Between a rock and a hard place
It is difficult to see what kind of a new combination we can come up with for election-time ‘undemocratic government’, given the politically partisan divisiveness of our society, at least a combination that will last a few national elections. And yet it is also difficult to see how we can trust any of the incumbents to carry out an election. We indeed stand between a rock and a hard place, writes Mubin S Khan
THE Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the opposition party that was decimated in the last general elections held in December 2008, appears to be one up on their rivals the Awami League on the issue of the next general elections. Most people, even those generally more aligned to the Awami League worldview, privately concede that neither of the two political camps, given their blood-thirst for the seat of power, can be trusted, at least in our lifetime, to hold a free and fair election that contains the possibility of their rival group coming to power.
The Awami League, which ushered in the fifteenth amendment to the constitution that removed the provision for election-time caretaker government, has also not done its case for holding elections itself any favour. During the Narayanganj city corporation polls it denied the Election Commission the use of the army by throwing the request into a bureaucratic tangle, confirming the might of the executive over everyone else. And given how the bureaucracy and law enforcement have been shamelessly singing to a partisan tune, and the Jatiya Party is already gearing up to become a pseudo-opposition, it would seem that the Awami League government did not also bother much to make a compelling case about its neutrality and efficiency either.
The general feeling is that the fifteenth amendment was a high stakes gamble, a show of strength designed to irk the opposition, and sooner or later, as the concerned world citizens come flying in and start haranguing for ‘dialogue’ between the two sides, both sides will eventually concede to a middle ground, a ground where both sides do not just lose face, but appear ‘victorious’ (much like the victory over the Bay of Bengal).
That is now the job of the negotiators, international and local, who have already shifted to active gear in recent days. Getting them to the ‘dialogue’ table might not be such a hard job in the end, as the might of the negotiators would suggest, but getting them to finally agree on something is a totally different question altogether. And this time around, the question about whether they will concede to is something as important as what they will concede to. After trying out various combinations to hold democratic elections in an essentially undemocratic nation, culture and polity, what more options do we have in hand to hold a free and fair election?
Undemocratic means to save democracy
JUST about the only recognised democratic practice in the country — the general elections — has so far only been ‘successfully’ carried out by undemocratic governments, a.k.a. caretaker government. The ‘combination’ for the system of the caretaker government appeared almost by accident, when in 1990, the fallen dictator HM Ershad, under pressure from pro-democracy street activists, handed over interim power to the then chief justice, Shahabuddin Ahmad, instead of the general practice of ‘generals’ handing it over to another ‘general’, which would have inevitably led to further trouble. This accidental ‘combination’ became a popular demand in five years’ time, as the Awami League, trumping up popular support with a heady dose of 173-day hartal, compelled an all-BNP parliament to vote on an AL-led amendment to the constitution. National elections under the system followed in 1996 and 2001, and while both losing sides cried foul play for a little while, generally the system was toasted as an overwhelming success, ready to become a Bangladeshi export to other trouble-torn nations across the world, much like the other ‘unique’ Bangladeshi invention micro-credit.
But the caretaker government system was not just a symbolic personal insult on the BNP by the Awami League, but an impediment to sure-fire return to power irrespective of public opinion, and the BNP decided to fire the first volley of shots at it during their second tenure. Some ‘evil genius’ in the then government came up with the idea to tweak the retirement age of Supreme Court judges and also to break tradition in the appointment of chief justices, so that the ‘preferred’ candidate may be synchronised into retirement so that he would be able return as a chief adviser to the caretaker government when the time arrived. This ‘preferred’ candidate also happened to be the same person who felt ‘embarrassed’ to sit on the Bangabandhu murder trial. So after vicious street-fighting for over a week in 2006, the Awami League rejoiced at the fall of ‘possibly-partisan’ chief adviser and the appointment of ‘surely-partisan’ president as chief adviser. In the end, however, the Awami League was ready to go to elections on a ‘flawed’ voters roll but not without their crucial partner HM Ershad, whose candidature was refused by the then election commission.
The caretaker government system as envisioned in the thirteenth amendment to the constitution died a premature death on January 11, 2007. On came a state of emergency, and a former Bangladesh Bank governor assumed the office of the chief adviser. It remains an ‘official’ mystery till this day on what grounds he had been selected. He was at first quietly backed, then actively, and finally pushed to the back by the military, and the two-year government is now not-so-fondly remembered as the Fakhruddin-Moeenuddin government. During that period, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the two undisputed leaders of the BNP and the Awami League, experienced emotions of joy and disappointment, betrayal and blackmail, exile and imprisonment, possible elimination, before finally and miraculously being returned to their familiar places of prime minister and leader of the opposition.
A dead end for democratic elections
THERE appears to be a great misunderstanding between the people of Bangladesh and the Awami League-BNP. Every time the Awami League or the BNP are handed an overwhelming mandate on the ballot boxes they seem to imagine that the people only want them (the respective winner) and no one else. But as the experience of the short-lived BNP government of 1996 showed, or the early popular support for 1/11 showed, the people of Bangladesh want both of them on board during election time — and if results of the past are anything to go by — so that they can oust one for the other, creating just about the only means of justice our people experience in this democracy-starved democratic country. Paradoxically, the people, tired and haggled by the Awami League and the BNP’s numerous failures and blood thirst for power, still refuse to look beyond these two sides, as Fakhruddin-Moeenuddin discovered to their disappointment.
It would, therefore, be futile for the Awami League to try and repeat BNP’s mistakes again. If, in 2014, the Awami League manages to hold an election while sitting in power, with the participation of ‘Khaleda Zia-led’ (stress intended) BNP, then it would certainly surprise even the most diehard and delusional AL supporters. Instead, it would be best for the government to concede to a more accommodative position on the issue, under whichever guise that hides their embarrassment. Because the question about what kind of an election-time government we will have is as important as whether we will have a caretaker government, given the battle scars and wounds sustained by the last system.
For example, if we returned to what we have known as a caretaker government, then the immediate-past chief justice ABM Khairul Haque, the same judge who declared the fifth amendment to the constitution void, declared Sheikh Mujibur the declarer of independence and ruled that the system of caretaker government unconstitutional, would assume the seat of chief adviser. Given the same logic with which the Awami League rejected Justice KM Hasan as chief adviser in 2006, there is hardly any room to think that there has been any love lost between Khairul Haque and the BNP. Also, prolonged use of the judiciary in the role of a caretaker government can indeed destroy the judiciary, as Khairul Haque noted in his judgement, and something we have unfortunately seen signs of.
Then you could have a combination of a military-backed immediate past Bangladesh Bank governor, a.k.a. Moeenuddin-Fakhruddin, but given Hasina and Khaleda’s experience of being shut indoors in those two houses in Sangsad Bhaban and the historical propensity of most armies to enjoy their stay in power, that is indeed a dangerous proposal which can also land yours truly into trouble.
Some people have suggested an interim government combining both parties, which, however, does not explain who would hold the unitary position at the top, since power in this country has the propensity to narrow down to single individuals. We could also have further trouble in deciding which party’s man gets to sit in important positions such as the home ministry or information ministry, which could have a direct bearing on the elections.
So does anyone else have any more combinations in mind? Because we might just be staring at a dead end to democratic elections if we run out of ideas. No elected government, no judiciary, no military. Who then? The vice-chancellor of Dhaka University? The khatib of Baitul Mukarram? The former inspector general of police? The president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry? Or maybe since they are always so interested, a combination of ambassadors? The World Bank, maybe? (Suggestions not to be taken seriously). Seriously though, before the ‘dialogues’ begin, it would indeed be helpful if some ideas were floated around which the two sides could catch onto and claim as their own later on.
It is difficult to see what kind of a new combination we can come up with for election-time ‘undemocratic government’, given the politically partisan divisiveness of our society, at least a combination that will last a few national elections. And yet it is also difficult to see how we can trust any of the incumbents to carry out an election. We indeed stand between a rock and a hard place.
Whatever we come up with in the end (hoping that we do), it is indeed a shame that in 41 years we have not been able find a stable method for the transfer of power. In some ways it is fitting for a nation whose national struggle took a decisive turn on the issue of transfer of power during the erstwhile Pakistan era.
Mubin S Khan is an assistant editor at New Age.
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