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Game On

An elaborate ritual for arriving at the modalities for the 2007 elections in Bangladesh is being performed by the two main political formations, but neither seems interested in reaching an agreement. With Bangladeshis yearning for stability and security, does the inability of the two groups to engage in constructive debate and come up with substantive solutions open the door to a third force - the army?

Letter from South Asia

Game On

Bangladesh’s Pre-Election Season in Full Swing

An elaborate ritual for arriving at the modalities for the 2007 elections in Bangladesh is being performed by the two main political formations, but neither seems interested in reaching an agreement. With Bangladeshis yearning for stability and security, does the inability of the two groups to engage in constructive debate and come up with substantive solutions open

the door to a third force – the army?

ZAFAR SOBHAN

W
e are more or less halfway through the fifth and final year of the tenure of the four-party alliance government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and as always seems to be the case in Bangladeshi politics, the sole topic of national discussion in this final year of the regime is the upcoming election. The next general election, which is due to be held by next January at the very latest, is the only subject occupying the minds of the political classes and the debate surrounding the election has sucked all the oxygen out of the political atmosphere.

This past year has seen precious little time spent on any kind of national debate on the legislative agenda of the parliament, issues of development or of any other kind of social or economic policy, except as these relate to the upcoming polls.

Interestingly enough, the national debate, such as it is, has not taken the form of one over the merits of the current government’s tenure or of a critique of its policies and positions. In fact, the debate with respect to the upcoming elections has been remarkably content-free, insofar as matters of actual policy and performance are concerned, with the exception of the issue of the government’s culpability for the rise of terrorism under its watch (and even this explosive subject has not received the air-time that its gravity would suggest is merited).

It is an unspoken sub-text to the opposition Awami League’s campaign that the current government has performed miserably over the past four and a half years and that a change of government is thus called for, but this is an argument that the opposition actually makes more by inference than by direct statement. It is as though the opposition considers the need for a change of government to be so axiomatic as to render its articulation or elaboration superfluous, and the main thrust of its political statements has been the focus on ensuring that there is a level playing field for the upcoming election.

The Awami League, which heads the main 14-party opposition coalition (and comprises almost 100 per cent of its strength), unveiled its slate of electoral and caretaker government reforms last July 15, and since then these reforms have been the rubric within which all political discourse has taken place and have provided the principal point of issue between the government and opposition, eclipsing even the debate on who is responsible for the recent rise of terror and who is best equipped to tackle the militant menace.

Caretaker Government

The primary issue of contention between the 14-party opposition and the 4-party alliance government led by the BNP is reform of the caretaker government, under which the election is slated to be held, and of the election law, including reform of the operation of the election commission.

The first of these two demands is a longshot for the opposition, the second generally considered to be more reasonable.

The opposition’s misgivings about the existing caretaker government system are twofold. The first is that under the current law, the defence ministry, and hence the armed forces, are placed under the command of the president, Iajuddin Ahmed, who was nominated by the BNP and is widely considered to be their man, rather than the head of the non-partisan caretaker government. The fact that the Awami League made no effort to repeal this part of the law when it was in power from 1996 to 2001, remains a serious impediment to its chances of convincing the general public of the necessity for the provision’s repeal.

It is on somewhat better ground with respect to its second complaint. Under the existing law, the head of the caretaker government is the last retired chief justice of the country. By raising the age of retirement of Supreme Court judges from 65 to 67, the BNP government appears to have manipulated events such that the head of the caretaker government will be a certain ex-chief justice who was once an officer of the BNP.

Nevertheless, dubious as these machinations sound, there has not, as yet, been much public support for the opposition position with respect to how the head of the caretaker government is appointed (the opposition favours a consensus candidate rather than one appointed under the current system mandated by the law), and unless public opinion shifts dramatically on this count, it is hard to see how the opposition will prevail.

However, the demand for reform of the election law is a surer thing. The government itself has often articulated the need for reform, and while there is difference of opinion over the extent and composition of the reform, there is a general consensus in the country that such reform is long overdue.

The devil, as ever, is in the details.

The government is unlikely to concede the opposition’s request that the chief election commissioner (like the head of the caretaker government) be appointed through consensus, but other demands, such as the independence of the election commission secretariat seem unanswerable. However, the fact that there is broad agreement, both between the government and the opposition, and among

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

the public at large, that there is serious need for reform of the election law should not be mistaken for the likelihood that any such reform is actually in the offing.

The government and the opposition last month began the process of preparing for discussions on this issue and several weeks into the preliminary discussions, little progress has been made. Letters have been sent back and forth with respect to the modalities, but the two sides have yet to agree to sit down for the actual discussions.

The entire procedure has an air of kabuki theatre to it, an elaborate, stylised, ritualised charade in which proposals are batted gently back and forth, and few imagine that the process will yield any positive results. Both sides want to create the impression that they are keen to talk and resolve differences and that it is the other side that is being recalcitrant, but one reason why it appears that neither side is keen for the talks to resolve their differences is perhaps because it is true: neither side really does want to reach agreement on the issue and all that this might entail.

The opposition is wary of winning the battle over electoral reform, because even if it gets its way, it fears that this will not be enough to dismantle the elaborate election engineering structure that the government has painstakingly put in place over the past four and a half years. The opposition remains unsure that it could secure its voters and ensure a free and fair election. The last thing that the opposition wants is to be backed into a corner and lose the election even after imposition of its conditions.

The government, for its part, is not keen on being backed into a corner either. In the first place, it would see knuckling under to the opposition as losing face, and it also fears the psychological damage that would be done if it were to be seen to lose a power struggle with the opposition.

Politics in Bangladesh is a game of confidence and who appears to be in the ascendance at any one time is an important calculation. The BNP fears that if it is seen to back down in the face of the opposition, then this will signal that the opposition now has the upper hand, perhaps portending a stampede towards the exit among the party faithful and not-so-faithful, which will sweep it from power.

Thus both sides, for the time being, seem content to bat the ball of electoral reform back and forth until the clock runs out and leave resolution of the issue to the caretaker government, which is scheduled to take office in five months time.

This, however, gives rise to a new problem.

It remains unclear that the caretaker government actually has any authority to amend the election law, and thus leaving everything in their hands might not solve anything, and could, indeed, lead to a constitutional crisis. The average citizens in Bangladesh are looking at all these alternatives and wondering whether or not they are likely to see some level of involvement on the part of the long dormant (at least domestically) armed forces. Certainly, if the government and the opposition are unable to come to terms, as seems to be the case, and neither is strong enough to force the other from the field, as also seems to be the case, then there is a very real possibility that the only entity able to maintain stability and security, at least in the short run, might be the armed forces.

Unpalatable Alternative

It is not a happy thought, but surveying the political landscape in Bangladesh with a realistic eye means taking cognisance of the fact that this is a possible, if not necessarily probable, alternative. Whether the unpalatable nature of this alternative will incline the political parties to moderate their rivalry or seek compromise to ward off such a dire eventuality remains to be seen. Somehow, I doubt it.

There also remains the question of what form some kind of alternative power structure backed by the cantonment might take. Might it be some kind of bureaucrattechnocrat “cabinet of talents” and if so who might be the front-men and women? Conventional wisdom holds that the army is not interested in taking power because of its international reputation and lucrative peace-keeping operations, which would thereby be jeopardised. I am not so sure. The world has changed since 1991, when the army was forced to step down by a combination of people power and pressure from the international community. But in 2006, the powers-that-be may well have concluded that, just as Pervez Musharraf is the best bet for Pakistan, a military regime might provide the most stability and security for Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, civil society has launched itself into the pre-election fray. Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank has spoken out on the need for a civil society initiative to nominate clean candidates and the centre for policy dialogue has launched a rather more modest programme but with the same general goal in mind. These initiatives have sparked all kinds of speculation, the most conspiratorial being that they are a stalking horse for an armed forces backed civil society combine that is aimed at usurping the power of the political parties. On the face of it, this particular conspiracy seems a highly unlikely one, but this does not mean that there are not other power sharing arrangements quietly being contemplated in the cantonment and elsewhere.

Harry K Thomas, until recently the US ambassador to Bangladesh, famously warned the Awami League and the BNP that if they were unable to resolve their differences they risked leaving the field open for a third force to come in. At the time, people thought that he was referring to the extremist threat, which seems to have since been brought under some kind of control, but it is possible that this was not what Harry Thomas had in mind at all.

EPW

Email: zsobhan@hotmail.com

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Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

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