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Last Man Standing

The political situation in Bangladesh on the eve of elections is at an impasse, with rival political alliances unable to agree on pre-election arrangements. That such a situation is inimical to democratic functioning does not seem to trouble politicians on either side.

Letter from South Asia

president and the chief adviser had been combined into one person the country had

Last Man Standing

essentially moved to a presidential form

The political situation in Bangladesh on the eve of elections is at an impasse, with rival political alliances unable to agree on pre-election arrangements. That such a situation is inimical to democratic functioning does not seem to trouble politicians

on either side.


he political situation in Bangladesh remains as unstable and unpredictable as ever. Indeed, as to what transpires between the time of writing and the time of publication, is anyone’s guess. The Awami League (AL)-led 14-party alliance called for a renewed blockade programme from December 3, making clear that there is no longer common ground left on which the feuding parties are willing to meet.

Those who had hoped that the stepping down of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government in favour of the nonparty caretaker government at the end of October to facilitate the next parliamentary elections, as mandated by the constitution, would have resolved some of the problems and helped create a situation whereby credible elections could be held in a secure atmosphere, have now been disappointed. In the end, the eighth parliament ended with a whimper. BNP and AL could not come to any compromise on either the chief of the in-coming caretaker administration or the Election Commission.

The AL took to the streets on October 28 to press its demands and was met with equal ferocity by the cadres and activists of the BNP-led four-party alliance. In the slaughter that followed over two dozen people were killed and thousands injured, many seriously, and a genuine anxiety seized the nation as to what would happen next. A visibly shocked justice Hasan, whom the 14-party had opposed due to his past membership in BNP, announced that he would not take the post of chief adviser to the caretaker government, which was an apparent victory for the 14-party alliance that had been adamant on this point, but still no clarity emerged as to where the situation would go next. Into this void stepped the president, leapfrogging over the other constitutional claimants, appointing himself as chief adviser.

Though severe questions remained about the neutrality of the president, the 14-party alliance warily accepted his installation as a fait accompli, mindful of the fact that the nation had a limited tolerance for the anarchy, violence, and uncertainty that had prevailed over the last 48 hours. Very real apprehension was evinced for if the situation deteriorated even further that there would be no alternative but for the army to be deployed in aid of civil administration. Wait and see, was the decision.

As it has turned out, president Iajuddin has indeed been a worse option than the people could ever have imagined, perhaps far worse than justice Hasan would have been.

President Iajuddin’s conduct as chief adviser has been remarkable from the beginning. Even the council of advisers hand-picked by him, and that was at first castigated for being packed with nominees from the BNP, has now been thoroughly alienated. His executive style also was apparent almost from the start, i e, when he opted to keep 11 of the portfolios under his control, including the key ones of home and establishment.

The principal problem within the caretaker government is that the presidentcum-chief adviser insists on taking decisions unilaterally, often countermanding decisions taken by the council of advisers as a group and often keeping them in the dark as to decisions taken until after the fact, even though the constitution mandates that the council of advisers act as a unified body.

The president even went so far as to state in a speech that since the offices of the of government. Following public outcry, he was forced to retract this statement within a day, but it certainly offered a window into his way of thinking. Indeed, the president continues to act as though he were the unitary chief executive of the nation. Relations with his advisory council have therefore reached breaking point. The low point came on November 12 when an order was issued to the army to stand prepared to act in aid of civil administration, even though the situation on the ground was peaceful and secure. More worrisome is the fact that the decision was taken unilaterally by the chief adviser, and he did not inform the rest of the caretaker government even after the act.

But most glaring of all is his general style. Meetings are postponed or hurried to a close and the council of advisers do not have access to him for days at a time. As a result, much needed work remains undone, and he remains in sole control of the government and administration. Crucially, the transfers of police and civil service personnel necessary for free and fair elections, have not been effected, and the controversial establishment and home secretaries as well as secretary to the president, all of who have close ties to the BNP, remain in place and continue to retain control of the administration.

Reconstituting the EC

The main issue before the caretaker government has been reconstitution of the Election Commission and the removal of the chief election commissioner, justice M A Aziz. This demand has come as close to a unified national demand as is possible to get in these fractious times. Even BNP stalwarts, in private, and in public until recently, agreed that Aziz needed to step down and the entire EC reconstituted from top to bottom if there were to be credible elections.

Aziz had been a walking disaster as chief election commissioner, antagonising everyone with his high-handed actions and incompetence. The civil society, media, as well as international commentators such

Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

as the National Democratic Institute and the EU, to say nothing of the general public, were united in their lack of confidence in Aziz to preside over credible elections. Finally, after days of agitation on the part of the 14-party alliance that brought much of the country to a standstill and shut down Chittagong port, the council of advisers engineered an agreement for Aziz to go on 90 days’ leave, paving the way for a possible resolution to the crisis.

But, of course, his removal has not addressed the core problem of the need for the entire commission to be reconstituted from top to bottom and for a new voter roll to be prepared in place of the one that Aziz prepared, in violation of two Supreme Court orders, and that has 15 million more names than is even mathematically possible and thus, a document of almost zero credibility.

Two new election commissioners have been hired, both controversial, both notable for their ties to the four-party alliance. The latest controversy surrounds the publication of the election schedule on November 27, setting January 21 as election day. The 14-party alliance’s position was that no election schedule should be published until after the necessary electoral reforms and reconstitution of the EC, for without these, it would not participate, and publication of an election schedule was thus premature. The four-party alliance, of course, held the diametrically opposed view. The publication of the schedule before any of the outstanding issues were resolved, was, thus, seen as another example of the EC taking sides.

Apparently coming to the conclusion that it had witnessed enough of the president-cum-chief adviser’s machinations and that things were unlikely to improve, the 14-party alliance filed a writ against the president on November 26, challenging his selection of himself as chief adviser as unconstitutional.

It was this move that triggered the latest incident. Just as the two-member panel of Supreme Court judges were set to issue a preliminary ruling on the matter, the chief justice stepped into the fray and barred them from issuing the ruling until a plea from the government, that the matter be heard by a larger bench, had been decided. This unprecedented and, according to constitutional experts, unconstitutional move on the part of the chief justice, issued after a closed-door meeting with the attorney general and the ex-law minister, led to a tumult in the court-room. The last remaining institution, after the presidency, the caretaker government, and the Election Commission, i e, the judiciary, has now become mired in controversy.

It is clear at this point that there is no ground common enough between the four-party and 14-party alliances. It is clear that the electoral reforms, reconstitution of the Election Commission, transfer of civil service and police personnel, etc, steps that the 14-party alliance has demanded and which are necessary for a credible election will not happen. So where do we go from here?

The 14-party alliance can continue to agitate, as it has promised to do. The disgruntled advisers can resign from the caretaker government. But nothing, it seems, will dissuade the president-cumchief adviser from continuing towards elections that will have zero credibility either within the country or without. Clearly, the game plan for the four-party alliance is that if everything is done in a manner that is at least arguably constitutional, and a new prime minister and parliament can be sworn in following the elections, however unpopular and discredited the process, constitutional legitimacy could still be claimed.

Opposition’s Strategy

There is a school of thought within the 14-party alliance that says it should participate in the upcoming elections, come what may. The argument is that, one, it may still win, despite efforts to rig the elections, given the alliance’s commanding lead in opinion polls, and, two, if the elections are rigged it would have to be very blatant and naked, and that this would then be the time to launch an agitation, not before.

But there are obvious drawbacks to this strategy: Standing for elections would be seen by many as tacit acceptance of the commission’s legitimacy, which would undercut the 14-party alliance’s ability to cry foul once the votes are counted. Thus, the more likely scenario is that they will continue to take their case to the streets. So, the situation simply lumbers. There does not seem to be any end in sight. The military waits in the wings. They have been appealed to a number of times, first by the BNP government, and then by the president, most recently on November 12, to step in, but this has been resisted so far.

It was thought that the army, too, had been dominated by BNP sympathisers, but it is now clear that this is the one institution that is not in the BNP’s pocket, and that the chief of staff, lieutenant general Moin Uddin Ahmed, is no BNP puppet. The message from the army is that it remains reluctant to enter the fray. It has no wish to jeopardise its international standing and its lucrative role in UN peacekeeping operations, and it most certainly has no interest in stepping in and helping clean up what is seen as the BNP’s mess.

In particular, the junior to mid-range officers, who directly command the troops, have signalled that they have no desire to take sides. The way things are, the army may have no choice but to step in at some point in the future, if the situation continues to deteriorate. If it is forced to take this step, the message would be that the army will clean the stables comprehensively, and this is bad news both for the BNP and the AL.

One would think that this possibility would encourage the political leaders towards some kind of compromise. But there is thus far zero evidence to suggest that anyone on either side of the political divide is thinking along these lines.



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Economic and Political Weekly December 9, 2006

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