Transition to democracy through peaceful, neutral and credible elections, concluding partby Masood Aziz
WHETHER the elections will be held while the incumbent parliament (the ninth parliament) is in harness or after its tenure on January 24, 2014 remains uncertain. As per newspaper reports, the prime minister has indicated her willingness to amend this aspect of the constitution. But what changes would be brought about remains unknown. If election is held while the sitting MPs are still in parliament holding office, there is likelihood of its being influenced locally. If it is held after parliament is dissolved and the interim government consists of former MPs who no longer remain elected representatives, it negates the contention that the country cannot be ruled by the people who do not enjoy the mandate from the people. The people’s perception, however, is that no free or fair election is possible under a partisan government. The Election Commission does not have enough power and lacks confidence of the electorate. In effect, it has no clear-cut authority to punish the errand civil bureaucracy; uniformed personnel; police and the law enforcing agencies; members of the staff of the local bodies, etc. The local administration which provides the polling and law and order personnel are politically biased. In the past, they were party to cliques under the direct patronage of political power and pressure groups to engineer the outcome according to their design.
The argument that the bitter experience of 1/11 government justifies the scrapping of the caretaker government, which by taking advantage of a lacuna in the 13th amendment had transgressed the limits of its mandated responsibility. The last BNP government triggered the crisis by circumventing the provisions of the caretaker government and enhanced the retirement age of the chief justice ostensibly to facilitate the chief justice of their liking to head the next caretaker government. The pro-BNP president Iajuddin Ahmed short-circuited the options to himself in becoming the chief adviser to the caretaker government while retaining the position of the president. This was totally untenable in the public perception. The Awami League and its allies went for a hard-line political movement of alarming proportions. Then came the 1/11 phenomenon which was welcomed by all except the BNP. Fakhruddin Ahmed was installed as the head of the caretaker government with the blessings and intervention of the chief of army staff, General Moeen U Ahmed. The Awami League claimed it to be the logical culmination of its movement. Iajuddin was allowed to remain the figurehead president while the real power and authority rested with General Moeen. But much of the subsequent actions of this government of the triumvirate — Iajuddin, Moeen Uddin and Fakhruddin — were highly controversial. Sarcastically called the ‘IMF’, the people’s confidence in it marked gradual erosion. The AL president, however, in unambiguous terms, mentioned that her party would ratify all actions of the ‘IMF’ government, if voted to power. The ‘IMF’ government, though to its credit, gave the nation a credible voter list, the first and foremost step for conducting a free and fair election.
The ‘IMF’ government of 1/11 should not be seen as a caretaker government. It was rather an aberration. The Awami League had spearheaded the movement for caretaker government in concert with Jamaat and the Jatiya Party. The Awami League lost no time in claiming the caretaker government concept as its brainchild although it was first mooted by Jamaat. It had a broad-based national consensus and was acclaimed globally as well. Some countries are striving to follow this model, mutatis mutandis, the recently concluded national election in Pakistan is a case in point. Nepal had also earlier conducted its parliamentary polls drawing from this structure. But now its proponent, the Awami League, is reneging on this issue and has chosen to reverse its earlier stand. Given the nature of the confrontational political culture, the caretaker government system, though practical, was by no means an ideal solution. Obviously, the system should not be allowed to continue indefinitely. Ways have to be devised to transform into a truly democratic polity— in Lincolnian terms, ‘a government of the people, by the people, for the people.’
A transitional government cannot be a system in perpetuity. It is only a stop-gap arrangement till the political parties can earn confidence of the people by their conduct and actions, both inside and outside the government as dependable ruling and opposition parties. Holding a referendum on the issue of transitional government at this point is not feasible in view of the constraint of time and secondly it will too require a constitutional amendment.
Holding credible election is only one of the many aspects of a robust democratic system. It gives sanction and legality to a government to rule. To be a truly democratic polity, it is essential that democratic practices are followed within the political parties. But enlightened debate or elaborate discussion on vital national issues within the parties is non-existent. A time-honoured custom in the democratic world is that the party which loses elections immediately accepts defeat and congratulates the winner. The head of the losing party steps down as new leadership takes over. The most recent example is of Kevin Rudd’s taking over from Julia Gillard as the new prime minister of Australia. In Bangladesh, both the major parties lost elections one time or the other, but neither of their party heads has ever resigned assuming responsibility for the defeat. The ruling party has to be inclusive. But ‘take it all’ has been the norm so far. Fair governance by the party in power is important. But it is no less important how much space it gives to the oppositions.
It is often argued that the present constitution gives more power to the prime minister than even those enjoyed by the Mughal emperors. Time has come to re-visit the constitution. The primacy of the prime minister given by the constitution needs to be rationalised. One approach may be, inter alia, to give more authority to the president of the country to strike some balance as a countervailing power without diluting the fundamentals of the parliamentary system. There are other realms of the constitution that demand a detailed examination of the articles in the light of nation’s 40-plus years of experience which may be the subject matter of another discussion. Holding credible elections is only one aspect of democracy, not the end in itself. Rewriting of the constitution thus has become imperative in order to address the unfolded contradictions and to make the constitution more vibrant and functional.
Intra-party democratic practice should come out with a formula establishing that party leadership will be a collective responsibility based on ‘one person, one post’. To elucidate further, the party chief and the head of government may not be one and the same person. Unless this is followed, we are afraid there will continue to be too much concentration of power in the hands of one person-the prime minister, further aggravating the emergence of constitutional authoritarian rule.
The Election Commission, the principal body responsible for holding elections, should be formed with persons known for their personal integrity and professional excellence in a transparent manner, so that it can command spontaneous respect from the electorate. The present Article 126 reads that ‘it shall be the duty of all Executive Authorities to assist the EC in the discharge of its functions.’ This is simply not good enough to strengthen the commission. Extensive and elaborate provisions should be incorporated to ensure that the executive authorities of certain key ministries that are directly responsible for the command and control of election related personnel are divested from these ministries and given to the commission for the election period so that their neutrality can be observed. For election-related offences, the commission should be the ultimate authority to prosecute and punish the recalcitrant personnel and the offenders.
Holding ‘staggered elections’ is another option. It has worked well in India. But its viability has to be examined against the backdrop of prevailing realities in Bangladesh. Under this system, voting is held on different dates for selected constituencies. At the end of the day when voting is complete, ballot papers in sealed boxes are brought to an assigned secured facility. After voting in all constituencies is over as per assigned dates, the counting begins on a single day and the results are announced and published simultaneously. Thus, the possibility of influencing the outcome of one constituency by the trend in another is minimised. Given the prevailing mistrust, weakness in security arrangements and alleged politicisation of all spheres of public services, the system is unlikely to achieve credibility as of now. In not too distant future, with overall improvement in the socio-political climate, the ‘staggered system’ may become a distinct possibility in Bangladesh.
An established principle and practice is that the members of the caretaker or interim government do not participate in the election nor do they accept any position in the following government. If this is honoured and they resign from party positions before taking oath, then much of the problem will be banished.
Against the backdrop of the preceding paragraphs, one may consider the formula of ‘5+5’ drawn from government and opposition MPs with a non-partisan, non-judicial personality as its head. But this arrangement is fraught with danger of being non-functional regarding allocation of vitally important ministries like finance, defence, home, cabinet, establishment, LGRD, education, etc. The officials of these ministries at the grassroots play determining roles in the electioneering process. Given the adversarial relations between the two major parties it is unlikely that the members of the transitional government will be able to arrive at a consensus for decisions on vital issues affecting the neutral conduct of the elections. They will most likely tow their respective party lines, thereby compelling the head of the government to exercise his/her casting vote. The interim government cannot be effective with such an unworkable environment within the cabinet.
Now, if the experience of 1/11 is cited as an instance that demands burying the system, why not plug the loopholes in the system and make necessary changes keeping non-partisan character of the election-time government, e.g. keeping judiciary outside and reining unfettered power of the president and others. The two camps failed to go in tandem to bring the perpetrators of 1/11 to justice on charges of treason as happened when the Supreme Court declared Ershad’s regime as illegal.
‘Democracy is a fragile system and unless it is driven by internal value systems of its participants and protected by strong adherence to basic system components and processes by its supporters it will degenerate into mostly authoritarian systems. This is why it is well said that eternal vigilance is the price for liberty — the freedom to choose your own rulers at periodic intervals to govern the country, to watch constantly how your chosen representatives are behaving to fulfil their pledges and make them accountable to the electors’ (‘Bangladesh in the Mirror – an Outsider Perspective on a Struggling Democracy’). Let there be no repetition of sad chapters of our history.
After 40 years of independence, the nation is still in a limbo vis-à-vis the process of adopting an acceptable system to ensure free and credible election. The system of caretaker government that worked for two terms could not sustain the third election. Given the Supreme Court’s verdict and the position taken by the two opposing camps, it is high time that we find a system that will be workable and agreed upon by the two major political parties, thus surmounting the immediate impasse, the failure of which will throw the nation into a dark uncertainty, a situation that one fears to contemplate.
Without being pedantic, the following two formulae may be considered at this stage:
We may call the government that will exist during the time of election the transitional government, or by any other agreed name. The portion of the annulled Article 58 of the constitution related to the caretaker government will be revived incorporating mutatis mutandis following changes keeping in view the observation made by the Supreme Court in its judgement, the stands taken by the two major political parties in particular and the aspirations of the people.
a) Parties represented in the existing parliament will find a person who will lead the government as chief adviser other than one serving in the judiciary. He/she will select a team of 10 members. These 11 persons will be appointed by the president.
b) The president shall not hold the position of head of that government simultaneously.
c) The members of the transitional government shall not accept any position in the government elected during their tenure.
d) If they belong to any political parties they shall resign before taking oath and shall not hold any party position during the tenure of subsequently elected government.
It is an extension of Formula 1, to plug legal loopholes further. Since head of the transitional government is a person agreed upon by all political parties in parliament, the selection is to be made prior to dissolution of the present parliament and hence there should not be any impasse in getting it approved by parliament. Thus he/she becomes an elected head of the transitional government, just as the president is an elected person. This satisfies the requirement of those who argue that the country cannot be left to unelected and unaccountable persons. The members of parliament have been the electoral college for the president, the speaker and MPs from seats reserved for women.
In any case, the amendment of the constitution is an imperative without which the current impasse cannot be surmounted. To sustain a democratic system, the holding of a credible election is the first step that the nation will have to take as it embarks upon the long trail towards graduating as a truly democratic country. The nation is eagerly waiting to see a peaceful transition of power through a credible election. And for that, a meaningful dialogue between the two belligerent parties is a sine qua non to usher in an enabling environment required to extricate our nation of 165 million people from an unknown and ominous future.
Masood Aziz is a member of The Dhaka Forum. The views reflected in the article are those of the forum.
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