After months of uncertainty, suspense and high political drama on 13 May 2008 the neutral Caretaker Government headed by Fakhuruddin Ahmed announced that elections for the ninth Jatiya Sangsad would be held on 18 December 2008 (now postponed by 10 days). Stalled for nearly two years, this would be the most critical election in the history of Bangladesh. Its importance lies not in the victory or defeat of a particular party or ideology but for the democratic process in the country. Indeed this would be crucial for Bangladesh than any of the previous ones since the introduction of multiparty elections in 1991. Serious internal divisions precluded Bangladesh from holding the elections before mid-January 2007. Citing absence of political climate conducive for elections, the Caretaker Government postponed the elections and continued in office well beyond the constitutionally mandated three-month interim arrangement. This move was also accompanied by the introduction of internal emergency on 10 January 2007 with severe restriction of political activities in the country.
This paper would discuss and analyze three broad issues. The first section would dwell with conditions that led to the declaration of a state of emergency and the postponement of elections. The second section would discuss various measures taken by the Caretaker Government towards ensuring internal stability and its commitments to hold free and fair elections at the earliest possible opportunity. And the third section would examine the challenges facing Bangladesh if it were to avoid constitutional challenges posed by the prolongation of Caretaker Government.
Caretaker Government was primarily aimed making the electoral process free and fair and devoid of political maneuvering. Given the overarching influence and interference of the government and by extension the ruling party/coalition, elections in Bangladesh have been controversial and contentious. What became a temporary arrangement when the first multi-party elections were held in February 1991, gradually gained popular acceptance. When the government headed by Begum Khaleda Zia refused to transfer power to a neutral administration, the opposition led by the Awami League boycotted the Jatiya Sangsad elections held in February 1996. While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won the elections, it lacked legitimacy and hence through the 13th amendment to the constitution Bangladesh introduced the office of Caretaker Government.
Under the arrangement, the elected government would relinquish office upon the completion of its term and this would be succeeded by a neutral Caretaker Government whose primary responsibility is to hold free and fair elections to the Jatiya Sangsad. To avoid partisanship the constitution declared that such an interim administration would be headed by latest retiree Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. The chief advisor, as the head of the Caretaker Government is called, would be assisted by a ten-member body, normally consisting of professionals and technocrats. Thus since 1996 Jatiya Sangsad elections in Bangladesh have been held under the aegis of neutral Caretaker Government. Though some of the decisions of the Caretaker Governments have been critically commented upon, the arrangement did work; that is, until 2006.
In the run up to the formation of the Caretaker Government towards holding the ninth Jatiya Sangsad, politics in Bangladesh floundered. By mid 2006 it became obvious that the official machinery was used by the BNP-led coalition to circumvent the functioning of the Caretaker Government. In a sudden move the government increased the retirement age of the judges thereby delaying the retirement of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court K M Hassan. When the elections were to be held for the ninth Jatiya Sangsad, he would have been the latest retiree and hence would have headed the Caretaker Government. Such a blatant move became politically controversial. The Awami-led opposition interpreted this move as an attempt to weaken the institution of neutral administration by placing people ‘sympathetic’ to the ruling alliance. For them such blatant interference undermined the credibility of the electoral process.
Simultaneously the ruling coalition had been interfering in the functioning of the Election Commission and was taking measure that smacked of preparing the country for a rigged election. Some of the measures in this direction include:
· Widespread appointment of party cadres as Election officers at district and Upazila council levels.
· Failure to introduce delimitation of Jatiya Sangsad constituencies in the wake of the last population census held before the eighth parliamentary election in 2001;2
· Chief Election Commissioner MA Aziz, seen as sympathetic towards the BNP, unilaterally drew up fresh voters list despite a Supreme Court judgment directing the Election Commission
to revise the existing voter list.3
· The EC published the ‘draft’ of the fresh electoral roll in the midst of an ongoing legal battle initiated by the oppositions
parties while its hearing was pending with the Appellate
Division of the Supreme Court.4
· Meanwhile since August 2005 Chief Election Commissioner Aziz had serious differences with other Election Commissioners M Munsef Ali and AK Mohammad Ali over the issue of preparation of fresh voters list. Needing to bolster his position Aziz inducted two new Election Commissioners Mahfuz and SM Zakaria and thereby increased his influence over the decisions of the EC.
These measure raised concerns in the opposition over elections being free and fair.
Thus the neutrality of two institutions pivotal for holding elections, namely head of the Caretaker Government and Election Commission, came under cloud. When the five-year tenure of Khaleda came to an end on October 2006, there were uncertainties over the ability of an interim arrangement capable of holding impartial elections.
Last minute negotiations between the BNP and Awami League over the nominee of the Chief Advisor proved futile. While the Awami League was not prepared to accept Justice K M Hassan, the nominee of Khaleda, the latter was not prepared to accept the candidatures of Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury and Justice Hamidul Haque preferred by the opposition. The impasse was worsened by widespread violence in different parts of the country and the capital city was cut off from the
rest of the country. Sensing widespread opposition Hasan withdrew his
candidature for the head of the Caretaker Government.
Thus when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia demitted office on 25 October 2006, there was no Chief Advisor who was prepared to take over the reigns. Without exploring other avenues identified by the Constitution, President Iajuddin Ahmad took over as head of the Caretaker Government. His decision to concurrently hold two constitutional positions, namely President of Bangladesh and Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Government, did not go down well. The unexpected move only rekindled widespread protest and the opposition resorted to nationwide transport blockade and protest. On 30 October 2006, less than a week after the new situation, the Awami League put forth a 11-point demand that inter alia demanded the reconstitution of the Election Commission, including the removal of the Chief Election Commissioner Aziz and preparation of a new voters list before holding the ninth Jatiya Sangsad elections. It also asked the government not to entertain “unconstitutional” demand for the reconstitution of the EC.5
The situation gradually worsened with political rivalries being played out violently in the streets of Bangladesh6 and the opposition threatening to lay siege to President’s house. Meanwhile on 22 November CEC Aziz went on leave following widespread street protests and campaign around his office in Dhaka. On 10 December Army was briefly deployed in Dhaka and there were widespread fears of an impending civil war between rival groups. It was under these circumstances on 10 January 2007 that President Iajuddin Ahmad relinquished the office of Chief Advisor and nominated noted economist Fakhuruddin Ahmed to the position.
The second Caretaker Government since 11 January 2007 comprised of technocrats and was politically neutral and hence was well received. Along with this interim government, the President imposed a state of emergency, suspended a number of civil liberties and banned political activities. Within days of assuming responsibility, the Caretaker Government announced the postponement of Jatiya Sangsad election scheduled for 22 January. In its assessment vitiated by political tension the atmosphere was not conducive for holding elections.
The imposition of internal emergency put the Caretaker Government in a unique and unprecedented situation with the army emerging as its principal backer. The prolonged political uncertainty, tension and street violence meant that internal emergency was well received. Bangladeshis hoped not only for the restoration of law and order but also for some fundamental reforms in the politics of the country. For its part the interim government promised to maintain strict neutrality and urgently address issues such as corruption and malpractices.
In his first nationwide address on 22 January, the Chief Advisor outlined a comprehensive seven-point ‘reform’ program which was aimed at meeting ‘people’s demand’ of uprooting corruption, introduction of voters identity cards and transparent ballot boxes. They were aimed at ensuring “an election participated by and accepted by all.” The roadmap outlined by the Caretaker Government promised all necessary support to the Election Commission for holding Jatiya Sangsad elections by October 2008.
While the army has reiterated its resolve to remain professional and apolitical, it has provided the most visible support to the Caretaker Government. Despite its civilian face, the composition of the Caretaker Government exhibited certain ground realities. Two most coveted posts, namely, heads of the Anti Corruption Committee (ACC) and Election Commission, were given to retired generals.
Apart from measures aimed at reforming the political system, the Caretaker Government has also endeared itself with a number of populist measures. These include:
· Execution of six leaders of the extremist group Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh on 29 March 2008, well before the scheduled date given by High Court.
· Chief Advisor Fakhuruddin Ahmed establishing his non-partisan credentials by paying his homage at the grave of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his birth anniversary (17 March) and at the grave of President Ziaur Rahman on his death anniversary (20 May) ;
· Securing the deportation of former army officer Mohiuddin Ahmed from the US on 18 June. The former officer who was convicted of killing Sheikh Mujibur Raham fled to the US.
· Initiating the process of separating the judiciary from the administrative control of the Executive and thereby establishing the Independence of judiciary
· Reconstitution of the Election Commission and approving proposal of its independence from the Executive.
· Announcing of Upazila elections which will be held in December 2008.
· Implement various others reforms in garment industry and other local industries
· Corporatization of nationalized banks.
· The Chittagong Port has been privatized.
· The interim government has also seriously considered activating the National Security Council, which features the three chiefs of staff of the armed forces, though it is headed by a civilian. Although the details are not yet known it is clearly a move which is likely to strengthen the control of the military over civilian governments.
· Reconstitution of Anti Corruption Commission, with Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, a retired lieutenant-general its head and also enhancing its powers to prosecute senior political leaders, powerful bureaucrats and businessmen identified with various political groups.
· Decision to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) which would allow Bangladesh to benefit from a comprehensive international cooperation framework for mutual law enforcement assistance, especially in extradition and investigations.
· As an integral part of its anti-corruption drive the Caretaker Government established Truth and Accountability Commission. Under its provisions those persons suspected of corruption would be given an opportunity to admit their wrong doings before the commission and return their ill-gotten wealth to the state. In return the state promised limited amnesty for them. Differences however, exist over the extent of amnesty and the accompanying conditionalities such as ban on contesting elections or holding public offices for a five-year period.
· Constituting of various independent task forces with over arching powers as a part of the anti-corruption drive. As a result scores of political leaders, party activists, high-profile bureaucrats and businesspersons have been arrested.
· As part of reforming the electoral process in August 2007 the Caretaker Government approved the enumeration of fresh voters list which was eventually completed on 9 July 2008. This process not only resulted in a fresh voters list but also the distribution of photograph-accompanied voter identity cards. Bangladesh thus became the proud owner of world’s
largest electronic database with over 81 million voters. 7
Despite its non-political nature, there were clear indications that the Caretaker Government unsuccessfully wanted to marginalize the two main political parties and their leaders. Commonly known as ‘minus two’ formula, it sought to marginalize the two leaders who have dominated the Bangladesh politics for the past two decades namely Khaleda and Hasina. Capitalizing on the widespread popular discontent against the politicians, the Caretaker Government was seen to be engineering splits within the two large parties. It was widely believed that the interim government was even hoping that noble laureate Muhammad Yunus would float a non-political outfit that could take part in the Jatiya Sangsad elections.
Once this failed, the Caretaker Government embarked upon a strategy of creating internal dissent within the two parties. The formation of a small BNP faction led by Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and growing criticisms of ‘cronies’ controlling the BNP was part of this strategy. The Caretaker Government was also pressurizing both the leaders to go into exile. When the expected split did not take place, the government changed its stance. While it wanted to prevent Hasina from returning from her medical treatment abroad, it hoped to send Khaleda into exile. Both these efforts, however, could not materialize due to public pressures. Even though political activities continue to be banned, behind the scene pressures appeared to throttle these efforts. Eventually the Caretaker Government brought them under the purview of its anti-corruption drive and arrested Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda in July and September 2008 respectively. There were suggestions that the government was preparing a list of political figures who were convicted in the special courts for corruption or who were facing corruption charges. The list was believed to contain the names of 110 former Ministers and Members of Parliament belonging to the BNP, 25 former ministers and MPs belonging to the Awami league and five Jama’at political personalities.8
However, the political impasse was broken when the Caretaker Government initiated formal dialogue with various political parties. As a first step towards the electoral process it lifted the ban on indoor politics in Dhaka. The government has also assured the two major parties that it would take appropriate measures for spontaneous electioneering and would ensure security during the voting.
After months of hesitation in September 2008 the Election Commission extended an olive branch to the political parties.9 For their part, fifteen political parties came out in support of the electoral process. Under the new electoral procedure the political parties would have to introduce internal democracy and transparency. The three month long dialogue process was expected to end in last week of November and would facilitate the finalization of the draft of the electoral reform proposals in preparation for the Jatiya Sangsad elections. The draft proposal would also make public personal details like academic qualification, profession, source of income and criminal records of an aspirant seeking votes. Earlier it had posed a stringent code of conduct for the political parties aimed at reducing election expenditure and ensuring financial transparency.
Despite their opposition to the prolongation of the interim government, various political parties have decided to register themselves with the Election Commission and abide by new regulations. These parties include: Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Awami League, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, Jatiya Party led by Ershad, Jatiya Party led by Manju, Workers Party of Bangladesh, Samyabadi Dal, Krishak Sramik Janata League, Communist Party of Bangladesh, Bikalpadhara Bangladesh, National Awami Party (Muzaffar) and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (Inu).
Since the announcement of date of the elections, the opposition has softened their position. At the same time, political parties have intensified their demand for the complete lifting of the state of emergency. They also demand that upazila elections should be held after a reasonable gap after the Jatiya Sangsad elections. The Caretaker Government had set December 24 and 28 as the dates for the upazila elections. Meanwhile threats of boycott by the BNP and release of its arrested leaders before polls has resulted in posponednent of elections by 10 days.
The participation of all major political parties would be a pre-requisite for the successful conclusion of the ninth Jatiya Sangsad elections. In the weeks running up to the elections, it was not clear whether the Caretaker Government would allow the two former Prime Ministers to contest. Without their participation the elections would become a farce. At the same time, allowing their participation even while both were facing corruption trials would be a setback for the Caretaker Government. Having made anti-corruption its prime objective and rationale for postponing election, the interim government would not be able to modify its stand without losing face. Excluding Hasina and Khaleda from the fray would dent the credibility of elections but their participation would undermine the anti-corruption drive. Hence the Caretaker Government was forced to evolve a credible but widely acceptable formula. Indications of two leaders participating are apparent.
At a much wider level, the prolongation of the Caretaker Government beyond the three-month period mandated by the constitution raised a number of questions. At one level, such an action would raise concerns to future elected government over the wisdom of having Caretaker arrangement to conduct elections. Political parties would be extremely keen to avoid the precedent set by the government of Fakhruddin Ahmed and ensure that this arrangement would not become an interim government.
Furthermore a number of actions taken by the Caretaker Government would become the responsibility of a popularly elected government. The constitutional validity of the actions taken by the Caretaker Government has been challenged in courts. Hence the full implications and long-term effects of the interim arrangement would ironically be known only when a duly constituted government takes over. If such a government carries forward some of the principal actions of the present arrangement then that would be a vindication of the reforms initiated by the Caretaker Government. On the contrary, if the elected government were to reverse the process, then Bangladesh would revert back to the situation it was in when the second Caretaker Government took over in January 2007.
Thus while elections to the Jatiya Sangsad remains crucial, the nature of the Bangladesh polity would depend entirely upon the kind of actions that a popular government would pursue after the elections scheduled in 18 December 2008.
1 A R Shamsul Islam, ‘Politicising the Election Commission?’ The Daily Star, 3 October 2005
2 Shakhawat Liton, ‘EC ignores law on demarcation of constituencies Last delimitation took place11 years ago’, The Daily Star, 10 February 2006
3 EC ignores law on demarcation of constituencies Last delimitation took place11 years ago, The Daily Star, 18 February 2006
4 Editorial, ‘EC makes fresh mess’, The Daily Star, 7 May 2006
5 Saiful Huda and Nazrul Islam, ‘Caretaker govt finds EC issue complex Cabinet member meets CEC, Aziz gives cold shoulder, ’ New Age, 5 November 2006
6 Editorial, ‘ Parties stooped too low’,The Daily Star, 6 December 2006
8 M Abul Kalam Azad, EC declares polls fixture Decides to hold upazila polls 10 days after Dec 18 S elections, Daily Star, 3 Nov 2008
9 ‘Dialogue resumes today JSD to press for lifting of emergency’, New Age 25 May 2008
|Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati|