Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bangladesh Interim Authority Pushing the Political Parties for Internal Reforms


THE interim authority of Bangladesh has created “crisis situation” for established political leaders of the country by its insistence on internal political reforms of the political parties. The political culture of Bangladesh which was primarily based on personal rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia appears has to change in the near future.

The demand for internal reforms by the interim authority has given an opportunity to the dissidents of the mainstream parties to seek reforms within. This in effect would mean curtailment of dictatorial powers of both the mainstream party leaders.

On the other hand, the two leaders accused of dictatorial rule have begun to thwart any effort towards reform by creating divisions in segments demanding reforms. Interestingly, some of the corrupt leaders have also used this reform wave to wash away their sins by joining groups that are in favour of reforms or by attempting to create new political party.

After taking over charge from the earlier caretaker government on January 11, 2007 the interim authority headed by Fakruddin Ahmed launched a nationwide crackdown on corruption in which more than 170 political figures from both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have been detained. These charges of corruption and abuse of power have put lot of pressure on both the major political parties of Bangladesh to go for internal reforms aimed at curbing the powers of the party chiefs.

In the past, both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have been known for wielding absolute power in their parties. But at present, these leaders are busy in clearing their names from several charges they are facing. Hasina faces charges of extortion, which are being investigated by police. She is accused of graft and abetting murders related to political violence. The problem for Sheikh Hasina increased further when a former Bangladesh health minister, Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim arrested as part of the government's graft crackdown confessed on June 21, 2007 that he had shared extorted money with her. Selim told a Dhaka court in a statement that he gave a portion of $430,000 from a power company to Sheikh Hasina during her 1996-2001 rule. Selim and Sheikh Hasina, who are cousins, are both accused in the case. Selim's lawyers however have said that they considered his court statement unlawful as he was given insufficient time to think it over.

Hasina denies all the charges and says they have been framed by critics and opponents. However, on the basis of these charges Hasina was stopped from flying to the US after a court ordered immigration officials and police not to allow her to leave, saying her presence in the country was needed for the investigation of extortion charges.

Hasina's rival and the most recent Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, also face allegations of corruption and misuse of power, especially in promoting her kin. Though she denies these charges, her elder son and political heir apparent, Tarique Rahman, is among more than 170 key political figures detained by security forces in the corruption hunt. Her younger son Arafat Rahman is also facing charges of extortion.

Reform Proposals within Awami League
Reformists in the Awami League have proposed that party decisions including financial matters should be discussed and passed with the consent of the majority. Speaking to media a senior Awami League leader said, "The party should also be transparent in financial matters. Collection of funds through donations and expenses should be audited, regularly."

Reform proposals have also been prepared by the influential Awami League party leaders including presidium members Abdur Razzak, Tofail Ahmed and Suranjit Sengupta. But Sheikh Hasina who had received these proposals informally has suggested that she wants further amendments in them.

Speaking to media she said, "Not only the party president's post, but no other party position should also be held by the same person more than twice. Not only the party chief should be barred from becoming the prime minister, but all central committee office bearers should be prohibited from becoming ministers or state ministers."

Hasina, who will be 60 this September, has also given another proposal according to which no leaders above 60 will be allowed to remain a member of the AL Presidium and Central Working Committee. She has suggested that all leaders above the age of 60 will be accommodated in the advisory council of the party. If Hasina's latest proposal is implemented, only two AL presidium members--Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim and Kazi Zafarullah--can continue in their posts.

But a section of reformist leaders believe that Hasina would never stick to what she is saying now on reforms. An unnamed Awami League leader reportedly said, "Being irritated by the move for party reforms in the present situation, she might have spoken all this."

Reform Proposal within BNP
Demand for internal reforms is also getting stronger in BNP. Many BNP insiders including former ministers and lawmakers want Khaleda to reform her party that will ironically drastically curb her power in taking decisions. Leaders favouring reform in BNP are headed by Party Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan. Khaleda on her part has now stated that she would welcome any suggestions from her party leaders and workers across the country to reform the party. About the call for her to leave the top post of the party, she said, "I was elected the chairperson by the council. Anyone can contest for the post and even become the chairperson of the party if the council elects (him/her)." She also denies having made any decision unilaterally and said she used to consult the senior cabinet members and the standing committee leaders on how to run the country as well as the party.

Pro-reforms leaders of BNP on the other hand want BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia to step down from the party-chief’s position. Simultaneously, they are also trying to lobby the councillors, the leaders who can bring changes in the party constitution. These pro-reform leaders are reportedly regularly holding meetings with BNP Secretary General Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan at his Gulshan residence to discuss reforms in the party.

Attempt to Create a New Political Party
Meanwhile, despite a ban on all sorts of politics, the process for floating a new political party is going on in full swing. The main initiative in this has been taken by former BNP leader Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi, who had been inactive in politics for a long time. The initiative got a new dimension recently as Jatiya Party (JP) leader Rawshan Ershad along with a group of JP leaders got involved with the process. A few mid- and junior-level political leaders like Sayeed Khokon of Awami League (AL) and former lawmaker Nurul Islam Moni of BNP have also joined the move.

People attempting to create this new party are regularly holding meetings at different places in Dhaka and are pursuing some important political leaders to join them. But so far they have not been very successful in their efforts. Most of these leaders have no strong position in their constituencies and some of them are even facing corruption charges. Many served military dictator HM Ershad as ministers. The organisers are also trying to communicate with the district level leaders of different political parties as well as members of the civil society. To make the initiative a success they are trying to involve Dr Kamal Hossain in the process. They are also working to formulate a constitution for the new party. They have claimed that they are looking for honest leaders and that the new party will follow a policy which is not rightist or leftist.

Legal Steps to Stop Nomination Business
As part of the ongoing reform initiatives, the Election Commission in Bangladesh has already made a set of proposals for electoral reforms. As per these proposals, a political party must be registered with the EC to contest the parliamentary election and no registered political party shall form any front organisation with the students or teachers of educational institutions and no political party shall have any branch abroad. The EC also made proposals to ensure financial transparency of the political parties.

In addition to this, the caretaker government of Bangladesh has now taken some fresh steps to create a legal infrastructure so that political parties are forced to go for certain reforms. The Election Commission (EC) has drafted a new proposal to curtail the absolute power of political parties' parliamentary boards to nominate party candidates for parliamentary election in a bid to stop reported unbridled nomination of business persons.

According to the proposal, members of the local unit of a registered political party will primarily elect through secret ballots two or more tentative candidates for each parliamentary area and the party's central parliamentary board will choose from the list a candidate for the constituency. At present, the political parties' parliamentary boards composed of party chiefs and some other top leaders enjoy absolute power to choose the candidates to contest in the parliamentary election and grass- roots level leaders have little to say in the process.

Using this power, the major political parties, especially the BNP and Awami League reportedly made huge amounts of money by selling party nominations to businessmen and black money holders during the previous parliamentary elections, while the dedicated leaders were ignored in many cases.

The new proposal as well as the proposed conditions for a political party to get registration with the EC will be finalised on consultation with the major political parties after the ban on indoor politics is lifted. Once the proposal is made a rule, the political parties will have to include the provision in their constitutions and follow it to nominate candidates for the parliamentary elections. If the proposal is implemented, the parliamentary boards will no longer have the absolute power to choose candidates.

US Critical of Current Political Trends in Bangladesh
The US has decried current political trends in Bangladesh and has expressed itself clearly against military involvement in politics. In a media interview, outgoing US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis also called for lifting the ban on political activity and for early elections - as of now likely only in 2008-end - saying the US-Bangladesh relationship was 'based on democracy'.

She urged the government to be transparent and explain why restrictions have been placed on two former prime ministers, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Butenis has stated that Washington did not want to see any sort of military involvement in Bangladesh politics, 'as it will be a mistake'. However, she is not against any army personnel taking up politics after retirement. Butenis supported the reforms in political parties through discussions among themselves but said any attempt or plan to impose changes on parties was going to have troubles. She avoided a direct comment on 'minus-two' formula of reform by excluding the two former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina but agreed that parties have to bring changes. Perhaps part of that change may be their senior leaders. But they can't do that without being able to discuss it,' she observed.

The caretaker government of Bangladesh with strong backing of military is using several strategies to put pressure on both the leading political personalities to go for reform. These leaders have already been placed on the defensive by pressing several corruption charges either against them or their close family members. The interim authority is also encouraging dissidents in these parties to ask for reforms. It is trying to create a legal structure whereby it would be difficult for certain political leaders to impose their choice on local leaders. Initially, the attempt was made to use minus-two formula, whereby the two leading political leaders of Bangladesh were to be forced out of the country. But that strategy failed, as it immediately gave rise to domestic and international protests and presented the two ladies who have been ruling Bangladesh autocratically by turn as victims. The interim government at present is trying to use other methods to achieve the same objective. However, unless a new crop of leadership emerges which is strong enough to sideline these political dynasties, it will be difficult for Bangladesh to keep these reforms intact for long time. The old leaders are smart enough to regain the lost ground and the dissidents will be thrown out mercilessly once the threat posed by military reduces. #

This article was first published by South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG),

Dr Anand Kumar can be reached at e-mail