Sunday, October 27, 2013

The plans: Light at the end of the tunnel

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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam 

The two leaders have spoken. The Prime Minister went first; the BNP leader followed. Understandably, each side rejected the other side’s proposal. Nevertheless, the two proposals have encouraged a nation hostage to the country’s politics of conflict to think that the two parties are considering a negotiated way out of the dangerous political impasse over the way to hold the next elections.

The Prime Minister’s speech raised optimism because she moved from the extreme position of holding elections under Interim Government to be headed by her and a cabinet of Ministers from the Awami League who would be members of the current parliament to All-Party election time Government that would include BNP members of parliament. The Prime Minister also did not mention who would head the All-Party Government leading many to hope that she would step down to encourage the BNP.

That hope was short lived. Prime Minister’s Adviser HT Imam poured cold water on it by stating in the media that the Prime Minister would head the All-Party Government. To make matters worse, the DMP imposed ban on all forms of assembly/meeting, even those held privately in homes. Such draconian measures reminded people of the worst days of the Pakistani times and destroyed the hope that the ruling party intended to hold “inclusive” national elections. The BNP that was under pressure from many quarters, including diplomatic quarters with the British High Commissioner taking a public stand in favour of the Prime Minister’s proposal, took time to respond.

It was good that it did because meantime HT Imam and his colleagues and the DMP undermined the PM’s proposal. Thus when Begum Khaleda Zia rejected the AL proposal and gave the BNP’s plan, the people were convinced that the spin given by HT Imam, et al and the DMP did not leave the BNP any alternative. The BNP offered a new type of the Caretaker Government where the 10 members of the poll time government would be from the Advisers who had served in the 1996 and 2001 Caretaker Governments. The 10 Advisers would be given democratic credentials by having them elected to Parliament indirectly by the current Parliament. The two parties would also choose a Prime Minister by mutual agreement who would also be elected to the post by the present parliament. The plan would take care of a major AL demand that unelected individuals could not elect a democratic government.

The Plan has another interesting angle. The 1996 CTG had elected the AL to power; the 2001, the BNP. Besides these positive points, polls in the country, particularly the much talked about one conducted by Prothom Alo had shown that over 90% people favoured the CTG for resolution of the impasse over the poll time government. The BNP Plan resembles one floated recently by The Dhaka Forum (TDF) at a seminar held in end of September. Members of TDF, former Governor of Bangladesh Bank Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed and former bureaucrat AM Raza Chowdhury wrote articles on the TDF plan that was carried in the newspapers.

The AL rejected the BNP proposal outright on the same reasons it had articulated before; that the BNP Plan revived the CTG system that is unconstitutional and undemocratic. The AL did not take into account the fact that the BNP plan intended to elect the caretaker government indirectly by the present parliament. The civil society leaders however received the BNP proposal positively but they felt that the implementation would be difficult. They concluded that the proposal would need acceptance by the AL for, among other things, to carry out the necessary constitutional amendment. The BNP Plan also has some inherent problems. Some Advisers of the 2 CTG Governments of 1996 and 2001 have died, some have crossed the age limit of 72 years and two have privately declined to be considered for the BNP’s proposed CTG.

The AL’s plan is constitutionally the correct one. But then the constitutional argument for the AL plan is a weak one because it is really the Prime Minister’s personal plan that her party is circulating as something sacrosanct that cannot be touched or altered. It is now known to everybody that the Court that had annulled the CTG had recommended two more elections under it. The Parliamentary Committee that had drafted the 15th Amendment wanted to accept the Court’s recommendation. 8 of the 10 Amicus Curie that the Committee had asked for opinion also had recommended two elections under the CTG. In the end, the 15th Amendment did not accept the necessity of any more elections under the CTG because the Prime Minister alone willed it so.

The Prime Minister with her plan has moved away from the Interim Government to All party Government underlining the fact that if she wished, the constitutional hurdle is not a serious one. She could within the constitution accept the BNP’s plan or use her party’s 3/4th majority to make the amendment to accommodate the plan easily and effortlessly. Further, the AL should pause a while and take a look at the country’s politics in 1995-96. At that time, it had dismissed Sir Ninian Steven’s plan that was exactly what it is now suggesting to the BNP. The AL, after dismissing Sir Ninian’s plan went to the streets and forced the BNP to amend the Constitution so that an “undemocratic” caretaker government would conduct elections.

There are a few more mitigating factors that the AL should consider. First, in 1995-96, the lack of trust between it and the BNP was not as bitter as it is now. Meanwhile, the civil bureaucracy and police administration have been politicized and the EC has become controversial unlike in 1995-96. Therefore, the AL would need to reconsider the Prime Minister’s plan and make concessions to it for reasons that it can refuse to accept only by denial. The BNP would also need to show signs of compromise on the plan it gave because it would need the assistance of the AL for its Plan to have any impact at all. There are ifs and buts in the Plan that realistically cannot move even a little without the AL giving it the helping hand.

Nevertheless, the two plans, despite their problems, have achieved something that has emerged as the only positive sign in the country’s politics for a long time. People are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel that the two parties are responding to each other, albeit still in a manner of conflict instead of compromise. The General Secretaries of the two parties have spoken. The nation is waiting expectantly almost kneeling in prayer. In any case, the outcome is almost entirely in the hands of the ruling party as it is almost always in case of conflict between a party in power and another in opposition. It could either strengthen its own Plan by ensuring that someone acceptable to all parties, including the BNP, would head the All-Party Government.

Alternatively, it could give the BNP’s plan the go ahead with necessary amendments in the details, as it may consider necessary. Among the public, the consensus is that the election time government should not be headed by either of the two leaders leading the two mainstream parties. In fact, it is not just the public that feels that the crucial issue upon which a settlement hinges is who would head the poll time government. The BNP has stated this time that the incumbent Prime Minister should not head it. The AL had said so in 1995-96. The people expect the two parties to stand by their public commitments.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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