Thursday, December 07, 2006

Bangladesh - A new phase in political drama

GOPAL SENGUPTA

We find no reason to feel relieved. With every passing day, we are probably waking into deeper crisis. What if the High Court rules that the President’s action was unconstitutional?

With some constitutional issues having direct impact on the election process and about which controversies exist landing in the High Court, the political drama enters a new phase. Three separate writ petitions challenging a) President Iajuddin’s assumption of the Chief Adviser’s office; b) his taking unilateral decisions ignoring the Council of Advisers and c) seeking an injunction against announcement of the election schedule before updating the voters’ list were filed on Sunday.

Temporarily at least, the battle seems to have shifted from the streets to the courtroom. That itself is some relief. But with so many other contentious issues remaining, we find no reason to think we are any closer to a resolution of all the problems. What really scares us is the possibility that it may not be possible to hold the elections in the 60 days remaining unless there is a sudden outpouring of goodwill from all sides.

We know it wouldn’t be proper to tread on matters now before the High Court. But there is no denying the fact that the situation perhaps would have been less difficult if the caretaker government could act as one team. What made the Chief Adviser to keep so many sensitive ministries and divisions under himself will always remain a mystery. If he had no confidence in his Advisers, he should not have appointed them. Again it is also true that the Advisers have more or less earned the confidence of the people. This has prevented the CG from acting in unison and that has greatly diluted its authority and acceptability. The caretakers do not know what they are to take care of! The resentment among the Advisers is no secret. But there is still time for the CA to pass on some of the key responsibilities to his Advisers. That might partially restore the people’s confidence in the CG.

There are several other smaller matters that create suspicion in the minds of the people. Abdul Jalil has reportedly requested the President to make publish CEC M.A.Aziz’s letter to him. None of the Advisers know what was in that letter. Wouldn’t it have been proper for the President to place the letter before his Advisory Council? Then what was the hurry in finding an acting CEC?

It stands to reason that if M.A.Aziz had gone on leave he would have asked one of his Commissioners to take temporary charge. Our understanding is, it is the prerogative of the President to appoint the CEC. In the absence of an elected government, the President’s decision should have been made on the advice of the Advisory Council.

Here are some very recent comments of some advisers: Advisers to the caretaker government (CG) fired a broadside at President and Chief Adviser Iajuddin Ahmed yesterday over his apparent retreat from a promise to consult them before the appointment two more election commissioners and announcement of the schedule for next general elections by the Election Commission (EC). "We were not aware of the announcement of election schedule," Information Adviser and spokesman for the council of advisers Mahbubul Alam told reporters emerging from a weekly meeting of the council at the CA's office. The advisers expressed their utter displeasure at the two decisions at the meeting that saw hurling of heated words at the chief adviser (CA) for keeping them (advisers) in the dark about the two vital decisions, sources said.

The meeting stretched to over four hours with the CA trying to downplay seriousness of the two decisions in the face of a barrage of questions from the advisers. The advisers later told reporters at the Secretariat that appointment of the two new election commissioners and announcement of election schedule were not discussed at the council meeting.

Meeting sources said the C A insisted on discussing the prices of essentials and agricultural production throughout the meeting, and at no point informed the advisers about the appointment of election commissioners and announcement of election schedule. At one stage, an adviser asked the CA why other important issues were not being discussed while another wanted to know why they were not informed about polls schedule announcement.

The CA then hesitantly informed the advisers that it is a matter for the Election Commission, meeting sources said. The advisers asked why Iajuddin appointed two election commissioners of his own accord while he had earlier promised to consult them before deciding on the appointments.

The CA continued to sidestep these questions. At one point, all but one adviser expressed their annoyance, the sources added. Mahbubul Alam told reporters, "The appointment (of two election commissioners) and the announcement of election schedule were not discussed at the council of advisers meeting." He went on, "I was not aware of these two issues till now, I am hearing it for the first time from you (reporters)."

Agriculture Adviser CM Shafi Sami expressed his surprise at the two decisions: "We were not aware how the election schedule was announced or how the two election commissioners were appointed.”The President has assured us that the two newly appointed election commissioners will not be controversial."

Industries Adviser Sultana Kamal said she came to know about the decisions at the media briefing. In reply to a question, she said, “First we have to consider whether circumventing the council of advisers violates the law, and then we can take a decision." Initially avoiding reporters' queries, Adviser Dhiraj Kumar Nath however said, "We did not have exact knowledge of the two issues."

But Adviser Yasmeen Murshed admitted that they were aware of the two decisions. Nevertheless, Dhiraj assured, "We will be able to transfer officials concerned with the EC, including the secretary." But he cautioned "We will face some complications if we want to transfer deputy commissioners (DCs) and thana nirbahi officers (TNOs)."

We find no reason to feel relieved. With every passing day, we are probably waking into deeper crisis. What if the High Court rules that the President’s action was unconstitutional? Now if somebody says that we don't understand neither democracy nor Constitution, we can perhaps blame President cum Chief Adviser who has been braking constitutional process and making high political drama in our recent time. #

Published in arrangement with South Asian News (SAN)-Feature Service