The Blunder Game
Have we learnt from our political past or will history
repeat itself, asks SHAKHAWAT LITON.
It is a universally proven political philosophy that if top politicians of a country commit a blunder, then people in general have to suffer from the wrongdoing. The blunder also contributes largely to changing the course of the country's political history. This philosophy has been proven true several times in Bangladesh since the restoration of democracy through a mass upsurge against the autocratic ruler, HM Ershad.
Unfortunately, our senior politicians of the major political parties -- particularly the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) -- seem to have failed to learn from their mistakes. Whenever they go to power, they seem to forget their political wisdom and follow the wrong path. The way they behave exposes their strong desire to remain in power permanently by any means. The opposition parties, on the other hand, become desperate to return to power even by paralysing the country's economy and causing immense sufferings to people through enforcing different street agitations like hartals, blockade, etc.
Both the AL and the BNP have taken desperate measures for the sole purpose of gaining or clinging to power. The BNP joined hands with the anti-liberation forces -- the Jamaat-e-Islami -- while the AL formed electoral alliance with the deposed autocratic ruler HM Ershad's Jatiya Party.
The political parties failed to demonstrate maturity in their behaviour and therefore democracy in our country could not grow over the past two decades. And taking advantage of the situation, the deposed dictator HM Ershad has become vocal again to portray a rosy picture of his autocratic rule since 1982 to 1990 and he is now dreaming of returning to power.
The prevailing situation has obviously reduced credibility of current politics and politicians among the people. One can say the country's politics has become a game of committing blunders by politicians. People fear a massive political unrest in the days to come, centring the next parliamentary polls as the game of committing blunders continues!
The said universally proven philosophy was once again proven right at the end of 2006 in Bangladesh when the country experienced a volatile political situation due to some grave political mistakes committed by the then BNP-led alliance government and top leaders of then ruling BNP.
The first was increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court judges by two years through amending the constitution in 2004. The amendment generated huge controversy; the then opposition parties led by the AL alleged that the government increased the service age of judges to make it legal for then chief justice K M Hasan to lead the next caretaker government that would assist the Election Commission (EC) to hold the ninth parliamentary election in January 2007. The opposition camp vehemently refused to accept Justice Hasan as the caretaker chief.
In the face of strong opposition, Justice Hasan declined to assume office of the chief adviser of the caretaker government at the end of 2006. After his refusal, AL-led alliance proposed former chief justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, who retired before justice Hasan as chief justice, become the chief adviser. But the BNP-led alliance opposed the proposal by proposing then President Iajuddin Ahmed, who was elected as president by the BNP-led ruling alliance, as chief adviser. Iajuddin merrily accepted the BNP's proposal and assumed the office of the chief adviser, in addition to his presidency, ignoring constitutional provisions containing other alternatives.
Assuming office of the head of the caretaker government, Iajuddin started functioning on the advice of some BNP leaders. Therefore, he miserably failed to demonstrate neutrality of his government's administration. Seething with frustration, four advisers of the Iajuddin-led caretaker administration resigned, deepening the political crisis. At one stage, AL-led alliance announced that they would boycott and resist the ninth parliamentary polls scheduled for January 22, 2007. But on advice of BNP, the Iajuddin-led caretaker administration was desperate to hold the scheduled polls. But they failed to do so due to mounting street violence.
Finally, the armed forces appeared on the political scene and forced Iajuddin to step down as the chief adviser and declared the state of emergency on January 11, 2007. Following the declaration of the state of emergency, the parliamentary polls scheduled for January 22, 2007 were suspended for indefinite period. Not only people, many politicians including AL chief Sheikh Hasina and BNP chief Khaleda Zia had to suffer from the unconstitutional rule of the emergency regime. The eventful and prolonged emergency regime ended through holding of the ninth parliamentary election on December 29, 2008. The BNP faced a huge debacle in the election, the poorest performance in the history of the party. Even the BNP had to experience a split during the emergency regime. The wave of imposed intra-party reform also hit the AL. The AL narrowly escaped from split, finally.
The intra-party reforms were aimed at freeing the AL and BNP from the grips of Hasina and Khaleda. But the aftermath of the abortive efforts appeared to be even more dangerous. Both the top leaders have successfully consolidated their grip and they have become more powerful in their respective parties than any time in past. Therefore, developing a democratic practice within the parties has become a distant cry again.
BNP chief Khaleda Zia however on August 2 at a closed door meeting of the BNP National Standing Committee finally admitted that it was a mistake to make then President Iajuddin Ahmed the chief adviser to the caretaker government in 2006. According to media reports, Khaleda also went on to say that she should not have opposed then chief justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury becoming the chief adviser instead of Iajuddin. But Khaleda Zia did not admit that her party also made a grave blunder by not allowing Iajuddin Ahmed to perform independently as the chief adviser -- or if she did, the media did not report it.
Khaleda Zia and her party committed another grave mistake when in power between 1991-1996. Her party rigged the 1994 Magura by-polls, which made stronger the opposition parties' demand for introduction of the caretaker government system to oversee the parliamentary election. And by refusing to meet the opposition parties' demand, the then BNP-led government continued to commit political mistakes.
At one stage, lawmakers belonging to opposition AL, Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami resigned from Parliament and continued street agitation to meet their demand. But the then BNP-led government appeared uncompromising and dissolved the then parliament without resolving the problem. Amid violent street agitation by opposition parties, the farcical parliamentary polls were held on February 15, 1996. In face of non-cooperation movement launched by the then opposition parties, the BNP-led government formed through the February farcical polls could not continue in office. They hurriedly amended the Constitution introducing the caretaker government system in March 1996 and dissolved the parliament, clearing the way for fresh polls on June 12, 1996.
AL: Going down the same road?
By introducing the caretaker government system, the then BNP-led government corrected its mistake in 1996 which resolved the political crisis then. But the BNP's strategy to make Iajuddin chief adviser and its undue interference in the functions of the Iajuddin-led caretaker government made the system controversial.
The AL-led government, for its part, committed a major blunder by abolishing the caretaker government system by amending the Constitution in June 2011. In so doing, it used the Supreme Court's verdict that declared the unelected government illegal and void in May 2011. The apex court in its short order suggested practising the system for two more parliamentary elections. But the AL-led government did not pay heed to the apex court's suggestion and abolished the system although the copy of the full verdict has yet to be released.
The cancellation of the caretaker government system has triggered widespread fear of political unrest ahead of the next parliamentary polls. It cleared the way for the AL-led government to remain in office during the next polls. But the BNP-led opposition parties have announced that they would not contest the polls if the AL remains in power during the elections. They have been demanding restoration of the caretaker government system.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her colleagues in the cabinet and party have been rejecting the opposition's demand. Hasina, however, has recently come up with a proposal regarding the formation of "a small cabinet" during the polls. According to her proposal, the small cabinet will be formed comprising MPs belonging to ruling and opposition parties. The opposition camp rejected her proposal outright. In fact, the opposition seems to be following in the footsteps of Hasina and her party of 1994. When the country was reeling under the same political uncertainty that it is facing now, a special envoy from the Commonwealth, secretary general Sir Ninian Stephen, came to Dhaka in October 1994 proposing a formula to the ever-feuding two main political parties.
According to Ninian's formula, an 11-member cabinet would be formed with the incumbent prime minister in the chair. Five cabinet members would be from the ruling party and five others from the opposition. The interim cabinet would give all-out support to the EC for holding free and fair parliamentary polls.
The then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia had agreed to the formula. But Sheikh Hasina rejected the idea, saying it would be a multi-party government, but they wanted a non-partisan government. Therefore, the efforts of Sir Ninian along with those of some eminent citizens and diplomats failed to break the deadlock.
With the proposal regarding the formation of a small cabinet, PM Hasina seems to have tried to outplay her political opponents. Although she did not elaborate how the small cabinet will be formed and what its structure will be, the government and the ruling AL do not see, sincere enough with regard to resolving the growing political crisis right now. So, it will be unwise to expect that the opposition will accept Hasina's proposal.
Scrapping the caretaker government system is not the only problem. By amending the Constitution last year, the AL-led government revived a peculiar constitutional provision that says parliamentary polls will be held within 90 days prior to the expiry of a parliament's tenure. If a parliament is dissolved before its tenure ends, the election will be held within 90 days of its dissolution.
The odd provision had actually been present in Bangladesh Constitution since 1972. But the rule did not apply as none of the parliaments since then and until 2001 actually completed their tenures.
Through the amendment, the AL-led government cleared the way for all MPs to remain as MPs when they will seek re-election in parliamentary polls. This raises the question of whether there would be a level playing field during the next election.
Countries like the UK, the birthplace of the Westminster system, India, the world's largest parliamentary democracy, New Zealand, Canada and Australia do not have such provisions in their constitutions. Parliaments in those countries are dissolved before elections.
So, the Constitution should be amended again to repeal the provision to ensure that the next polls will be held after dissolution of the current parliament. Or the prime minister must announce that the next parliamentary election will be held after dissolution of the current Jatiya Sangsad. And in that case, she will have to advise the president to dissolve the House 90 days before expiry of its tenure so that the election could be held in the next 90 days.
In defence of staying in office during the next parliamentary polls, PM Hasina and her party colleagues have been citing holding free and fair polls to different local government bodies and by-polls to some parliamentary constituencies. They should keep in mind that holding polls to local government bodies and the Jatiya Sangsad is not the same thing. The ruling party leaders are also saying that it is the EC that will conduct the next parliamentary polls and the government is working to strengthen the commission. Unfortunately, the government has taken no move to strengthen the EC in the last three and half a years, although the ruling AL in its electoral manifesto promised to continue electoral reforms. By refraining from taking steps to bring electoral reforms to strengthen the EC, the AL-led government missed the opportunity to drum up people's support to its electoral commitment.
What will happen if this situation continues and the BNP-led opposition combine do not join the next polls? Will Ershad-led Jatiya Party, a key component of AL-led ruling alliance, contest the next polls alone resulting in its chief becoming the leader of the opposition in the next parliament? What will happen if Jatiya Party quits the alliance and declares to boycott the polls under the AL-led government? Will it be possible for the AL-led government to go ahead and hold the polls amid boycott by the BNP-led opposition combine? What will be the reactions of different foreign countries who are speaking in favour of a participatory parliamentary election?
If there is no consensus between the ruling AL and BNP to break the growing political impasse, many political analysts fear a repeat of political turmoil such as the one which took place at the end of 2006 and early 2007. If this is so, will it be possible to hold the parliamentary polls? Or will a February 15, 1996-like election be held? Only time will tell whether the AL has learnt from the mistakes of the past -- or go back down the blundering path.
Shakhawat Liton is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.