Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dialogue with the President: What dialogue?

The Holiday
December 30, 2011
M. Serajul Islam


A common apprehension everywhere these days is that violence is round the corner in our politics. The ruling party and the opposition are both openly talking about the forebodings in the air but blaming each other for the violence they are suspecting will happen soon. In fact, they are saying the violence will start in February.


The President’s decision to hold talks with the political parties to choose the next Election Commission (EC) has hinted indirectly that a serious clash between the mainstream parties is very much possible because the step he has undertaken is very unusual to say the least. The opposition has underscored the unusual nature of the President’s decision stating clearly that the Constitution does not give him such a power. Under the Constitution, the Prime Minister recommends the names to the President to choose an EC who has little
power but to accept.

The President can of course request the Prime Minister to reconsider the recommendation but he must sign on the dotted lines once the Prime Minister makes up her/his mind. Normally, if here is any difference of opinion on any of the Prime Minister’s recommendations, the President has no power under the constitution to say or do anything any public. The constitution by design and purpose has made the office of the President nothing but titular.

The constitutional restriction notwithstanding, there is this little problem that the President himself has created on the issue of his acceptance to the opposition political parties. He had given an interview to a private TV channel after being elected President where he was asked what he would do if he received a recommendation from the Prime Minister with which he did not agree. He answered almost by reflex action that his “Netri” could do no wrong! The exercise upon which the President has embarked could only succeed if he had the option to be neutral. Sadly, we all know our political realities. He just does not have that sort of power, neither by the constitution nor by his position, having been put in office of the President by the ruling party that he had served loyally all his life.

Those who advised the President to call the dialogue should have considered these issues. Even in choice of the issue for the dialogue, these Advisers did not act wisely or in the interest of the nation. The choice of the next EC is not the issue that has the potential to push the country towards the dangerous conflict that many people are apprehending. The apprehension is coming from the decision of the ruling party to conduct the next national elections under an interim administration that it will conduct, in all probability with Sheikh Hasina as the interim Prime Minister.

In addition, the ruling party will also have a civil bureaucracy that it has politicized totally to assist the interim government. From these loyal bureaucrats, the ruling party is in the process of choosing those bureaucrats whom it considers as its activists for the key posts in district and police administration that would be crucial for the elections. If this is not enough, the government has recently sent its party activists to the posts of administrators in the district councils!

With such a blueprint so palpably evident the opposition could be expected to take part in entering into a dialogue with the President to choose the next EC if they are politically na├»ve or have some other motive. It is sad that those who advised the President did not take into account that he is one of our most senior politicians and has earned respect for himself. The exercise of the dialogue is bound to end in futility and dishonour not just the President personally but also bring disrespect to the high office he holds. The ruling party has pushed the President into the fray merely to show the nation that it is serious about choosing an EC by consensus. It is sad that in using the President’s office this way, the ruling party did not care to remember its predicament with President Biswas in 1996 when he had threatened to use his office beyond what the constitution permitted him.

By choosing the EC as the subject of his dialogue, the President has undermined the real issue on which the country could explode in violence, namely the search for acceptable formula for holding the next general election. The issue of the next general election has become everybody’s concern, except of the ruling party, because of the abolition of the caretaker government. The last four elections, three under a non-party and neutral caretaker government and another where neither of the mainstream parties had any role in the government that held the elections, were free and fair. Only the losing party was the one that raised any question of credibility of these elections. All observers, both national and overseas, gave the elections the highest marks on the issue of freeness and fairness. In fact, the caretaker government was one with which Bangladesh could have made a claim to introducing into elections of the developing countries a system that ensured a free and fair election.

After the present government came to power, the court recommended abolishing the caretaker government because the constitution had given it a limited time span. The court, however, also recommended that at least two more elections should be held under it taking into view the nature of politics in the country where the history of elections under a political party in power has been one of rigging and fraud. The ruling party used its parliamentary majority to replace the CG system with an interim government without even waiting for the full verdict of the Court which is still awaited!

The indecent hurry with which the ruling party ended the CG system for an interim administration so that it could hold the next national elections spilled the beans on its intentions. Its subsequent actions revealed a blue print for returning to power. Thus by the time the President called the dialogue for selecting the next EC, few outside the ruling party and its coalition partners felt that a new EC would be selected with views from the opposition taken into consideration or that the interim government would allow it the sort of independence that could make it an alternative to the neutral caretaker government.

It is a matter of regret that the President himself has chosen to overlook the status of current politics in Bangladesh. His dialogue with the parties in the ruling coalition has been an un-necessary exercise, a waste of both his valuable time and those of the parties that attended the dialogue. One would not have blamed the BNP if it had stayed away from the dialogue because before the President embarked on such an exercise, his aides should have sounded out the opposition. This does not seem to have been the case. In fact, it looks like those who organized the dialogue knew that the BNP would not attend and the AL would get political mileage for trying to form an EC by consensus.

By deciding to attend, the BNP has made a smart political move and has pre-empted the AL from getting the political mileage it expected. The BNP would now no doubt its participation in the dialogue to inform the President face to face that no one would be able to save the country from an impending disaster unless the ruling party relents on its decision to hold the next general elections under an interim government to be headed by the outgoing Prime Minister. The BNP would also no doubt push the President for the immediate publication of the full verdict of the court on abolition of the CG system and insist that its recommendation for the next two general elections to be held under the caretaker system should be accepted to save the country from an impending crisis.

The logic to accept the court’s recommendation to hold the next two general elections under the caretaker government is too blatantly strong for the President to miss it if he wants to save the country. The ruling party is in no power or position to impose its will on the people without pushing the country towards a disaster with less than 40% of support among the people and having failed to deliver on its major election promises.

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The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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