Monday, December 18, 2006

Election 2007: The question of level playing field


Given the fact that many issues are yet to be resolved to ensure a level playing field for the contestants for the upcoming election -- doubts abound as to the fate of the election itself. A growing number of people are wondering if those issues can at all be addressed, consensual decisions arrived at, and the election held within the stipulated time-frame of ninety days -- a constitutional binding. They are doubtful of the possibility because the caretaker government tasked with the job is headed by a person responsible for the catalysis of some of the issues.

The core of the problem is wide-spread public scepticism that Professor Iajuddin, the head of the caretaker government -- known for his predilection for the party he belongs to -- can faithfully oversee a crucial election which has already brought the rival political groups to the point of violent clashing.

That he is neither fair nor neutral is amply demonstrated through his activities during the last six or so weeks of his stewardship, turning Bangabhaban (Presidential Palace) almost into a hub of conspiracies to promote the agenda of the previous government. For it was this alliance that not only made him president, but also manipulated things to unconstitutionally install him as the head of the interim government.

In the beginning, even if there was a flicker of hope about the neutrality of the learned professor, the way things unravelled later left no one in doubt that he was "a cuckoo in the nest" as far as the office of the caretaker government was concerned. He resorted to tricks and subterfuges as soon as the interim government was sworn in, with ten advisers to assist him.

But he felt more comfortable acting unilaterally, although at times he sat with the advisers as a matter of ceremony. But the decisions were his, and his alone. He was the ultimate arbiter of each and every thing -- a fact that gave him enough leeway to work at the behest of his employer.

He did it with the enormous powers he was endowed with as president, chief executive, supreme commander of the armed forces, as well as head of a dozen or so ministries and departments. He complied with all the requirements of BNP-Jamaat combine, whether they were in the administration, Election Commission, and even the judiciary. Look at the promptness with which the cases against Ershad were revived after a long hiatus. It was certainly not to dispense justice. It was fraught with political motives.

The climax of the drama surmounting BNP-Jamaat's end-game with regard to a doctored election, the breaking of the strained relationship between Professor Iajuddin and his council of advisers, came when the president took the decision to employ the armed forces disregarding the collective dissent of the latter. It was a severe blow to an already delicate situation that was prevailing in the country -- adversely affecting the environment for free and fair election, and more importantly the public psyche. More so when there was no convincing reason to do so.

As a result when the president delivered a late night speech, it again conjured up the spectacle of a president in BNP-Jamaat hue. It wasn't surprising that his speech sounded as if it was the ghost voice of one of the voluble BNP stalwarts -- both in content and semantics. In a quick riposte, the four advisers engaged in finding a solution with regard to level playing ground resigned in disgust. When the whole nation was aghast at the development, it seemed to have come as a relief to the president who lost no time in filling up the vacant posts. The message of the whole episode -- a crisis of confidence -- was apparently lost on him.

It is time for BNP-Jamaat's game plan to be put in action now, without any encumbrance. Even if the playing field is yet to be levelled, both BNP-Jamaat and Professor Iajuddin have suddenly gone constitutional by demanding holding of the election within ninety days, and are shedding crocodile tears over the sanctity of the Constitution.

Yet it was the same Professor Iajuddin who, in collusion with BNP, occupied the post of the head of the caretaker government in a questionable way, and in violation of the constitutional provisions. Ever since, his function in that post had been essentially an exercise in megalomania. He destroyed the environment for free and fair elections, to which he himself is the main impediment.

In the meantime, the electoral preparation of all political parties, except BNP-Jamaat combine, is in shambles. Under the circumstances, if the AL-led 14-party alliance, as well as other political outfits, participate in the election as per the schedule already declared they will obviously not find the playing field level. There's no point playing the game only to give legitimacy to the BNP-Jamaat game plan and a fresh boost to "nationalist" bankrupt politics. #


Brig (retd.) M Abdul Hafiz is former Director General of Bangladesh International Institute for Strategic Studies (BIISS), Dhaka