Vol. 5 Num 132 Tue. October 05, 2004  
Front Page

3 years of Coalition rule
Governance pledges remain elusive

The ruling BNP-led alliance completes three years in office on October 10, yet the coalition government has fulfilled none of its major election pledges to improve governance, ensure accountability and transparency in state functioning and strengthen democracy as an institution.

The separation of the judiciary, formation of independent anti-corruption and human-rights commissions and installation of ombudsman -- the key election pledges -- remain elusive as ever.

Apart from its failure to put in place these three instruments and ensure a judiciary independent of interference from the executive wing of the state, it failed to live up to the other pledges of curbing crime, introducing direct elections to reserved seats for women, giving autonomy to radio and television and repealing the abusive Special Powers Act.

The government said time and again it will honour the commitments it had made to people, but it is now clear that they are unwilling to do so. One can conclude that the ruling coalition cares little about strengthening democracy by implementing the four pledges.

Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed keeps saying that the judiciary would be separated within the coalition's tenure and the anti-corruption commission established soon. And yet, the commission has not been constituted to this day. He never stops claiming that the credit for initiating the process of establishing an independent human-rights commission and ombudsman goes to the incumbent government.

For the last three years, the government's only success on this front has been preparation of drafts on the issues that are either pending with the parliamentary standing committees or the cabinet committee or have been left on the back burner.

Despite constitutional bindings to separate the judiciary from the executive wing of the state, no government has ever taken concrete steps to implement them. In 1995, nearly 500 judges of the lower judiciary filed a writ petition with the High Court for separation of the judiciary.

After four years of legal battle between the government and lower court judges, the highest tier of the judiciary finally ordered the government to implement its 12-point directive.

Since then, three successive governments including the caretaker administrations had time extended afresh on 19 occasions by the Appellate Division on different pretexts.

In no instance did the government cite any logical grounds to the court for seeking time petitions. And it seems that the government will take more time from the Supreme Court in the future.

In such a case what will the court do? With no executive power to exercise, it can only warn the government like it did before.

Now the question is if at all will the government implement the directives? The law minister once said it would take at least six years to separate the judiciary, while his deputy argued that it is not a public demand to implement the directives. He also told the press in presence of the law minister that a referendum was mandatory should the government separate the judiciary from the executive.

The Supreme Court on August 17 took the government to task after it failed to specify the time it needs to fully comply with the court directives to separate the judiciary despite having the deadline extended no fewer than 18 times.

It is difficult to assess how much time the government needs to comply with the directives as the entire administration, including the higher authorities, is grappling with the devastating floods, Attorney General AF Hassan Ariff had said quoting a law ministry letter after court rebuked the government.

On August 18, Moudud said the government alone cannot finish the task and needs court's co-operation. However, on August 21, he again said the judiciary cannot be separated from the executive just at the directive of the Supreme Court and both wings need to work in a co-ordinated way to reach the goal.

Such comments only go to show that the fate of the judiciary separation hangs in the balance. The matter is still pending before the SC and 19th time extension petition will be heard on November 9.

In 2001, the caretaker government finalised the process to separate the judiciary. All necessary drafts were prepared for final approval at the last Advisory Council meeting on October 2. But after the October 1 general elections, the ruling BNP chief Khaleda Zia asked Chief Adviser to Caretaker Government Latifur Rahman by telephone to leave the issue for her political government. Khaleda also said BNP's election manifesto had promised judicial separation, pouring cold water on the caretaker government's move.

The government is also sitting on its hands on the formation of an independent anti-corruption commission.

A bill to this end was placed in parliament on July 10 last year and after seven months of discussion and arguments, the bill was passed on February 17 and gazetted on May 9.

A five-member selection body was formed on May 9 to pick a six-member panel for the president to select three of the members to form the commission.

The search body for the anti-corruption commission has short-listed six persons to select the commissioners from.

The chairman of the body, Justice MA Aziz, along with his colleagues submitted the list on August 12 to President Iajuddin Ahmad.

The president will choose one from the short-list as chairman and two as members of the commission.

But the file of the proposed commission is gathering dust at the Prime Ministers office although the law minister had expressed satisfaction over submission of the short-list and told reporters, "Formation of the commission is now a matter of time."

The law minister on September 19 said at an international conference here that differences of opinion among ministers are blocking the efforts to establish a national human-rights commission, as a donor agency representative expressed dissatisfaction at the government's failure to form it.

"I had a great difficulty convincing my cabinet colleagues about the commission which is now under consideration of the cabinet. We are committed to setting up the commission. I hope I will be able to convince my cabinet colleagues about its necessity," he had said.

The draft bill of a National Human Rights Commission, prepared about a year ago, is now on the shelf at the Cabinet Division.

The government formed a cabinet committee led by the law minister on December 10, 2001 to prepare the draft bill. After a series of meetings, the committee finalised the draft and sent it to the Cabinet Division on January 23 last year.

The bill was eventually placed before the cabinet meeting on January 29 same year, but the cabinet sent the bill back to the law ministry for further scrutiny. Since then the draft bill is pending at the ministry.

In 1980, the government passed an act for installation of an ombudsman, and after 22 years, on January 6, 2002, the coalition government brought the act into force through a gazette notification.

However, on February 11, 2002, the law ministry proposed to the cabinet for amendments to some provisions of the act, which, in turn, formed a committee to scrutinise the bill. Since then, no-one knows what has happened to the bill.

It is necessary to rein in the bureaucracy if it is to be made accountable to people and transparency brought about in government functioning. For that, the unfinished task of instituting the Ombudsman, independent anti-corruption and human-rights commissions, and separating the judiciary should be completed without further foot-dragging.