratic. Where democracy is fragile or exists in name only, as in the case of Bangladesh, interim neutral caretaker government for holding general election should not be considered undemocratic. The only purpose of the interim caretaker government is to hold general elections in a fair, impartial and free atmosphere for Jatiya Sangsad (parliament). During the nine year long military rule of President Gen Hussein Mohammed Ershad, people’s confidence in the ruling party for conducting general elections reached its lowest ebb. Restoration of democracy through free, fair and impartial manner was the slogan in 1990. Major political parties: Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamat-e-Islamic Party formed an alliance, which was unheard of in Bangladesh politics, and made a joint declaration for neutral caretaker government. The declaration spells out the formation of neutral caretaker government for holding general elections following the resignation of Ershad government. In the face of massive upsurge of anti-government movements President Ershad had to resign and hand over power to Chief Justice Shahbuddin Ahmed on December 6, 1990, as demanded by combined opposition political parties. In 1991, an election was held by neutral caretaker government headed by Justice Shahbuddin Ahmed which marked a positive development in restoring democracy in the country. But disagreements on national issues, lack of confidence and mistrust among the political parties in Jatiya Sangsad led to the dissolution of Jatiya Sangsad, when 147 members of the Parliament resigned en masse. It dissolved before the expiration of the five year term. The sixth Jatiya Sangsad amended the constitution following violent movement by Awami League during second half of BNP rule, from 1991 to 1996, and inserted article 58(B) (c) (D) and (E) in the constitution, known as the 13th amendment. Since then four parliamentary elections were held under the neutral caretaker government. All previous caretaker governments since 1991 conducted elections within the stipulated 90 days window, except the fourth non-party caretaker government.
The activities of the fourth neutral care taker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed have become controversial, as the government exceeded the limit of its tenure. This happened because of the inconsistencies in the constitution. Constitution experts might have missed significant inconsistencies in the articles 123(3) and 58 (C) (12). While article 123(3) talks of holding elections within 90 days following dissolving the parliament, article 58 (C) (12) indicates the interim government must relinquish its power as soon as the new parliament is constituted and a prime minister is elected. These are two contradictory articles in the constitution. Logically, the neutral caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed availed the loophole in the constitution and continued to remain in power for two years and relinquished power when prime minister was elected.
A neutral caretaker government was necessitated by the fact that the ruling government could not ensure fair, free and impartial elections. Moreover, the head of the two major political parties are not on speaking terms either. This is really unfortunate in the context of Bangladesh, which still remains a least developed country since its inception in 1972.
Whatever legal loophole might be there in the thirteenth amendment of the constitution, it has a profound impact in the general elections of Jatiya Sangsad. It establishes a unique example in parliamentary democracy indeed. While writing on the merit of neutral caretaker government I recall observations of foreign observer groups, with respect to holding parliamentary elections in June 1996 by neutral care taker government. I have had the privilege to accompany some groups to oversee the conduct of elections, as facilitator officer from the foreign office. At least a dozen officers were deputed to assist foreign observer groups, including Peter David Shore, British parliamentarian, who was vocal in favour of the war of liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Parliamentarian commission for administration from Sri Lanka Prof Bastiampillai, Canadian MP Colleen Beaumier, a Nepalese parliamentary group and a European Union observer group, who praised the conduct of the election, which was fair, free, impartial without breaches of law and order, where the people of Bangladesh were able to exercise their democratic rights. The European Union group recommended to respect the result of the election and to work further to enhance democracy in the country. I had a brief discussion with Peter Shore, who was eloquent to oversee the new concept of neutral caretaker government. An identical remark was expressed by former secretary general of the commonwealth, Sir Don McKinnon, in Dhaka sometime in 2001.The concept of neutral caretaker government has been recognized at home and abroad as an effective and transparent institution, although it does not carry the weight of people’s representatives.
In the present context of Bangladesh where neither Awami League nor Bangladesh Nationalist Party could be relied on to play a fair and impartial game in holding general election of the parliament. Therefore, there is no alternative but a neutral interim government for holding general elections. It is imperative for all political parties to nurture a culture of democracy and a politics of national cohesion in the interest of the country and the people. In view of the political impasse, it is equally imperative to follow prevailing wisdom in restoring the caretaker government concept, for the sake of democracy and welfare of the people.
Mohammad Amjad Hossain, a retired diplomat from Bangladesh and former president of the Nova chapter of the prestigious Toastmasters International Club, writes from Virginia.
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