Sunday, January 22, 2012

On a historic chance the President missed

As I See It Column
The Independent
January 21, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

I listened with rapt attention the briefing given to the TV channels by Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta upon coming out of Bangobhavan following the Awami League’s meeting with the President as part of his dialogue with the political parties to choose the new Election Commission. The Minister has a way with words. He called the dialogue of the President as not just something unique in Bangladesh’s history; he described the President’s initiative as the first of its kind in the history of South Asia.

The Minister also quoted from the Constitution to state that the President has the power under it to choose the EC and that he has undertaken the exercise as a leader with vision and experience. Another Minister, Mr. Obaidul Quader who is currently riding very high, ridiculed the opposition while giving the ruling party all the credit for running the government effectively. He said that the opposition is doing what it is supposed to do, oppose and his party is doing what it is expected to do, deliver!

Mr. Suranjit Sen interpretation of the Constitution was not correct for Bangladesh is more than a parliamentary system; it is prime ministerial one. In such a system of government, the President has no powers except the ceremonial ones. He cannot do anything in politics and government without instructions of the Prime Minister. Hence Mr. Gupta’s credit to the President is simply his way of playing with words. Nevertheless, he has not done himself or the government any credit by trying to give an impression in the media about the President that is misleading.

Take for example the issue whether the President really has any role in choosing an EC through his dialogue with the political parties. Although it has not happened, what if the President had by some miracle come to a concrete decision on who would be in the next Election Commission? How would he go about it? What if the Prime Minister did not agree with the list? It is for politicians to play with words. For us who understand politics in simple terms, the way the dialogue has taken place has had nothing to do at all with the President’s vision or wisdom. He was simply under instructions to play a role and he carried it out obediently.

The whole matter of involving the President in selecting the new EC originated from the Prime Minister’s office. The reason is obvious. The ruling party is stuck with the opposition’s firm demand for restoration of the caretaker government that is being backed by many who are known for their leanings for the ruling party. To make matters worse, the opposition’s demand for restoration of the caretaker government for the next two general elections in line with the recommendation of the Supreme Court has steadily gathered bipartisan support across the country.

The demand for restoration of the CG system has come in the way of the ruling party’s strategy of elections under the interim government that it would lead. As part of the strategy that is aimed at ensuring its return to power, the ruling party is in the process of placing officials in the civil and police administration sympathetic to it who would play crucial roles in the conduct of the next general elections. It has already placed its party activists in the district councils as administrators. The ruling party wants the nation to ignore the strategy that it is putting into place by accepting its contention that an EC selected by consensus, or an attempt at such, would be enough for holding free and fair elections under an interim government headed by it without the necessity of restoring the CG system.

The President has been used to implement this intent of the ruling party. Those who encouraged the President to undertake the dialogue knew very well that the Constitution did not empower him to do what he undertook to do. The parties that went to Bangobhavan also knew about the President’s limitations as well as the true reason of his initiative. It was all a political game that those who participated in the dialogue played where the reason that was given for the initiative, namely the need to choose an EC, was never an issue at all.

The opposition went to the dialogue with a clear strategy of its own; to impress upon the Prime Minister through the President that she needs to restore the caretaker government. The BNP was not alone in seeking extension of the CG system. Except the ruling party, almost all other party, and there were a large number of them, favoured the extension of the CG system for 2 more terms. They were not very interested in the EC that they thought could wait till the issue of the CG was resolved. The term of the existing EC expires next month. Therefore the next EC must be selected without delay. By-election is due in the seat that has fallen vacant due to the death of Mr. Abdur Razzak. The failed dialogue undertaken by the President has pushed the ruling party to choose an EC on its own that will no doubt be rejected by the BNP and render credence to its accusation that the ruling party is working for a strategy to return to power by unfair means. Powerless as he may be in a constitutional sense, the President has an unique position by virtue of his office that places him above all legal powers in the country; a moral power. His dialogue had given him the insight to the politics of the country. He was given a clear sense that unless there is a consensus between the ruling party and the BNP on the system under which the next general elections would be held, the country would be pushed towards a deep political crisis.

Therefore a historical chance had come before Mr. Zillur Rahman to exercise his moral power to save the country from an impending political crisis that could be disastrous for everyone. He could have used his dialogue to encourage the Prime Minister to come to an understanding on the system for holding the next elections. He could also have played a role in that to earn for himself respect of all Bangladeshis. However the dialogue for selecting an EC, unsuccessful as it has been, that Mr. Suranjit Gupta has called historical, has in fact diminished his standing with his people.

Sadly, he himself has underscored how utterly powerless he is. In the end, where almost all the parties urged him to help re-establish the CG system, all the President did was recommend the formation of a search committee to form the new EC! Did he need to waste his time and those who attended his dialogue to come with this recommendation? Clearly the answer must be in the negative. Mr. Suranjit Sen Gupta could not have been more mistaken in expressing those glorious compliments to the President and his vision! In the end, the BNP has come out with some of the points; its demand for the CG has gained more public acceptance.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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