Saturday, September 21, 2013

On faith in the Constitution

Published : Saturday, 21 September 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League's insistence that the elections must be held as laid down in the Constitution should have been music to the ears of the people of Bangladesh. In fact, all Bangladeshis should have stood up and acclaimed the Prime Minister for her faith in the Constitution and her determination not to budge an inch from holding elections according to the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister's faith in the Constitution has divided the nation in a manner never before in its history.

The division in itself may not have been bad enough; what is worse is that there is widespread apprehension in the country and abroad that Bangladesh would face civil strife unless the division created by the AL's (Awami League) insistence to hold elections according to the Constitution and the BNP's opposition to it, is resolved. The reason is a very simple one if one is prepared to call a spade a spade. For the first time in Bangladesh's political history, the ruling party cannot think of losing power because of fear of retribution. The BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) cannot allow the elections to be held under an AL-led Interim Government because it cannot think even in a nightmare of another five years of AL rule. 

In a recent talk show, former Prime Minister Kazi Zafar Ahmed stated this in unequivocal terms. Thus the AL wants elections where it would have control of the government. Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr. Shamsul Huda in a recent interview has, however, allayed the fears that in such an election, the ruling party would influence the outcome, as realistic. Nevertheless, these fears have strengthened the demand of the opposition for elections under non-party government. The fears of the opposition notwithstanding, the Constitution as the supreme law of the land cannot be changed or suited to allay such fears. Thus on the face of it, the fears of the opposition should be dismissed because the Constitution's supremacy must be upheld. But, the issue is not as simple as one that would suggest that the ruling party is trying to uphold the Constitution while the opposition is trying to violate it.

The controversy is not really on faith or lack of it in the Constitution. It is over an amendment to the Constitution. The Awami League is in fact trying to uphold the supremacy of the 15th amendment and in that context too, only that part of the Constitution which is related to the way to hold the national elections. Explicitly, the AL is going ahead to hold national elections under Interim Government that would be headed by Sheikh Hasina as Prime Minister and her elected party colleagues as Ministers. The Awami League placed the Interim Government system in the 15th Amendment that replaced elections under caretaker government (CTG) that it had forced the BNP-led government in 1996 to include in the Constitution through the 13th amendment on the plea that elections under Interim Government headed by Khaleda Zia would not be free and fair!

The 15th Amendment has a history that raises a few more questions in people's minds about the intention of the Awami League concerning it. The amendment resulted from a High Court ruling that declared the 13th Amendment on the CTG as unconstitutional because it held that only elected individuals could elect democratic governments. The ruling party took a short version of that ruling and hastily used it to replace the CTG with the Interim Government. It however ignored the Court's recommendation that at least two more elections could be held under the CTG because of the nature of country's politics. The 15th Amendment was the result of deliberations in which the opposition parties were not involved. It took merely a few hours for the 15th Amendment to be passed in parliament.

The ruling party introduced this fundamental change in the Constitution without any mandate and that, too, to change the system of elections from one that it had forced the BNP-led government to put in the Constitution. The AL had argued in 1996 that it needed the CTG because it did not trust the BNP-led government. That trust factor has deteriorated manifold today; yet the AL went ahead and abolished the very system it created for free and fair elections. Further, the ruling party has, in the mean time, politicised the civil bureaucracy and police administration in a manner no government has done in the past. Therefore, if the AL's argument in 1996 for the CTG was a correct one, the BNP's demand for its restoration today is a stronger one.

The demand for restoration of the CTG is today no longer the demand of the BNP alone. Independent opinion polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of the people, many of whom are not supporters of the opposition parties, want elections to be held in a manner where both the AL and the BNP would be able to participate to save the country from sliding towards the precipice. Foreign friends of Bangladesh have likewise expressed a similar view. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the EU have unequivocally called for free, fair, transparent and "inclusive" general elections to save Bangladesh from disaster. In fact, other than the AL and that too, the circle close to the Prime Minister, the rest of Bangladesh and the country's well-wishers abroad want elections to be held in a manner closer to what the BNP wants and unequivocally not the way the AL wants.

Constitution is for the people. The people of Bangladesh do not want elections without the opposition. Therefore, the AL would be going against their wishes if it held elections under the 15th Amendment. Its claim that the Constitution must be upheld at any cost is also paper-thin because it is adamant to uphold not really the Constitution but a part of it that it put in the Constitution, unilaterally, designed to give it advantage to return to power. It has unwittingly or by a show of arrogance left enough evidence to reach such a conclusion as an obvious one. 

The spirit of 1971 is to empower the people. Although the ruling party claims that all it is doing is to uphold that spirit, the 15th Amendment has done something unbelievable. At a time when the people feel that they need to tell the political parties clearly, in a referendum, their opinion on how to hold the national elections, they find that the 15th Amendment has taken away that right from them. The 15th Amendment has abolished referendum! That has confirmed apprehension in the public mind that the faith of the ruling party in the Constitution has been tailored to suit its own political ends and objectives. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

No comments: