Monday, September 28, 2009

Debate on the Caretaker Government

The concept of the Caretaker Government (CG) has become controversial. As is now a pattern with this government, two Ministers, through their conflicting views on the CG, have given cause for public concern and confusion; one hinting it will be scrapped and another mentioning that whatever is done will be done through consultation with the opposition. As usual, the BNP has drawn its own negative conclusion.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed has said in a press interview recently that the government is considering bringing the 15th amendment to the Constitution to introduce changes related to tenure of the parliament, local government system and on the subject of this article, the caretaker government. The Minister said that the view of the Law Commission would be taken before the move is made in parliament for the 15th amendment to the Constitution.

The Law Minister's comments drew scathing comments from the General Secretary of the BNP Khandker Delwar Hossain who concluded from the Minister's statement that the party in power is contemplating the 15th amendment, particularly the one related to the CG to prolong its stay in power. He said in his press interview that the Awami League and the Jamaat had fought during the BNP's term in 1991-96 for introduction of the CG system that the BNP obliged when it held absolute majority in the shortlived 6th parliament by amending the Constitution. The next election held under a CG was won by the Awami League. Subsequently, the 2001 and 2008 elections were also held under the same system and the losers in both elections were unhappy with the CG. The emergency that intervened between the last two elections during which the CG's term was illegally extended to almost two years instead of three months as require constitutionally, has also added controversy to the concept of CG.

Although the Law Minister talked about changes in the system of the CG, he has not suggested that the ruling party is contemplating scrapping the system altogether. The BNP General Secretary seems to have reached this conclusion on his own, motivated no doubt by statements made earlier by the leaders of the ruling party that the CG needed reform or be scrapped altogether. The LGRD Minister and the General Secretary of the ruling party, following the BNP General Secretary's strong remarks, has stated that the government will not bring any constitutional amendments unilaterally and that all parties would be consulted before any amendment to the Constitution is made. The LGRD Minister's views have been welcomed by the BNP General Secretary.

The views of these political leaders notwithstanding, the fact is the concept of the CG has become controversial, not as much as because there is serious problem with it but because it has been misused by the political parties who helped to introduce it. The extra-constitutional forces, who joined the CG in 2007-2008, have grossly abused it. Pinpointing responsibility for its misuse will get us nowhere but then for sake of our politics and political development, it is essential to undertake a dispassionate analysis of the CG.

The idea of a CG has been borne out of the fact that a party in power in a Third World country is usually hesitant to hand over power and has always shown the inclination to interfere with the elections to ensure that their opponents do not have a level playing ground. This is why the AL and the Jamaat, fearing that they could not win if the BNP government was left to conduct the elections, demanded a CG to be a part of the constitution to which the party in power would hand over power that would have three months to hold elections. While it is not necessary to go into details of this concept for the purpose of this article, it was widely believed at that time that this was a major contribution by Bangladesh to democracy and democratic elections. The other point in examining the CG system must focus on the fact that it was demanded by the AL and the Jamaat and was delivered by the BNP and in that sense it was one of those rare events where the major political parties had agreed on a political agenda to improve quality of politics. It was an irony that the BNP became a victim of the concept of CG because when one looks back on the slim margin of BNP's defeat in 1996, one could perhaps make out a case that if the CG had not been installed, the BNP could have easily managed to win those few extra seats through manipulation through the state machinery to defeat the AL.

Interestingly, when I served under the AL and BNP governments as an Ambassador, I found both quite eager to take credit for their role in introducing the CG. The AL felt that the concept was their brainchild while the BNP thought that the concept became a reality only because they incorporated it into the constitution through an amendment. As an Ambassador I have talked with a lot of people abroad and I found most of them appreciative of the CG. They thought it was innovative for achieving fair election. Many of them acknowledged that Bangladesh could rightly claim with this concept to have made a major contribution to making the elections more free and fair. Strangely, both the mainstream parties found problem with CG only when they lost.

The alternative to holding elections under a CG is the Election Commission where the government would be from political party with partisan interest in the elections. Given the nature of our politics, it is difficult to imagine that an opposition political party would accept defeat when elections are under a government formed by its opposition. We must spare a moment to understand that politics in Bangladesh is a very high stake game where the party that wins national elections wins not just political power but also a world of legal and illegal benefits that would make it very difficult if not impossible for them to hand over power voluntarily. For the losing political party, it is not a term in the opposition. Going by past experience it is a lot more worse; leading members of the losing political party/parties could lose business, economic interests and have cases filed against them in the court of law.

A CG leaves both parties little choice but to accept results however grudgingly. The CG has the added advantage of being led by a former Chief Justice as Chief Adviser (CA) who is expected to be more neutral than a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) because he brings with him a lifetime experience of dealing with law and legality where neutrality and impartiality are the basic requirements of his profession. One can of course also expect the CEC to be neutral, may be even more effective than a CA provided he is, like the present CEC, not appointed by either of the mainstream parties. The incumbent CEC will end his term while the AL would still be in office and it would then name a new CEC. The culture built in politics by the two mainstream parties is one of distrust. Therefore, the CEC that the AL government would name would have a hard time gaining acceptability by the BNP even if he is chosen fairly. In fact, to be fair to the BNP, in a reverse situation, AL would perhaps reject a BNP nominated CEC straightaway as unacceptable.

It is true the CG is not perfect. But it is equally true that the concept became controversial because of the unconstitutional interference of the military that prolonged their power beyond constitutional limit arbitrarily and with contempt. President Iajuddin's gross ineptness and Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed's complicity with the military's ill motives are equally responsible for making the concept of CG controversial. If these factors are taken out of the equation and an honest assessment is made of the CG, it is still the best system for holding elections in Bangladesh where the losers have not yet learnt to accept defeat gracefully and is always looking for excuses for their defeat.

Published in The Daily Independent, Dhaka, September 29th , 2009

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