Caretaker system abolished
Parliament yesterday abolished the caretaker government system allowing general elections under elected partisan governments, with the main opposition BNP terming it "throwing the country into a political confrontation".
Islam's status as the state religion was retained and the Arabic phrase "Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim" with its translation "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful/ In the name of the Creator, the Merciful" was made a part of the constitution with the passage of the 15th constitutional amendment bill.
The latest amendment also allowed religion based politics which had been banned on papers last year after the cancellation of the fifth amendment. The fifth amendment's cancellation had restored the ban imposed by the original 1972 constitution.
Yesterday's amendment however restored secularism as one of the four fundamental principles of the state which had been omitted by a martial law regime after the 1975 bloody changeover.
The House took a bold step against military takeover of state power and suspension or cancellation of any provision of the constitution by such usurpers. It made a provision for stringent punishment for such moves terming those as "sedition".
The 15th amendment also imposed a ban on amending the constitution's preamble, basic structure, and some other specific provisions including the just introduced one which makes it mandatory to display the portrait of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in all government offices.
After yesterday it is now clear that the next parliamentary election will be held under the Awami League-led government.
According to the latest amendment, the next parliamentary election will be held within 90 days prior to the current parliament's dissolution.
This means the 10th parliamentary elections will be held at the end of 2013 or at the beginning of 2014 as the tenure of the current parliament will expire on January 24, 2014.
During these 90 days, the parliament will remain, but it will not have any activity as the latest amendment limited its power and functions for that period. But the amendment did not limit the power of the outgoing cabinet during the election.
After the election is held, the lawmakers-elect will not assume office until the five-year tenure of the outgoing parliament expires.
The constitutional amendment act passed yesterday will come into effect on consent of the president.
The amendment introduced new provisions to make the Election Commission stronger to hold parliamentary polls. In case of any election dispute, courts must hear the EC's view before issuing any order.
During passage of the bill, the House however rejected a proposal for forming an election time interim government, consisting of ruling and opposition lawmakers of the outgoing parliament for holding parliamentary polls.
A Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) MP, Mayeen Uddin Khan Badal, proposed that the interim government would be formed consisting of 10 advisers and a chief adviser, and none of them would be able to contest in the immediate upcoming parliamentary election.
Badal in fact echoed one of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's proposals that she had given on April 27 participating in the consultation organised by the parliamentary special committee on constitutional amendment.
"There is no reason to accept any proposal for amending the constitutional amendment bill," Law Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shafique Ahmed said in response to a number of proposals seeking amendments to the bill.
All proposals seeking the bill's amendment were rejected in voice vote as the ruling AL did not have any decision to accept any such proposal.
The House passed the bill with a huge margin of 291 to 1 votes.
Lawmakers belonging to ruling Awami League and its alliance partners -- Jatiya Party, Workers Party, and JSD -- voted for passing the bill. The lone independent lawmaker Fazlul Azim opposed the passage of the bill and staged walkouts three times.
He termed the cancellation of the caretaker government system as a "suicidal" step of the current government, and said the nation will have to pay a high price for "this mistake".
Lawmakers belonging to Workers Party and JSD initially refrained from joining the voting as they were opposing a number of crucial issues including maintaining Islam's status as the state religion, and allowing religion based politics.
The left leaning parties' MPs piloted some proposals for amending the bill on the issues, but their proposals were rejected in voice vote. Finally they cast their votes in favour of the bill following some AL bigwigs' persuasion.
"We wanted to register our objections on different amendment proposals while signing in the vote," Workers Party chief Rashed Khan Menon told The Daily Star.
"As we refrained from participating in voting, some of the senior MP's of Awami League including Tofail Ahmed and Syed Ashraful Islam talked to us over the issue," Menon said.
The House took around three hours since 11:45am to complete the entire process.
Immediately after passage of the bill, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the floor and said through this amendment her government ensured empowerment of the people.
But the cancellation of the caretaker government system, introduced in 1996 by the then BNP-led government, triggered stiff protests from the BNP-led opposition.
They have been reiterating that they will never participate in a parliamentary election under the AL-led government, fearing that the incumbent will manipulate the poll in its favour.
Under the just scrapped caretaker system, after dissolution of a parliament the elected government would hand over power to a non-partisan caretaker government that would provide all sorts of cooperation to the EC to hold a general election within 90 days of the parliament's dissolution, to constitute a new House.
Introduced in the constitution in 1996, the caretaker system has overseen holding of three parliamentary polls, including the last one in 2008 that was swept by the AL-led grand alliance.
All the three parliamentary elections were considered by and large free and fair by local and international observers.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insists that the repeal was necessary after the Supreme Court struck down the 13th amendment to the constitution as illegal.
It was Hasina, the opposition leader in 1994, spearheaded the campaign for installing a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee free and fair polls. The then ruling BNP vehemently opposed the idea until it was forced to bow to the opposition pressure in 1996 in the face of a tumultuous movement.
SOME OTHER CHANGES
Yesterday's amendment to the constitution brought a significant change to the charter, according to which, the legality of trials of war crime suspects, who were not part of any armed force or auxiliary force in 1971, cannot be challenged in any court.
The amendment also restored the original preamble of the 1972 constitution, and included Bangabandhu's historic March 7 speech, his declaration of independence, and the proclamation of independence.
Bangalee nationalism was restored, while citizenship was maintained as Bangladeshi.
It also repealed the provision of displaying portraits of the president and the prime minister in government offices.
The amendment increased the number of reserved seats for women in parliament to 50 from current 45, and restored the original article 70 of the constitution allowing MPs to remain absent from the House if she or he does not want to cast vote on any issue in line with her or his party's decision.
It introduced a new clause for safeguarding and developing the environment and wildlife, under which the state will protect natural resources, biodiversity, water bodies, forest, and wildlife, and preserve and develop the environment for the present and future generations.
According to another new clause, "The state shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects, and communities."