Running out of time
THE PM made a provocative and somewhat inflammatory speech on her visit to Sylhet recently. She claimed that neither Khaleda Zia nor the BNP had the capacity to resist the holding of the next elections which would be held under the constitution. It will only incite the BNP to redouble its efforts to do just that, prevent the holding of one-sided elections.
Perhaps the BNP can or cannot prevent the holding of the elections. That is not the issue. The AL could not prevent the holding of the February, 1996 elections which were held strictly in accordance with the constitution. But at least Khaleda Zia had good and compelling reasons for that inasmuch as she was not in possession of a 2/3 majority to effect a major amendment to the Constitution in line with the demands that the AL had made for a caretaker government. That demand, at that time was unlawful as being beyond the constitutional provisions, and impractical as being beyond BNP's powers as they did not have the required majority.
Yet it was Sheikh Hasina who unleashed havoc upon the country with 172 days of hartal to enforce her demand, which was clearly unconstitutional and hence unlawful. Why should the BNP's demand to re-instate the caretaker government be so illogical now? Indeed, an overwhelming majority of the countrymen want some form of caretaker government for the next parliamentary elections. This is evident from several recent newspaper surveys.
It was in fact at Sheikh Hasina's insistence that the caretaker government provision was removed from the constitution. It was not the desire of the members of the committee set up to look into constitutional amendments following the Supreme Court judgment which had also suggested two further terms under that system. It is essentially a mischievous attempt to unsettle a settled issue -- four elections having taken place under it. It also certainly has a lot to do with the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina's plan to win the next election by any means.
The rationale behind the caretaker government was, and remains, the lack of confidence, the trust deficit between the two major parties. The differences have widened over the years. Neither party would countenance elections under the other. The BNP has already made it abundantly clear that they would not participate in any parliamentary elections held under the Awami League. So why push the country towards a confrontation which benefits no one, least of all the people of the country in whose name both major parties act.
It is unethical for the AL government to do away with the caretaker government by amendment, and then say that its absence from the Constitution prevents them from holding the next general election under that system. This is an unedifying example of what abuses an absolute majority can lead to.
The current AL government, again possessed of a calamitous majority, seems headed in the same direction -- banning of newspapers, closure of TV channels, relentless harassment and arrests of opposition politicians, murders and unexplained disappearances of several opposition activists, hounding of Prof. Yunus and tinkering with the Grameen Bank, mass withdrawal of cases (even murder cases) of people subscribing to the AL by careless use of the presidential prerogative; and all this accompanied by sky high corruption by Hall-Mark, Destiny, stock-market scam, and the loss of funding for the Padma Bridge due to corruption. The Awami League boat is indeed too heavy to sail this time.
The PM is acutely aware of all this, and therein lies her apprehension. If the PM, in accordance with her lofty claims of having done wonders for the country in the past four and half years, actually believed in this myth, then she should have no trouble in going into any election under a caretaker government, and leaving the judgment to the people whom she claims to have served with such distinction over these years. The facts say otherwise, and she is afraid of what results the 'awful majesty' of the people might turn up.
In the ultimate analysis, it is the Parliament with the government in it that runs the country, not the judiciary. The constitution is not Holy Writ. It can and has been amended 15 times in 40 years. Even if the judiciary pronounces the caretaker government as illegal, if the people overwhelmingly desire some form of caretaker government then that confers legality upon it, and a modified system of caretaker government can be put in place. Indeed, in their original short order the Court had suggested that the system could be used for two more elections.
It is patently obvious that you cannot hold an election to parliament by keeping the parliament in place. Any election in such a situation would be a farce inasmuch as there would be no vacancy to contest for. This is in addition to depriving the opposition from a level playing field, which is at the core of a neutral, non-partisan caretaker government. The frequent references made by the PM to the Westminster model can only be treated as laughable. The first thing a British PM does when he wishes to call an election is to visit the Queen and advise her to dissolve the Parliament. This is the prevalent practice in all parliamentary systems.
The PM appears to have launched her election campaign, and at every turn she insists upon holding the elections under the constitution as it stands. In fact, she has been investing the constitution with a new brand of sanctity to the point when she might actually claim that the constitution is inviolable. This is not an attack of amnesia. This is carefully crafted policy.
This stubbornness can bring catastrophic consequences. The PM must engage the opposition in meaningful talks. To dare the opposition and then treat them with disdain is not the best way of solving the issue. It will unleash chaos and violence to an extent whose contours are unclear. The BNP and 18 parties have made their stand clear, that they will not participate in this election without a caretaker government, by whatever name it is called.
Additionally, the PM has probably shot herself in the foot by announcing that the last date from when election period commences will be October 25. This has been assumed by many confused people around the country to be the government's last day in office. That, being a faulty understanding, has let loose a simmering panic in the AL rank and file across the country.
The recent attempts at damage control by some AL bigwigs hectoring the government servants to carry on after October 25 on pain of penalties has actually confused the situation further. The whole nation is apprehensive of what is in store after October 25, from the smallest traders to the big businessmen, professionals in various fields, rickshaw pullers and street vendors are all filled with a sense of foreboding. Was this necessary? And yet the PM appears to be absolutely nonchalant as the country hurtles towards the precipice.
The PM is running out of time. If any changes are to be effected in the constitution, providing for a neutral, non-partisan caretaker government, it must be done immediately. Or maybe the PM is not running out of time. Maybe she believes that even if this stand of hers results in violence and chaos, murder and mayhem and extensive and even irreparable damage to the economy leading perhaps to a takeover by the army, that would be far more preferable to having an election under a system where Khaleda Zia might win.
The writer is a Barrister-at-Law and a former Member of Parliament from BNP.