Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Biased Caretaker Government Brings Bangladesh on the Verge of Constitutional Crisis

Dr.ANAND KUMAR

After the end of five year term of the Khaleda Zia government in Bangladesh the country was supposed to prepare for the elections under a caretaker government. But the deliberate attempt of the immediate past government to manipulate the caretaker government, Election Commission, voter list and the administration has created a politically volatile situation in Bangladesh. Despite all this, for a while, it looked like that both the leading parties BNP and the Awami League would be able to tie over these difficulties. Unfortunately, so far this has not happened. The Bangladesh president who also doubles up as the chief advisor to the caretaker government reneged on the compromise deal which he had offered to the opposition alliance demanding electoral reforms. The president is now acting in a manner which shows that he has taken charge of the Caretaker Government (CTG) to implement the agenda of his political masters from the BNP and Jamaat. Probably, with this aim he has also called out army on the pretext of maintaining law and order. Though president is once again willing to negotiate with the 14-party opposition alliance, his actions are hardly above board.

Bangladesh constitution stipulates that election for the new government should be completed within three months after the end of the tenure of earlier government. These elections are to be conducted under the supervision of a neutral Caretaker Government. As of now, it looks highly unlikely that the elections in Bangladesh would be held on the schedule announced earlier. This situation might lead to a constitutional crisis in the country.

The opposition in Bangladesh had sensed much earlier, the intention of Khaleda Zia government to manipulate the system prescribed by the constitution. The government was making changes in several laws so that its chosen persons could take charge of these bodies. To nullify this game plan of BNP and Jamaat, the opposition groups have been demanding electoral reforms. As expected these demands were promptly rejected by the Khaleda Zia government.

What was worse, making a mockery of Bangladesh constitution, Khaleda Zia government handed over power to the president after making him the chief advisor of the CTG. The constitution provides several alternatives before the president assumes this charge. The present president, Iajuddin Ahmed has been elected by the BNP and Jamaat. Hence, his neutrality as chief advisor to the CTG was always in doubt.

The Awami League initially strongly protested the assumption of post of Chief Advisor of CTG by the president. But later, it decided to give president a chance hoping that he might act neutrally because of the strain that had developed between him and the Khaleda Zia government towards the end of the regime. Khaleda had tried to replace the president by Speaker Barrister Jamiruddin Sircar who became president-in-charge of the country. Iajuddin Ahmed was declared unfit on the health grounds. In the past, the BNP had forced Badruddoza Chowdhury to step down from the presidency in 2002. Awami League probably also agreed, because no other mutually acceptable candidate was available.

The president initially tried to fool people by making superficial changes in administration. But very soon his bias became obvious. Though president appointed ten other advisors as mentioned in the constitution, he gave them insignificant portfolios and kept the most important ones with himself.

The Awami League had stated that it would judge the president on the basis of his actions. Hasina demanded immediate removal of Chief Election Commissioner MA Aziz and three other election commissioners, cancellation of "political" appointment of 300 upazila election officers, using transparent ballot box for the polls, preparing the voter lists with voters' photographs, and overall congenial atmosphere for a free and fair election. She expected the president to carry out these demands in order to protect people's democratic rights to voting.

The BNP, however, was not willing to allow president this liberty. It asked president that removing election commissioners would be violation of constitution. The party suggested him not to do anything BNP and Jamaat, the EC came out with a hastily decided election schedule.

With great difficulty, Chief Election Commissioner M.A. Aziz agreed to proceed on leave. Still the EC could not be depoliticized as there were three other commissioners - Justice Mahfuzur Rahman, SM Zakaria and Mahmud Hasan Mansur. These election commissioners were initially willing to resign but afterwards they changed their mind under pressure, probably from the BNP.

The president has been embroiled in controversy since he took charge of chief advisor to the caretaker government. He had earlier unilaterally decided twice to deploy army, appointed two election commissioners, allegedly forced the Election Commission (EC) to announce the election schedule hurriedly and addressed the nation, keeping all the advisers in the dark about those. Such actions triggered a wave of controversy and deepened the political stalemate.

As the advisors were suggested by various political groups on the request of the president, some of them tried to sincerely work for the holding of free and fair elections. The council of advisers in a last ditch effort to resolve the political crisis prepared a package of proposals after a series of hectic meetings between the advisers and the two major political alliances. The proposals include reconstitution of the EC by sending election commissioners SM Zakaria and Modabbir Hossain Chowdhury on leave and appointing new election commissioners, transfer of secretaries, rescheduling of the announced election schedule and correction of errors of the updated voter list.

The package proposal gave hope to the people of an amicable resolution of the dispute as the BNP also agreed with it and the Awami League led 14-party started moving towards election, shunning street agitation.

Unfortunately, all this effort was wasted when the BNP-led four-party alliance opposed sending of Zakaria on leave. Similarly, president also became adamantly opposed to steps to make Zakaria take time off work. President, being a BNP man could not have been expected to go against what the party was saying. President under pressure from the BNP reneged from implementing the package deal. This forced Awami League to reconsider its earlier decision of participating in the elections.

The advisers however kept continuing their effort to reach an amicable solution to the issue of recasting the EC through further negotiation with the political parties. But the discussions among the advisers to implement the package proposals fully virtually fizzled out on December 9, when the president decided on his own to deploy the armed forces, ignoring strong objections from all the ten advisors.

This was one more unilateral, controversial decision of the president. He had called out the army 44 days before the election presumably to assist the civilian administration. The army in Bangladesh has a dubious record in maintaining the law and order. Last time, army was called out in 2002 as part of the ‘Operation Clean Heart”. In this operation, at least 50 people had lost their lives in custody. The army termed all these deaths as ‘heart failures.’ Army in Bangladesh is known for massive human rights violation. What is worse, during her tenure, Khaleda Zia has managed to further politicize army. She hopes that the involvement of army in the election process will help her candidates.

The US based Human Rights Watch in a recent report has stated that Bangladesh's elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalions has killed more than 350 people in custody and could be used by the country's former ruling party ahead of next month's election. The group said, "Human Rights Watch is concerned that Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which maintains great influence over the caretaker government and its security structures, may use RAB for political means during the campaign."

President and Chief Adviser Iajuddin Ahmed’s decision to deploy troops and his unwillingness to recast the Election Commission (EC) in line with the package proposal forced four advisors - Akbar Ali Khan, Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, CM Shafi Sami and Sultana Kamal - to resign. This development further deepened the political crisis in Bangladesh.

President Ahmed however surprised everybody by significantly changing his earlier order on December 13. In the latest order, now he has asked the armed forces to remain on 'stand by' but not to actively engage in law enforcement. He has also promised that he would re-initiate moves to send two 'controversial' election commissioners on leave.

The international community, including the EU and the US are closely watching the developments in Bangladesh. They are interested in making these elections free and fair. The EC in Bangladesh has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the European Union (EU) on sending an EU election observer team. The US Ambassador Patricia A Butenis however, considers the demand of some political parties' for resignation of the president from the office of chief adviser (CA) as 'impractical'.

Meanwhile, the Awami League (AL) has also started making all-out preparations for the upcoming parliamentary elections although almost all its top leaders are against contesting the polls under the caretaker government led by President and Chief Adviser Iajuddin Ahmed. The AL and its allies--11-party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, and National Awami Party--will hold a grand rally in the capital Dhaka on December 18 where Hasina will make a formal announcement over the election.

Conclusion
The controversial actions of president have proved beyond doubt that he has accepted the post of chief advisor to the CTG to further the interests of BNP alliance in the upcoming elections. It is difficult to hold a free and fair election under him. Hence the opposition alliance, which was earlier opposed to the politicized elections commission, now wants removal of the president from the post of chief advisor. Even Ershad who was earlier trying to negotiate a political alliance with the BNP led group now says that he would not participate in elections, in case any major political group boycotts it. But any drastic reorganization of caretaker government in Bangladesh at this juncture is highly unlikely. It appears that the Awami League led opposition alliance will have to come to terms with the present caretaker government. At best, with the help of monitors sent by the countries like the EU and the US it can try to keep this partisan caretaker government in check. The political scenario in Bangladesh is changing almost everyday thanks to the partisan president whose indiscreet actions could push the country into complete turmoil. #

This article first appeared in a regional think-tank South Asia Analysis Group (www.saag.org), India

Link: http://www.saag.org/papers21/paper2063.html

Dr Anand Kumar can be reached at anandkrai@yahoo.com