Tuesday, June 7, 2011

PM's Stance On Caretaker Provision Likely To Touch Of A Political Crisis

THE stance that the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has taken in respect of the provision for election-time non-party caretaker government, i.e. it should be totally scrapped, points to a dramatic change of heart on her part and tends to undermine the consultative process that the special parliamentary committee on constitution amendment conducted, involving civil society, intelligentsia, professional groups, political and social organisations, media, etc. The prime minister is quoted in a report front-paged in New Age on Tuesday to have told the committee during a four-hour meeting on Monday that ‘as the [ Supreme Court] verdict has declared the caretaker government provision illegal, any elections under a caretaker government will be void.’ She also said the committee should go by the verdict of the court first, not its observation that the provision could stay for the next two general elections. Notably, as recently as on May 13 , the prime minister asked the parliamentary committee to find out ways to retain the provision without violating the court’ s verdict. On April 27 , when leading a delegation of the ruling Awami League in the consultation meeting with the committee, she proposed some changes to the provision and even went to the extent of suggesting that the caretaker administration should be formed with five members each from the ruling party and the opposition. Here, it is also pertinent to note that the special committee on May 28 prepared a draft, on completion of the consultation process, proposing two alternative caretaker government models for the next two general elections, for the prime minister to choose from. By asking the committee to have the provision scrapped altogether, Hasina has essentially proved that the consultation was a futile exercise in the first place and, by implication, her opinion prevails over anyone else’s—so much for her government’s promise for democratic changes in governance and politics. Hasina also said the committee should retain Islam as state religion and Bismillah, including its Bangla translation, in the constitution, which is ironical, given her and her party’s self- professed commitment to building a secular-democratic state founded on the ideals and values of the war of independence. In sum, the amendment that the special parliamentary committee now looks set to propose is unlikely to bring about any meaningful changes in the constitution. Thus, it would not be far-fetched to conclude that the entire exercise may have simply been a political game of chess, ultimately geared towards securing the incumbent government’s control over the electoral process. Importantly still, the recent development could only reinforce the suspicion that the Awami League-led government may actually have manipulated the judiciary to secure verdicts on one constitutional amendment after another with a view to furthering its partisan interests. Indeed, governance by an unelected administration, even for a brief period of time, is antithetic to the core principles of democracy and we have no reason to support perpetuation of the election-time caretaker government system. However, there is hardly any reason to believe that the prime minister and her party are seeking to scrap the provision out of their commitment to democracy or democratic governance. Had it been so, they would not have fought for the system in the mid- 1990 s in the first place. Besides, there would at least have been some visible efforts on their part to strengthen the Election Commission on the one hand and democratise their action and attitude on the other. There is hardly any reason to believe either that the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which opposed the provision when in power in the mid-1990 s, is now demanding its retention out of its commitment to democratic principles. It is only too obvious that, while their stances on the issue may be different, their objective is essentially the same: one wants to retain power and the other wants to return to power. In such circumstances, a political crisis may very well be on the cards. If a crisis were to unfold, the responsibility would be the prime minister’s and the prime minister’s alone. After all, the special parliamentary committee on constitution amendment, predominantly composed of ruling party members, did propose retention of the caretaker provision with some modifications. Most importantly, the impending crisis could cause a serious setback to the existing political process, which, needless to say, the nation can ill-afford. Hence, she would be well-advised to reconsider her position and not push the country to the brink of political uncertainties.