The ruling Awami League's proposals for limiting the jurisdiction of the election-time government to carrying out only a routine job has now paved the ground for discussion to resolve the current political deadlock over the mode of the polls time government ahead of the next parliamentary election.
This proposal reminds us of the jurisdiction of the election time non-partisan caretaker government system, which was abolished in 2011. Constitutionally introduced in 1996, the caretaker government would form after the tenure of a government had expired. It had jurisdiction only to carry out routine jobs. Its main functions were to provide the Election Commission with all sorts of assistance to hold free and fair parliamentary elections.
The proposal placed by the AL to President Abdul Hamid on Wednesday during the talks over the formation of new EC will give the AL-led government a character of a caretaker government, though a partisan one. It will refrain from making any policy decision. Its main job will be assisting the EC to hold a free and fair parliamentary election.
Political analysts have lauded the proposals and said it was “a breakthrough” in the prevailing political deadlock. The proposals also indicate that the ruling AL has changed its mind. An example will make it clearer.
Three years ago, a delegation of eminent citizens including Dr Kamal Hossain and Dr Akbar Ali Khan met President Abdul Hamid and proposed limiting the prime minister's powers to overrule ministers' decisions in order to have the BNP join the polls-time government and contest the parliamentary election.
At the meeting with the president on November 26, 2013, they opined that this could be done by amending the government's rules of business, which would be effective only for the interim cabinet. And it would still be in conformity with the constitution, said meeting sources citing the proposal.
The rules of business now give the PM unlimited powers to override any decisions of the cabinet members. The eminent citizens observed that the provision might prevent the BNP from joining the polls-time government led by Hasina.
The delegation thought the BNP might think even if it gets the desired ministries in the interim government, this provision would allow the PM to overrule any decisions of BNP ministers.
They came up with the proposals amid a growing political turmoil centring the parliamentary election scheduled for January 2014. The political crisis prevailed following cancellation of non-partisan election time caretaker government by the AL-led government in 2011 through constitution amendments. The constitutional amendments allowed the then ruling Awami League to stay in power during the 2014 parliamentary election. The BNP-led alliance vehemently opposed the cancellation of the caretaker government and demanded its restoration. It also refused to join the polls while the AL remained in power.
The AL was adamant not to restore the caretaker system. Then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina however proposed the formation of an all-party election time cabinet and offered BNP to join it and take the ministerial portfolios of their choices. But BNP leaders refused the offer. In defence of refusing the PM's offer, some of the BNP-led alliance leaders referred to the MP's absolute powers to overrule any decision of the ministers. Against this backdrop, the eminent citizens proposed for limiting the prime minister's powers and sought the president's intervention to break the political deadlock.
Their proposals were however not welcomed by the prime minister then. Next day, on November 27, 2013, she criticised them and questioned their neutrality too. The move made by the eminent citizens did not see the light of day. Political deadlock remained unresolved. The January 5 election was held amid a boycott by the BNP-led alliance. AL got an easy win.
The crisis remains unresolved till date. With the next parliamentary election coming nearer, the issue of the mode of the election time government has started dominating the political landscape as the BNP is still demanding for a neutral election time administration.
After three years, the AL came up with the proposal to limit the jurisdiction of not only the prime minister, but the entire cabinet. In addition, it also proposed for empowering the EC with supervising authority over the administration, law enforcement agencies and all other departments engaged in the election process.
Some important things now need to be settled in light of the AL's proposals. How will the polls time cabinet be formed? How many ministers will be needed to run the interim government during the polls? Only the chief advisor and 10 more advisors were able to lead the election time caretaker government. Will the BNP be invited to nominate some of its leaders to join the polls time government as was offered by Hasina in 2013? BNP has no participation in the parliament. Yet, constitutional provision allows a non-MP to be a minister.
What will be the fate of the current parliament during the next election? The constitutional provisions allow present MPs to remain in office when they will seek re-election in the next polls. They were in offices during the last parliamentary election. But it may appear as an obstacle to create a level playing field for all contestants in a competitive polls. To resolve this problem, we may follow the system in other countries practising parliamentary democracy. Countries like the UK, birthplace of the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy, New Zealand, Australia and Canada go to general elections through dissolving their parliaments. India is the only exception. Over the past 60 years, it has held 15 general elections. Of them, parliament, popularly known as Lok Sabha, existed during the general election on eight occasions. Sometimes parliament was dissolved after the election process had begun.
The electoral code of conduct for political parties and candidates need to be reformed. Here the model code of conduct in India may help us to draft the reform proposals. The model code of conduct allows political parties to criticise the opponents' policies and programmes, past record and work. The use of indecent words to launch personal attacks and undermine others socially and politically is prohibited.
The code of conduct also imposed restrictions on the party in power. According to it, ministers must not combine official visits with election work or use official machinery for the same. The party must avoid advertising at the cost of the public exchequer or using official mass media for publicity on achievements to improve chances of victory in the elections. Ministers and other authorities must not announce any financial grants, or promise any construction of roads, provision of drinking water, etc. Other parties must be allowed to use public spaces and rest houses and these must not be monopolised by the party in power.
Now, BNP should come up with an open mind to discuss the AL's proposals. Remaining rigid to the demand for non-partisan caretaker government will contribute nothing to resolve the political deadlock. Civil society organisations may work on the proposals and should come up with proposals how to supplement the ruling party's proposals. The ruling AL expressed its willingness to move away from the notion of a political government to a more neutral government during elections.
We all should explore ways and means to make the move a success. In many countries practicing parliamentary democracy, the outgoing governments turn into polls time caretaker governments. Why won't we be able to do the same? Political good will can turn any impossible into the possible. Our political parties now need to demonstrate their good will to pave the ground for making the next parliamentary election participatory, free and fair.
The writer is Special Correspondent, The Daily Star.