Friday, November 15, 2013

Let the people speak in a referendum

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Monday, 11 November 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
Description: rintDescription: DF
In our constitution the people are still the sovereign despite its many amendments each of which has reflected the will of the party that carried it out. It is a matter of concern at the way the political parties are using the constitution that the sovereign status of the people may not last very long. Before they lose that status in the constitution, the people must consider urgently about exercising their sovereign status at what is politically the most critical time in the history of the country. It is time for “we the people” in whose names the Constitution has been scribed, to stand up and speak for if they do not, there may not be the country for which the constitution was framed.

The ruling party amended the constitution the 15th time upon coming to power in January 2009. The 15th amendment is a large document and in it, many issues have been considered. However, it has become controversial because of its annulment of the Caretaker Government (CTG) as the election time government and replacing it with Interim Government (IG). This part of the 15th Amendment has pushed the country towards the crisis that has now engulfed the country in a fight between the Awami League and the BNP that, at the time of writing this article, is showing all the signs of taking the country towards a great calamity.

The BNP has opposed this aspect of the 15th Amendment. The BNP is afraid that it would not have a level playing ground in a national election where the incumbent Prime Minister would head the election time government with a cabinet of ministers from her party. The BNP also argues that in 1996, the Awami League had refused to participate in elections under Interim Government, the same type of election time government that was in the constitution before it forced  the BNP to annul that by the 13 Amendment in 1996 and establish the CTG as the election time government. The AL had forced the BNP government to replace the Interim Government with the Caretaker Government because it did not feel elections under Interim Government would be free and fair.

The BNP also argues that additional issues have enhanced their concern that election under Interim Government has no chance to be free or fair. These issues are extreme politicization of the civil bureaucracy and the police and an EC that it cannot trust.
Independent opinion polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of the people of the country share the concerns of the BNP and therefore want elections under the CTG. Bangladesh’s development partners and the United Nations have also put their hats into play and have urged the AL and the BNP for resolving their differences to hold free, fair, transparent and inclusive national elections.

In a rare diplomatic move, China that has never thought it diplomatic to involve itself in the conflict ridden and turbulent politics of Bangladesh has also urged the two mainstream parties to sit down and talk to find a way out of the current political predicament in the country. In fact, there is a clear consensus in the country for the two parties to negotiate and find the way to hold “inclusive” national election. These developments make one thing clear; that outside the ruling party, the people and all stakeholders are on the same page; that the only way for the country to move forward is to ensure election where all parties would be able to participate.
The AL led government so far has remained firm on the issue of election. It is unwilling to acknowledge the argument of the BNP that it had refused to take part in the type of election that it is now insisting upon the BNP. The ruling party has further argued that the playing field is level because the Election Commission is independent and under it, the country has had many thousands local government elections in which the opposition backed candidates have done better than the ruling party.

The AL’s main reason for refusing to the opposition’s CTG is that it would not be constitutional because of the 15th Amendment. It is not willing to accept how this Amendment has been brought about; that the Court that set the ball rolling had recommended two elections under the CTG; the parliamentary committee that drafted it also were unanimous to accept the court’s recommendation that has been set aside by the Prime Minister.

The ruling party also is unwilling to accept the BNP’s claims that civil and police administration have been politicized and the EC is incompetent. It insists that the EC has held over 5000 local government elections freely and fairly in which the opposing backed candidates have won the majority of seats and hence dismisses the views of the BNP about the EC.
On the same constitutional argument, the ruling party has refused to heed the opinion of the people expressed in the polls as well as the urgings of Bangladesh’s friends abroad. The Prime Minister has been willing only to shift from all Awami League Interim Government to All-Party Interim Government where she has offered some Ministries to the BNP. Although the Prime Minister did not mention in her plan that she gave in a nationalized TV address who would be the Prime Minister in the APG, her Ministers/colleagues have unequivocally said it would be Sheikh Hasina holding that position.  The whole controversy has narrowed down to whether Sheikh Hasina would remain as the head of the government under which the elections would be held. The AL insists she will; the BNP demands she must step down.
The Prime Minister raised people’s hopes by making a telephone call to Begum Zia for talks. That has petered out under unfortunate circumstances that have underlined the lack of trust factor even more. Thus Bangladesh today stands on the edge of the precipice where neither party is willing to acknowledge that if they do not compromise, they would fall over the edge and take the country with them. It is in this cross road of our political destiny that we need to revisit the Constitution not from the point of the view of the political parties but from the sovereign’s viewpoint. As sovereign, let the people get together and demand a simple solution. Let them decide where the politicians have failed. Let the national elections pause and let there be a referendum to allow the people tell the politicians what to do.

The solution is so simple that it is a wonder why the civil society did not articulate it so far. Let the civil society take over the Shahabag Chattar on people’s behalf. Let them set the Projonmo aside that has failed the nation after raising expectations because they pursued a narrower agenda, its national importance notwithstanding, became politically partisan and failed to rise to the imminent dangers facing the country. Let the people demand from Shahabag that the political parties must end holding people hostage for realising their selfish ends. Let them demand from the government a referendum to tell the Awami League and the BNP whether they want the 10th Parliament to be elected by the Interim Government or the Caretaker Government. Let the people take the fate of their country in their own hands and tell the politicians in no uncertain terms that they will not allow them to play with their present and future because they are the sovereigns.

Let the people take over Shahabag and not leave till their demand for a referendum is met.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and a member of The Dhaka Forum

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