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     Volume 4 Issue 40 | April 1, 2005 |

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The Caretaker
Government Issue


Shamim Ahsan

Our political condition seems to be heading for a definite deadlock over the issue of reform of the caretaker government (CG) system. The issue was very much in the air, making rounds for quite some time now. Finally, at a roundtable on March 14, the AL and their allies formally spelt out their demand of reforming the caretaker government system. PM Khaleda Zia while speaking on a thanksgiving motion to the president's speech scornfully rejected the demand, terming it "irrational". She also jeered at the AL-sponsored roundtable, saying, "nothing worthwhile will come of roundtables or street agitation on the issue". The PM's rejection was quickly followed by the AL's threat that they would not take part in or allow any elections under the existing CG system.

AL believes it has specific grounds for demanding reform in the existing system. It points fingers at the new law the alliance government enacted last year that raises the retirement age of the Supreme Court judges to 67 from the erstwhile 65. According to the existing system, the immediate past chief justice (CJ) is to become the chief adviser of the interim caretaker government. The AL believes the new law of raising the age of judges was manufactured by BNP so that they could have 'their man' as the head of the caretaker government.

The law minister Barrister Moudud Ahmed, who has mastered the art of covering shrewd thinking with his mellifluous voice, claimed to have framed this law for the greater cause of justice. He claimed the shortage of senior and talented judges has prompted him to defer the retirement age by two years. And the extended service from the most experienced judges, he asked us to believe, would only serve the people better in terms of getting justice in the courts.

Sounds sweet, but isn't he the same law minister, who has been playing an instrumental role in delaying the separation of judiciary from the executive, which was one of BNP's topmost election pledges? So, when he is actively delaying the process that would bring about basic changes in our justice system and would serve the greatest to the cause of justice, why would people believe that he has made the law to raise the age of retirement for the cause of justice?

Besides, if BNP had no ill intentions behind raising the service period of the justices, as Moudud would have us believe, why should it have any objections to agreeing to AL's demands? AL's main objection to the existing CG system is the provision that allows only the immediate past CJ to become the head of the CG. As the head of the CG, AL and its allies want someone who is acceptable to everyone, and that accepted-by-all person can be from any background, including that of the judiciary. What problems BNP might possibly have to accept this proposal unless, of course, it has any plans to manipulate the election results in their favour, for which they certainly need their man at the helm of affairs?

Besides, the provision of the immediate past chief justice becoming the chief advisor of the CG seems to also have a side effect, and a negative one for that matter. Eminent lawyer Barrister Amirul Islam hinted that signs of unholy competition can already be seen among some judges who are in the short list of the probable chief justices. The aspirant judges are desperate to prove their loyalty to the present government, as that is what has become the required quality. Given the recent trend of politicisation of the judiciary these years, Islam's hints seem quite plausible, which is worrying to say the least.

Other reform proposals made at the roundtable include: the caretaker government shouldn't take any policy decision; the president won't have any ministry in his charge (under the existing system the defence ministry is controlled by the president); the charge of all the law-enforcing agencies should be at the hands of the EC, etc. No doubt, these proposals by the opposition parties are based on their practical experience of the last three elections and therefore merit close scrutiny. Outright refusal by the government won't take us anywhere.

Another significant demand that came out of the roundtable was establishment of an independent Election Commission. The fact that elections from local to national levels are won more often by black money, muscle power and manipulation of religious feelings than popular support shows how impotent and worthless the EC is. Renowned lawyer and framer of our constitution, Dr. Kamal Hossain suggested that the EC would have to be given financial autonomy and the power to investigate into election-related irregularities besides making it a truly independent institution. Others opined that the EC should have its own personnel to conduct elections freely and fairly.

No doubt, the EC's dependence on the government for manpower and budgetary allocation makes it hard for the EC to wield even whatever limited authority it enjoys. The by-election of Dhaka 10 was a good illustration of the helplessness of our EC. The EC could not execute even the court order of employing army personnel at every centre for the government's deliberate and unconstitutional interference. So, if the government refuses to accept strengthening the EC, wouldn't it mean that it wants to take advantage of the EC's weakness once again as it did in the Dhaka 10 by elections?

So far, the government has firmly refused the reform demand. Law minister Moudud Ahmed has opined that "CG is a settled issue and one of the basics of the Constitution". But, things in the Constitution can also be changed. Don't we have 13 amendments in our constitution? Besides, no man-made system is infallible. As a system undergoes the ever-changing political, social and economic conditions it has to be continuously modified and re-modified to meet new challenges.

The caretaker government system is also not faultless. The fact that the losing parties in the last three general elections conducted by the caretaker governments have alleged vote-rigging amply testifies to this. Finally, the amendments the opposition has so far proposed in no way put BNP in disadvantageous position, do they? Rather, it seems they would make the CG system work better and more efficiently.

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