AMID a lot apprehensions and anxieties among the citizens, the election of the 10th Parliament took place on the January 5. In many ways, this election was unique as compared to similar elections held over the years in Bangladesh, especially of the two that took place without the participations of the major opposition political parties. In 1988, the election under the military rule of Ershad was boycotted by the both the major political parties.
However, it was AL that had to be the guinea pig in 1986 election (4th Parliament) to prove that a fair and free election was not possible while Ershad was at the helm of state. In fact, that deduction made the boycott of the 1988 election an absolute. The government that was formed in the aftermath of the election (5th Parliament) had no firm constitutional basis as the 7th Amendment enacted in the 4th Parliament (under martial law), which amongst other things provided constitutional legality of the illegal martial law.
The benefit of the boycott was reaped by the BNP, which won the election of 1991 held under an interim caretaker administration led by Justice Shahbuddin Ahmed. Like in 1988, the boycott of February 1996 was also absolute as BNP had a poor track record of holding local elections, and especially of the infamous Magura and Mirpur bye-elections. The parliament and the government formed out of that election did not have the people's mandate -- albeit not unconstitutional -- as only 5% of the voters participated in the polls. Naturally, the parliament (that enacted the 13th Amendment of CTG government) was short-lived and the election for the 6th Parliament had to be held within weeks.
However, after the two successive elections under CTG system, in 2006 the then PM, blatantly violating not one but three provisions of the constitution, imposed her handpicked President Dr. Iajuddin to the position of the chief adviser. In fact, the political alliance that opposed his assumption as CA displayed statesmanship by not rejecting him outright; instead they gave him the opportunity to prove his neutrality in creating a level playing field for the participants of the ensuing election. Contrary to their expectations, he colluded to implement the blue print of his mentor in 'Hawa Bhaban.' So, the essence of the CTG system was wrecked by Iajuddin-led CTG at the behest of the current leader of the opposition herself.
In the current conflict, it was a question of a non-partisan government or an all-party government. Given the existing constitutional framework and the vagueness of the sketch of the non-partisan government given by the leader of the opposition, the PM's proposal to have an all-party government certainly carried more merit
In fact, an all-party government did not require any amendment to the constitution; its composition should have been (should be, as well) the principal agenda of the dialogue. The PM even asked the opposition to list the ministries it wanted, including the much-desired home ministry, and there was a strong likelihood that the main opposition could have bargained for a few additional important ministerial portfolios that could have been a strong deterrent for any potential fixing of the election results. Many argued that the PM holds such immense power in the current system that it would be impossible for other ministers to function independently. This argument does not hold water since it would have been impossible for the PM to exercise that power to fix the election results.
AL stood on a high moral ground because of the record of holding six thousand or so local elections in a free and fair atmosphere. If there was is any indication of bias during the functioning of the interim government, the opposition cabinet ministers could have availed themselves of all the avenues of recording their protests, including the ultimate action of quitting the cabinet, through the free media. That might have plunged the country into crisis, but AL would have had to bear the brunt of it. In fact, BNP had nothing to lose but all to gain out of it.
In fact, in one of her speeches, the opposition leader declared: “Politics is the art of compromise.” But did she practice it when she told the PM: “You did not accept Justice Hasan, we will not accept you”? In addition, her argument did not hold ground since Justice Hasan was not a candidate of natural progression of the CTG. He was the result of a constitutional manipulation.It was apparent that the opposition was bent on getting rid of the PM to win a victory even before the aspired victory in the election. The pro-BNP intellectuals are constantly propagating that the power of the PM alone is good enough to fix the election results. This had only hardened BNP's stance on the issue.
Now, no matter what, the election has been held. The PM in her post-election news conference said: “Through the elections people have given their mandate in favour of the constitutional process and democracy.” It could be true that voters who got the opportunity braved the hostile environment to cast their ballot “in favour of the constitutional process and democracy,” but this by no means constitutes a mandate for her to govern the state for the next full term. This is more so for the fact that the voters in more than 50% of the ridings did not even get the opportunity to exercise their franchise. This could be at best considered a respite, to give a breathing space for a long term solution.
The opposition leader, on the other hand, opined: “It has been proved that a free, fair and inclusive election is impossible in Bangladesh without a non-party administration and acceptable Election Commission.” Her observation does not hold ground since the government did not have to rig the election for two reasons: firstly, it got more than half of the seats even before the election was held; secondly, since there was no opposition candidate, it had no reason to rig the election. The percentage of voters who cast their ballot does not carry any significance here, since it was already known that the ruling alliance had won the election, dampening the enthusiasm of the remaining voters to exercise their franchise. Those who are terming the election as unconstitutional would be better advised to review the meaning of the assertion, as there is a clear distinction between constitutionality and morality; the former is guided by law and while the latter by ethics.
So, the ruling alliance did not get the opportunity to prove that a free and fair election is indeed possible under a so-called all party government. By the same token, the opposition, through their non-participation, also did not get the opportunity to prove otherwise. So, the election failed to prove or disprove either of the contentions. It is simply a status quo.
The writer is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh.