Friday, June 1, 2012

US, AI, Economist on Dhaka: Rationality needed to stop criticism 

The Holiday
Friday, 1st June, 2012

M. Serajul Islam

What does the former Election Commissioner Brigadier General (Retired) Shakawat Hossain has in common with the British Minister Alistair Burt, US Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister  Katsuya Okada,  Indian Finance Minister  Pranab Mukherjee,  The Economist;  reports of the US State Department and Amnesty International? They have all spoken about the need in Bangladesh for a system that would encourage both the ruling party and the opposition to participate in the country’s next general elections in less than 2 years’ time. These international leaders; magazine and institutions have all hinted that without a consensus on the next general elections, Bangladesh could slide towards a disaster. 

The government has accused the Economist to have written its reports on Bangladesh on the caretaker government and a host of other issues critical to it after taking bribe from the BNP! It is of course a sigh of relief that the government has not accused the British Minister, the US Secretary, the Japanese DPM, the Indian Finance Minister, AI and the US State Department of taking bribe from the BNP to have said or written what the former Election Commissioner has said about the need for an acceptable system for the next general elections and on other criticisms of its governance. 

Free, fair polls

For the sake of Bangladesh’s future, it would serve some useful purpose to examine the Brigadier’s comments on the need for consensus on holding the next general elections. He is one who has been intimately involved with the Election Commission during the last five years and should know better than anyone else on the ability of the EC to hold the next general elections freely and fairly under a party government. Speaking at a seminar organized by SUJAN recently; he said:   “There is no guarantee that the election will be free and fair when three hundred MPs will be in power. No-one can say they would not intervene in their respective constituencies.” His categorical dismissal that a party government can hold an election freely and fairly comes out of his first hand experience with the mainstream political parties. 

Not too long ago, the former CEC Dr. Shamsul Huda who was the Brigadier’s boss at the EC during his five years there said the same thing about holding the next general elections under a party government not too long ago. He too had dismissed free and fair elections under a party government. Very recently, the current CEC too has said that it would be up to the two mainstream parties to decide on the system for the next general elections. He did not express the conviction that the Prime Minister and her close aides have expressed that the EC would be able to hold free and fair elections under a party government. 

With the Prime Minister, a few of AL and Mahajote leaders are leading a media campaign to dismiss what the opposition,  rest of Bangladesh and friendly countries, etc.,  abroad have been recommending for the country; that a way must be found to encourage the opposition to participate in the next general elections. The AL General Secretary Syed Ashraful Islam who addressed the media recently with Mahajote leaders said that there is no way to go back to the caretaker system. In favour of this argument, he said that it would be impossible to restore the CG system because a Supreme Court judgment abolished it and the parliament wrote that judgment in the constitution. Mahajote leaders like for instance Rashed Khan Menon also backed   Syed Ashraf’s argument that as the constitution has abolished the CG system and introduced the party government to hold the next general elections, there was no way to accede to the opposition’s demand.

Politics of conflict

In dismissing the possibility of restoring the CG, these leaders failed to acknowledge a few facts. First, the SC judgment that led to the abolition of the CG system from the constitution also recommended that the next two general elections should nevertheless he held under the CG system because of the politics of conflict between the two mainstream parties. Clearly, the Chief Justice who wrote the judgment was fearful that politics in the country was still not mature for general elections under a party government. Second, the AL also failed to acknowledge that what is not in constitution is not an argument against trying to introduce an amendment putting something new into the constitution. The AL literally held the first BNP Government and the country at ransom to force the CG system to be written to the constitution.

In fact, in the constitutional history of the country, the AL has a record of using its strength in parliament and outside it to introduce and repeal constitutional provisions at will. It has never bothered in the past either to change the constitutional provisions to meet its political ends or to force its political interests to be incorporated in the constitution.  It used its parliamentary majority in 1974 to gag democracy and change the nature of government from a parliamentary one to one party presidential dictatorship with the 4th amendment, also known infamously as the BAKSAL amendment. Under the first BNP Government, it used its power in the streets to force the 13th amendment of the constitution introducing the CG system. In its present tenure, it has used its 3/4th parliamentary majority to abolish the CG system from the constitution with the 15th amendment. In case of the 4th and 15th amendments, the AL deliberated 9 and 4 minutes in parliament respectively to make the fundamental constitutional changes! 

Therefore using the argument that the constitution cannot be changed to deny the demand of the opposition for restoration of the CG system for the next elections that now all right thinking people of the country feel is holding the key to Bangladesh’s political stability is indeed a very lame excuse to say the least.  In fact, in the SUJON-arranged seminar, there was a consensus that the ruling party and the opposition must sit down and find a way out from the danger that looms large for the country should the ruling party goes for election under its own supervision without the opposition participating in it. Those who participated in the SUJON seminar were from both the ruling and the opposition parties together with some eminent citizens who did not belong to any of the mainstream parties. 

There are some from the ruling party who continue to send optimistic signals that a compromise with the opposition would be possible. Very recently, the Speaker suggested that his good offices would be always available should the opposition decide that it would sit down with the ruling party for discussion. He of course made light of his offer when he said that he would even foot the bill for the tea and refreshment for holding the talks! There are some members of the ruling party who have suggested that the opposition must come to the parliament and place their proposal for the system of elections under which it would be willing to participate.

Double standards

The insistence of these members that the opposition must come to the parliament to place its proposal for a system of elections under which it would participate in the next general elections is also a weak one. These AL leaders have forgotten that it used the streets as the forum during the BNP’s first term to force upon the government its demand for a caretaker government. Clearly, the AL is getting caught in using double standards in politics. While in power, it uses one standard and another while in the opposition. 

In fact, as a result of this, the AL is becoming increasingly isolated from the people in the country and Bangladesh’s friends abroad. Hinting at it even Pranab Mukherjee could not help telling Khaleda Zia in his meeting with her during his recent visit to Bangladesh that India is interested in maintaining relations with Bangladesh and not with a political party. It is therefore no wonder that Hillary Clinton, Katsuya Okada and the British Minister have all spoken in the same line as the Indian Minister. 

The fact that the ruling party is becoming isolated with its politics was brought to focus with two articles carried in one issue of The Economist. It is rare that a weekly such as The Economist to find space for two stories on Bangladesh in one issue. In fact, as a regular reader of this magazine, I don’t remember ever that such a thing has happened in the past. The AL Joint Secretary has accused the weekly of being bribed by the BNP. The Joint Secretary’s pointing fingers at BNP clearly exposed the utter despair to which these leaders have sunk trying to answer international critics of the regime. In fact, the recent reports of the US Department of State and Amnesty International have been more critical than even the anti-people regime of President Ershad.  

It is indeed sad that the party which the people had elected with such high hopes to bring about a paradigm shift in governance is making such a mess of it and attracting the attention of the international community and media in such a negative way. The ruling party would do itself a world of good to inquire into the reasons why it is attracting such criticisms at home and abroad instead of dismissing them the way its Joint Secretary did with The Economist. In fact, it is not that the ruling party’s interests alone are dependent upon rational approach to the criticisms being made against its governance; the very future of the country has become dependent on the sanity of the ruling party in sorting out the political problems the country is facing.

The writer is a retired career diplomat and Ambassador to Japan. 

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