Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On the President’s Dialogue

The Independent
As I See It Column
January 7th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The President’s ongoing dialogue with the political parties for choosing the next Election Commission (EC) suggests that the ruling party is not comfortable with the way support is building in the country for the next general elections to be held under the abrogated caretaker Government. Individuals in public life well known for their pro-AL leanings are speaking strongly in the media to urge the AL to give up its insistence to hold the next elections under an interim government under Sheikh Hasina. There are few such people in public life who are showing any interest in the ongoing dialogue of the President for selecting the EC.

The reasons encouraging these individuals to speak in favour of the CG system are too obvious to need explanation, only the ruling party for reasons of its own is not willing to accept, not yet. It was the Awami League that had not allowed the BNP to govern effectively in its 1991-96 term to make it accept the caretaker government system. The argument put forward by it with Jamat by its side was that the BNP could not be trusted to hold the national elections under an interim administration because it would use its authority to interfere in the process and manipulate the results in its favour.

The BNP was forced to concede to the AL’s demand. The people heaved a sigh of relief because the 1996 elections held under the CG system were free and fair. In a closely fought election where no party was able to interfere in the election process, the AL won marginally. The point was driven home that free and fair elections could be held only when no political party would have any role in holding the elections. The examples of 1973 and 1986 were there as nightmares to encourage the people to accept the caretaker government system as an answer to their prayers to hold free and fair elections.

The AL’s strong opposition towards a party having anything to do with the national elections, whether in fact or imaginary,  was brought home by their stand against Justice KM Hasan becoming the Chief Adviser of the Caretaker Government after the BNP completed its tenure in end of 2006. On the ground that Justice KM Hasan was in the late 1970s a member of the BNP that he gave up become a Judge, the AL took to the streets to stop him from taking up his constitutionally entitled position. The AL came out with “lathi, shota and boita” and the ensuing political crisis pushed the country towards emergency and military rule.

The AL’s championing the cause of the CG system in 1991-96 and its protest against Justice Hasan in 2006 pointed to one simple fact; that it believed that national elections cannot be free and fair  if a political party had even one of its members or one assumed to be so in a key position of government under which the elections were being held. The same party is now asking the BNP to go for national elections under a system that it has now made a part of the constitution, the system of the interim government. Under this system, the ruling party will hand power to an interim government to be formed and led by it. In other words, under this system it will be Sheikh Hasina who will supervise the next elections with her party members as the interim cabinet.

To make it worse for the BNP, the AL has meanwhile politicized the bureaucracy heavily in its favour. It is in the process of placing in key posts in civil and police administration at the field level with those who are its activists, posts that will play key roles in the next elections. Recently, the Awami League has placed as Administrators in the District Councils, its party loyalists. The way the AL has taken these steps has not left anyone in doubt as to what its real intentions are. Its demand in the past even not to have one single individual from the ruling party to have anything to do with holding the national elections makes it strange to accept that it is the same party now proposing to the nation to hold the next general elections with all powers at its disposal to interfere in the elections if it chooses.

The AL however believes it will be able to convince the nation that it has no intention of interfering in the general elections  to be held through the EC, its steps to the contrary notwithstanding. It has proposed to allow the EC the authority and independence to conduct a free and fair election. It is to help choose such an EC by consensus in place of the old one that will go out of office in February that it has decided to use the President to enter into a dialogue with the political parties.

Unfortunately, the palpably evident blueprint the AL has put in place in all other structures of the government that will play crucial role in the conduct the next elections suggest that an EC, even if chosen by consensus and given independence, will simply not be able to function in a manner where it will be in any risk of losing.  It is this clear blueprint that has encouraged the outgoing CEC to state categorically in the media that there is no other alternative to holding the next general elections in a free and fair manner without re-introducing the CG system. It is this stand that many well known individuals who are well known for close connections with the AL are echoing in public these days.

Thus the President’s dialogue is in effect like treating a very serious heart patient for leg injury. To make matters worse, the President also has no authority under the constitution to do what he is doing. Either he has forgotten or those who advised him have cared not to  point this out to him that he is no better and no worse than a mere ceremonial head. His only “power” is to sign on the dotted line where the Prime Minister wants it.

The BNP that had initially summarily dismissed taking part in the dialogue has done a smart thing by reconsidering its decision. It should use the opportunity to sit with the President to tell him to carry a simple message to the Prime Minister that the only way to save Bangladesh is to deal with the heart of the current crisis in politics in Bangladesh which is the caretaker government issue. The BNP should also request the President to convey a related message to the Prime Minister that the issue of the EC is one that would resolve itself automatically once the heart of the crisis is treated. There is no need for the President to waste his time and those of the political parties in trying to choose the next EC by consensus which is not going to happen anyway.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email serajul7@gmail.com

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