M. Serajul Islam
It is past time for the Awami League to reflect on its current predicament that cannot be a happy one from the way its leaders are speaking and publicly contradicting one another. It is incomprehensible that a party with such a rich history and tradition can be doing such things in the country’s politics. It lost the city corporation elections badly. Instead of taking lessons, it blamed the people for electing “corrupt” and “terrorist” candidates. Yet it called the elections free and fair to dismiss the opposition’s call for the caretaker government!
In frustration, the ruling party raised scores of billboards to highlight the successes of the AL led government to encourage people to vote in its favour and against wrong candidates. It, however, did not realize that it had no right to raise these billboards because the space on which they raised these billboards was legally the property of private businesses that had paid for the space! Under fire from the public, the billboards were quickly taken down but meanwhile the AL led government was seen by the public as reflecting the same mindset as that of its student and youth wings which has earned peoples’ disapproval.
To compound its miseries, two important ministers contradicted each other when
journalists asked them on who raised the billboards and who took them down. One
important minister feigned ignorance while another powerful minister proudly owned government sponsorship of these billboards! Ministers of the AL led government have been regularly contradicting one another on all major issues of governance. Most recently, the public contradictions exchanged by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Communications has embarrassed the nation although strangely the government went into denial over it.
AL’s suicidal move
The strange decision of the Election Commission (EC) to ask the Government to annul Article 91(E) of the Representation of People’s Order and thereby weaken it that everybody thought was like the EC shooting itself in the leg was another inexplicable action of the AL led Government and one would suspect correctly that the EC took the action on the government’s advice. At a time when the government is trying to convince the nation that the EC is powerful and independent to conduct the next parliamentary elections, this was a suicidal move. However, some have suggested that this move is an insurance policy of the ruling party in the event the next elections were to be inclusive. In the absence 91(E), opposition parties would be unable to contest election results where electoral laws would be violated.
In fact these actions of the ruling party are palpable signs of desperation to hang on to power at any cost for fear of retribution in case it lost power. In what can only be described as the ultimate act of desperation in a series of such desperate acts, one former minister has taken the cake. This former minister did not blink an eyelid when he said at a party gathering recently that if next parliamentary elections were not held for whatever reasons, then by virtue of the 15thamendment of the Constitution that the ruling party passed in its current term, the present government would continue to remain in power indefinitely, “democratically” and “constitutionally!” Ministers and party leaders have given spin to the minister’s statement that has caused widespread concern among the public about the government’s intentions.
The 15thamendment, as readers would no doubt recollect, scrapped the caretaker government (CTG) from the Constitution and replaced in its place the party government for conducting parliamentary elections for passage of one elected government to the next. The ruling party introduced the 15th amendment based on a Supreme Court ruling that elections under CTG were undemocratic because only elected representatives could hold democratic elections. The Court also recommended that the next two parliamentary elections could be held under the CTG in view of the conflict between the two mainstream parties. The ruling party used its 3/4th majority in parliament, with the opposition abstaining, for passing the15thamendment but ignored the Court’s recommendation for holding the next two elections under the CTG.
The 15th amendment was hurried through in record time in parliament. Soon after it was passed, constitutional analysts pointed out two elements that they felt contradicted tenets of parliamentary democracy. First, it allowed the next parliament to be elected while the present one would remain un-dissolved, something unheard of in parliamentary democracy. Second, it left vague what would happen in the event elections were not held for any reasons. Some constitutional analysts felt that the issue of what would happen in case elections were not held was kept vague deliberately; that it was a ”conspiracy” to allow the ruling party to remain in power till the opposition agreed to participate in elections conducted under it.
In fact, when the former minister made his statement, he inadvertently lent credence to the “conspiracy” theory to which many had alluded. Surely, a country with even the minimum semblance of democracy cannot imagine that a government would remain in power after its term was over without an election. It could happen only when the country was in war where the option definitely would be not to allow the existing government to remain in power but to form a national government and hold elections as soon as the external threat was over. In case civil disturbances made it impossible to hold national elections, the democratic/constitutional option would be to declare emergency under the President to create the conditions so that national elections could be held as quickly as possible for elected government to return.
The ruling party is making this weird argument that it would remain in power on the excuse that elections would not be held due to the opposition’s fault. If this weird contention were accepted for sake of argument, the ruling party would need to make efforts with the opposition to hold “inclusive” national elections before extending its own tenure. That does not seem to be the case. The Prime Minister has most recently said her party would not budge even an inch in the matter on opposition’s demand. The ruling party General Secretary has said that the ruling party would not hold discussions with the opposition over conducting the next national elections under any circumstances.
The weird contention that the ruling party would remain in power indefinitely if elections were not held due to its conflict with the opposition on the issue of the CTG would sound even more hollow and untenable because apart from the Court’s recommendation, the CTG has today become the demand of the people.
Independent polls conducted by most national dailies have shown that the demand for national elections under a non-party government is today a national demand. In fact, apart from the Prime Minister, her inner circle and ruling party activists, there is a consensus among the people that the country would inevitably slide its greatest political crisis since becoming independent unless elections were held under a neutral non-party government in which the opposition would be able to participate.
There is of course the ruling party’s current predicament in the country’s politics to add to the absurdity of its demand/desire to remain in power indefinitely under the 15th amendment. It is on a very weak turf to be making the demand as its political fortunes are on the decline. In insisting on something so incredible, it is only reminding many people of the BAKSAL or the 4th Constitutional amendment by which the ruling party in 1974 had hoped to remain in power perpetually. The 4th amendment was introduced when the AL was the only political party in the country and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s towering personality as the party leader and the Father of the Nation was there to back the BAKSAL amendment. Yet the BAKSAL amendment failed.
The BAKSAL framework
At a time when the ruling party is challenged seriously by the BNP and in serious trouble with voters for making a mess of governance, even the thought of remaining in power after completing its tenure would just raise the ghost of BAKSAL that had kept the ruling party in political wilderness for over 2 decades. The AL would do itself great good to keep in mind that it was Sheikh Hasina’s promise in 1996 to give the party another chance by forgetting BAKSAL that had encouraged the people to return it to power under the CTG that it forced the BNP led Government to introduce into the Constitution as an amendment.
Attempting to hang on to power under the illogical and un-democratic interpretation of the 15th amendment would only encourage people to think that the ruling party is bent upon returning the country to the BAKSAK framework. In its current predicament and changes in international politics, it does not need a crystal ball to predict that it would fail and send the ruling party to another long tryst with political wilderness. Unfortunately, if the ruling party would insist to go that way, the country would suffer consequences too dangerous even to contemplate.
There is however another possibility that the ruling party could care to consider. If it insisted on what this former minister stated, then the disturbances that are certain to follow would inevitably send power to the hands of the extra-constitutional forces for only in a state of extreme denial or fantasy could the AL expect to use the 15th amendment to become the permanent government and expect the BNP/opposition forces and the rest of the nation to remain silent spectator.
‘Third force’ looming
If the extra-constitutional forces entered politics, it would only be for doing what the AL would fail, namely hold free, fair and “inclusive” elections. That would be exactly what the BNP is demanding; only those elections would not be immediate but perhaps after 3 or 6 months that the BNP would be only happy to wait. The armed forces learnt it the last time how its popularity nosedived when General Moin and his cohorts wanted to perpetuate power. It would be reasonable therefore to expect that the present army would not want to hang around for too long to incur public disapproval and hold the elections, hand over power to the elected representatives and leave. That would save the country from a disaster and earn the armed forces public adulation.
If politics went that way, the ruling party would be making another stupendous mistake to the series of mistakes it has been making these days. It would seriously put in jeopardy the party’s claim that it spearheaded the movement for a democratic Bangladesh. The only reasonable option for the ruling party for its own sake and that of the nation would be to amend the 15th amendment, plug the gap on its vagueness, hold negotiations with the opposition and find the way to hold free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” national elections.
Trying to hang on to power under the weird interpretation of the 15th amendment that strikes democratic ethos in the core would no doubt fail and leave the ruling party holding the BAKSAL flag.
[The writer is a former career Ambassador]