Transition to democracy through peaceful, neutral and credible elections-part Iby Masood Aziz
BANGLADESH is at a critical juncture in its history because of the ongoing standoff between the two major political parties and their alliances, which threatens the socio-economic fabric of the nation. Socio-economic progress of a country or a state demands sustenance of an acceptable democratic polity. Democracy thus is an important pillar of nation-building, which is why it was incorporated as a matter of state policy in our constitution. People’s unfettered right to elect and oust, if necessary, any government is the beauty of a vibrant democracy — the inseparable means to which is a credible election.
The problem that bedevils transition to democracy in Bangladesh is the mutual trust deficit between the two mainstream political parties, namely the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which together command support of 80 per cent of the electorate. Lack of trust in a party government to conduct a free and fair election for transfer of power and the unwillingness of the defeated party to accept the result/outcome of the polls create political instability and stunt economic growth because the political programmes pursued often turn into violent agitation and mindless destruction of lives and properties. To ensure smooth transition, in the context of the belligerent politics in Bangladesh, the system of a neutral caretaker government was introduced with the primary mandate to hold a free and fair parliamentary election within a specified timeframe, as was stipulated in the 13th amendment to the constitution (now annulled).
Holding of polls on the basis of ‘universal direct adult franchise’, a terminology of the political scientist paraphrased more eloquently by the Lincolnian version, which we will come to later, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy to take roots. Since parliament is the nerve centre of our multi-party political system, all parties, big or small, have to be given proper opportunities to voice their views and grievances. Unless this can be ensured minority parties/opposition tend to abstain from parliament. This trend had been manifest ever since the first election conducted by the caretaker government under the then acting president Justice Shahabuddin till now. Long-term boycott of parliament by both the major parties — the Awami League and the BNP — along with their respective allies has become a threat to our fledgling democracy and made parliament largely dysfunctional.
The people of this region — more specifically, the territory now constituting Bangladesh — have experienced electoral systems since 1871 with the introduction of local government system. Since then, elections have been held periodically at various levels, but the search for a credible election system remains elusive. During the 142 years, we also experienced autocratic, quasi-democratic, limited democratic, civilian-backed military rule and single-party totalitarian rule and the revival of multiparty democratic system.
Articles 118 to 126 along with their sub-clauses as documented in the latest version of our constitution (amended up to October 2011) at pages 43 to 46 clearly stipulate the guidelines for holding national election/parliamentary polls. Sadly, these guidelines are followed more in breaches than adherence. All elections/referendums held in Bangladesh were of questionable nature until the one held in February 1991 under the then chief justice of the Supreme Court as well as the acting president of the country. It was acclaimed nationally and globally. Several groups of international election observers and monitors as well as local ones were allowed wide access to oversee the electioneering process. This election brought the BNP into power. The presidential form of government was replaced by a parliamentary one, according to the understanding between the Awami League, the BNP, Jamaat-e-Islam and a host of other allies against the Ershad regime with minimal changes in the constitution. Most of the basic election provisions of the 1972 constitution remained unchanged.
Alleging the government’s complicity in the Magura by-election during first tenure of the BNP, demands were raised by the opposition to introduce caretaker government for conducting parliamentary polls. After prolonged agitation, violence and scores of hartals, the BNP yielded to the demand. It hurriedly called election under the existing provision, got adequate deputies of its party elected and passed a bill with the provision of caretaker government (13th amendment). Parliament was immediately dissolved. Since then three credible elections under caretaker government were held in 1996, 2001 and 2008.
Now an impasse has been created. The Awami League with its massive majority in parliament changed the constitution, has done away with caretaker government and introduced a somewhat new model that is fraught with the danger of manipulation, denying a level playing field, which the opposition terms as an attempt to manoeuvre the process with a view to retaining hold on power for an unlimited time. This issue has divided the nation further, given rise to violent political movements and pushed the future of the nation into alarming uncertainty.
The Awami League’s rationales for the change mainly are:
a) In a perfect democracy, there is no scope to vest the powers of the state to a group of unelected individuals, who are not accountable to the people and still retain hold on power. This is ultra vires of the constitution.
b) In all democracies, the outgoing government is requested by the head of state to continue as an interim government till the newly elected government takes over. During this period of transition the interim government discharges routine functions and does not deal with issues or problems that may have major policy implications.
c) The government is only implementing the Supreme Court verdict.
d) There is no scope to revert to the caretaker government system now that a law has been enacted — the 15th amendment pursuant to the Supreme Court Verdict.
e) The present government under the incumbent prime minister is committed to restore true democratic practices in order to bring Bangladesh at par with real democratic societies of the world. Towards that end, the Election Commission has been reorganised, further strengthened and made independent.
f) Several thousand local government elections have been held during the tenure of this government without major incidence of complicity of government or any other form of electoral fraud.
Except hardcore AL activists, pro-AL intellectuals, and pro-AL media, all other major political parties including some important allies of the 14-party ruling alliance are against the abolition of the caretaker government system.
The argument of the BNP and its allies for restoration of the caretaker government system hinges on the following:
a) The Supreme Court verdict is politically motivated. While disposing of a case related solely to the ownership of ‘Moon Cinema Hall’, it quite needlessly dragged the issue which was ‘closed and past transaction’ in legal parlance.
b) The manner and circumstances under which the verdict was given were most controversial. The detailed verdict was not delivered while the chief justice was in harness. Almost two years after his retirement, former chief justice ABM Khairul Huq finished writing the judgement. In the first short judgement, he had recommended elections under caretaker government for parliament for at least two terms given the existing mistrust between the Awami League and the BNP and their alliances. This portion of the verdict was delivered by him just before his retirement. But he revised this earlier verdict — all these in his capacity as a private person — and deleted the part relating to the need for caretaker government for at least for two more terms.
c) ‘In continuity of this, on 21 July 2010, in response to the proposal submitted by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, a ‘Special Committee’ headed by the Deputy Leader of the House was constituted to amend the Constitution. This Committee, in consultation with the political parties, lawyers, some of the retired Chief Justices, retired judges, leading representatives of different religions, sects, communities and professionals submitted a report to amend and incorporate certain provisions in the Constitution so as to meet the demand of time. On the basis of the report so submitted, a Bill namely, the “The Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Act 2011” was introduced in the Parliament and was sent to the Standing Committee on the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs for scrutiny. After scrutiny, the Standing Committee with its recommendations presented the Bill in the House. The Bill has been passed by the Parliament on 30th June, 2011. It may be noted that 291 votes were cast in favour and 1 was against the Bill’ (Source: Preface to Constitution of Bangladesh, October 2011)
d) The Awami League and its allies argue that it is unconstitutional to hold elections under a government of non-elected persons as directed in the Supreme Court verdict. But there are appointed unelected chairmen to the upazilla parishads, the administrators of city corporations, ministers and advisors to the prime minister who are running the government with ministerial ranks and status but without being elected.
e) That the opposition won in all the five mayoral elections recently is not enough proof of the government’s neutrality. During the BNP’s first term (1991-1996) Mohammad Hanif and ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury of the Awami League defeated their rivals from the BNP — Mirza Abbas and Mir Nasiruddin — in Dhaka and Chittagong respectively. But that could not detract the opposition (the Awami League and its allies) from further intensifying their agitation for caretaker government.
f) There were allegations galore of serious electoral fraud, malpractice and intimidations during the first AL regime of 1996-2001. The government’s complicity in Tangail by-election was so blatant (26 cabinet ministers with their official retinue were on the campaign trail for the AL candidate) that a delegation of diplomatic corps, led by the US and Dutch ambassadors and the British high commissioner, formally registered their displeasure with the then chief election commissioner. During the present AL government questions were raised about Bhola and Brahmanbaria by-elections, too.
In the preceding paragraphs we briefly dealt with the genesis of the caretaker government. Has the situation changed for the better? No. To the contrary, the mistrust and the adversarial relations between the Awami League and the BNP have further heightened. Confusion abounds. Offer of talks are stalled by contradictory statements — intended or otherwise — by senior leaders of the ruling party.
The dynamics of the mayoral/local government elections are quite different from those of the national ones. During mayoral and other elections, such as those of city councillors and ward commissioners, balloting is also held simultaneously. There are a number of contesting candidates concentrated in a relatively much smaller area, in the outcome of which they have a direct interest. Therefore, the candidates are obliged to maintain strict vigilance which makes malpractice like hijacking of ballot boxes and fraudulent operations like stuffing them with fake votes or preventing rival voters from going to polling booths difficult though not impossible. This is not so in the case of national elections/parliamentary polls where 300 constituencies go to polls on a single day. Constituencies are much larger, spread thin in remote inaccessible voting centres which can be negotiated with much difficulty making it almost impossible for an individual contestant irrespective of party affiliation to maintain that degree of vigilance. Moreover, in recently-held city corporation elections, 5,000 to 15,000 members of law enforcement agencies were engaged for each. For 300 seats it is a well-nigh impossibility to muster any amount of law enforcers to be deployed close to these numbers. The fraudulent/partisan elements will have a heyday. Secondly, the vigilance of media (print and electronic) and that of election observers get thinner because the area of vigilance is stretched too thin.
Besides, the local bodies’ elections and that of national elections cannot be weighed on the same scale. The latter elect the government which will rule the country for the next five years while the former has very little or no impact insofar as the national government is concerned. Seeking parallelism is misleading and will betray reality.
The Awami League’s pledges of ‘change’ in the 2008 election manifesto remains unaddressed, viz. de-politicisation of the administration/bureaucracy, curbing corruption, independence of judiciary, not to harbour goons and criminals, declaration of the assets of lawmakers and ministers. The last mentioned has faded into oblivion. Forgetting its own electoral manifesto, its enthusiasm to change the form of election-time government which was not mentioned in their election manifesto raised some eyebrows.
First and foremost, the transitional system may be allowed to run for two or three or any specified number of times. Although some political analysts have suggested a referendum on this issue, given the discernible wave of public opinion in favour of the caretaker government there is really no need for holding a very costly, time consuming and cumbersome referendum at this stage which will further delay/postpone the holding of national elections. The AL action was arbitrary and unilateral and the onus is on the party to redeem the situation. They should take the initiative in the same way as the BNP did in the wake of the controversial mid-February election of 1996.
Masood Aziz is a member of The Dhaka Forum. The views reflected in the article are those of the forum.
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