Saturday, October 26, 2013

To head or not to head the APG is the question

 25th October, 2013
 M. Serajul Islam

The Prime Minister’s speech has been received among the public with mixed feelings. The optimists saw it as a positive speech. The pessimists viewed it as nothing new except an old strategy to tease the opposition without giving anything from its rigid stand to hold elections its way or as it is said it would. Leading the optimists was Barrister Rafiqul Huq who gave the Prime Minister’s speech 95% marks. He asked the BNP to accept it and go for the elections. The pessimists saw the proposal as the same one the Prime Minister had toyed with and stated in vague terms in an interview with BBC Bangla in July, last year while on a visit to Britain.

The optimists based their hopes on two reasons. First, the Prime Minister had stepped out of her rigid stand to hold elections under Interim Government that she would head that would include only elected Awami Leaguers as Ministers thus making the election time government an undiluted Awami League government. Instead, she proposed an All Party Government (APG) to which she asked the opposition BNP to nominate Ministers. Second, the Prime Minister did not mention anything in her speech about who would head that APG, leading many to hope that the Prime Minister would step down and give that responsibility to someone who would be acceptable to the BNP.

Short lived optimism
That optimism was short lived. Prime Minister’s aides were quick to pour cold water on that optimism. Adviser HT Imam said categorically that the Prime Minister would head the All Party Government. Another Minister who often acts as the Party spokesman also reiterated the Adviser’s stand and dismissed any possibility that the Prime Minister would let anyone take her place as the Prime Minister of the APG. Prime Minister’s Information Adviser Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury gave his spin to the Prime Minister’s speech that kept some hope alive when he said on a TV Talk Show that the Prime Minister had opened the door for negotiations and what happened to her proposal would eventually depend on how the Opposition reacted to it.

That small hope lit by Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury was dealt a fatal blow when Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) came out with the order banning all types of meetings, demonstrations and democratic protests. The order not just banned public gatherings; it even banned such meetings in private in people’s homes. If the Prime Minister was suggesting a democratic way out of the political impasse through negotiations, then the DMP could not have made that case any worse.
The DMP order was the anti-thesis of democracy and even the Pakistani military rulers had not thought of imposing such draconian measures till they embarked on genocide after 25th March 1971. The DMP order put paid to the little optimism that was left among those who thought that the ball was in the BNP’s court and it should reciprocate to the “olive branch” offered by the AL. AL allies and the civil society that thought the PM’s speech was positive were left wondering how the AL could come out with such an action! Barrister Rafiqul Huq quickly went into reverse gear and condemned the measure.

The Ninian initiative
A slight digression into history would help readers conclude whether those who had been optimistic, like Barrister Rafiqul Huq for instance, were correct in advising the BNP to accept the Prime Minister’s offer. There is an unmistakable historical parallel in what is happening now and what had happened in 1995-96; only the roles between the AL and the BNP have been reversed. In 1995-96, the Constitution had specified unambiguously that the national elections would be held under the incumbent Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, like in all parliamentary democracies. The AL with its ally the Jaamat opposed the Constitution and demanded elections under neutral non-party government of unelected individuals. Sir Ninian Stevens was brought from Australia to mediate under a Commonwealth initiative. He proposed Interim Government for the elections to be headed by Khaleda Zia where there would be 5 Ministers from BNP and 5 from the AL. The AL had rejected that plan with contempt and went to the streets where it brought the government to a standstill with 173 days of hartal.

The AL while doing what it did in 1995-96 was not bothered with the Constitution. It demanded elections under unelected individuals and forced the BNP to do its bidding. It did not care to consider then that unelected individuals could not hold democratic elections as it is insisting now! It forced the BNP to give up holing elections under the Constitution, amend it and insert the “undemocratic” CTG into the Constitution through the 13th amendment. In 2006, the AL declined to contest in the elections under the constitutionally mandated CTG with Justice KM Hasan as its head on the ground that the Justice was some decades ago a member of the BNP that he had given up to become a Judge, rising eventually to be the Chief Justice. The AL felt that the connection that Justice Hasan once had with the BNP would prejudice him in favour of the BNP. The same AL now expected the BNP to participate in elections to be held under an AL government where Sheikh Hasina would remain the Prime Minister.

Trust deficit factor
Apart from these glaring examples of the Awami League’s double standard, there are a few other mitigating factors that show that the AL’s contention about upholding democracy, constitution, etc to deny the BNP elections under neutral non-party government do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Foremost among these mitigating factors is the absence of trust that the AL had used in 1995-96 to force the BNP to abandon the Constitution and insert the “undemocratic” CTG system into the Constitution has deteriorated many times for the worse. At present, the AL and its leaders cannot speak of the BNP and Begum Khaleda Zia without being insulting and abusive. Added to this unbelievable attitude about the opposition, the AL has meantime politicized the civil bureaucracy and police in a manner that no government in the past had done. In fact, in its 1991-96 tenure, the BNP was incompetent but it would be unfair to blame it on the issue of politicization. Importantly, the EC was then not an issue as it is now. The EC then had not become controversial as it is today.

Therefore, to expect that the BNP would go to elections under Sheikh Hasina would be expecting something that the BNP could not do in sane mind. The AL has left the BNP with no alternative but to reject the PM’s offer. Under the current circumstances, if the roles were reversed, it would be un-necessary to predict what the AL would do. Without wasting a moment, the AL would dismiss such an offer into the waste paper basket. Therefore, the BNP’s rejection of the offer did not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s speech was not entirely a wasted one. The Prime Minister has unwittingly moved away from her uncompromising stand taken earlier to deny the BNP’s demand for the CTG. She had earlier argued that she could not oblige the BNP because the Constitution would not allow her.

In her speech, the Prime Minister undermined that constitutional argument. She deviated from the Interim Government to All-Party Government as the election time government. She did not consider it necessary to amend the constitution for the change. Therefore if she wanted, she could accede to the opposition’s demand for the CTG without any constitutional obstacle. Of course, the constitutional obstacle was never a serious one because with the ¾ majority, the AL is in a position to change the Constitution to deal with any situation effortlessly. The Prime Minister has also made it evidently clear that she considered the BNP the only opposition in her quest to return to power. In fact, almost the whole speech except those that were personal has been devoted to the BNP that is a good sign because the Prime Minister, perhaps in the back of her mind, knows that an election without the BNP would not be legitimate, not to mention that without the BNP participating, the AL’s prospects of returning to power and staying there would be impossible. Calamity, with some suggesting a civil war, would engulf Bangladesh to pre-empt that from happening.

Constitution no obstacle
Since the Prime Minister herself has shown the way that given the will, the Constitution is really not an obstacle by her offer of the APG despite there being no such provision in the Constitution, she could step down and nominate someone elected as the Head of the All Party Government. She would then still have the satisfaction of not allowing unelected caretakers to elect the government, the reason she had stated for denying the BNP the caretaker government. All Party Government headed by, for instance the Speaker or the President, would fulfill her demand on elections by elected officials only. The BNP should then be prepared to give up its demand for elections under the CTG of the old vintage and negotiate the other issues for holding free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” general elections which, after the major hurdle of the head of the APG has been negotiated, would not be very difficult to resolve.

The alternative would lead the issue to be decided in the streets. The BNP has already stated so. The results could be disastrous with the possibility of the extra constitutional forces stepping, inevitable to avoid a civil war. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have publicly stated that if politics degenerated to what most people in the country are apprehending, the armed forces would not remain silent. That would be a near fatal blow to democracy. The Prime Minister has repeatedly stressed her determination to fight for democracy; so has the Leader of the Opposition. Therefore, they owe it to the people that the country’s governance would not again go to extra-constitutional forces. Time is running out fast for the government and the opposition to act. At the time of filing this article, two hopeful developments are on the horizon. One is BNP’s counter proposal and second, the news of the phone call between the Secretary Generals of the two parties for starting talks. The optimists can once again hope.

Postscript: HM Ershad dealt the Prime Minister’s offer a major blow the way HT Imam and others wanted it implemented. The Prime Minister invited him and held a highly publicized meeting. As the nation held its breath, strangely the AL’s General Secretary went to the media to inform that the former President had welcomed the PM’s proposal and if the BNP participated in elections, the JP would participate with the AL as an ally. If the BNP stayed away, then the JP would participate alone to become as many suspected, the loyal opposition in the next parliament. HM Ershad came back and stated in the media the AL General Secretary’s statement was “false, unfortunate and baseless”. He stated categorically: “Elections without the participation of all political parties will not be acceptable. In that case, we will also not go to the elections.” That was a knock out blow for the PM’s plan that could succeed only if she stepped down to bring the BNP to the elections.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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