Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Political Impasse over the Caretaker Government in Bangladesh


Neha Mehta 
(Research Assistant, VIF)

The Caretaker Government that was a unique feature of Bangladesh’s democracy was in place over the years to oversee elections in a country that has a history of military coups, political assassinations and electoral fraud. Historically, democracy has struggled in Bangladesh with an unstable political environment that has two main political parties at loggerheads at all times with periods of dictatorships and battling the influence of its army in politics. The decision to do away with the Caretaker Government was taken through the fifteenth amendment to the constitution in mid 2011, following the Supreme Court verdict that declared the thirteenth constitutional amendment illegal. This created quite a furor in the political circles leading to the current political stalemate.

Originally, the Caretaker Government system was constitutionally introduced through the thirteenth amendment to the constitution after the three main political parties, the Awami League, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jatiya Party boycotted the sixth general elections in 1996, to press for the demand of a Caretaker Government to oversee political transition in the country. The thirteenth amendment gave power to an elected government to transfer power to an unelected non-partisan Caretaker Government to oversee new parliamentary election on completion of its term. The system which lasted for 15 years, however held four elections under it viz. in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008. The system was first put in place informally in 1991, at a time of critical political transformation, before it was included in the constitution. The aim was to oversee the election process at a time when military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad was ousted and electoral democracy was restored in Bangladesh as well as to counter any kind of military influence.

Currently, the Caretaker Government issue has become one of the main rallying points for the opposition that has out-rightly refused to be part of the elections that would be held under the supervision of an Election Commission at the end of 2013 or early 2014. This has created deep divisions in an already divided political domain. In order to press for the demand of restoration of the Caretaker Government as a pre-requisite to their participation in the elections, the coalition of 18 parties forming the opposition has been mounting pressure on the government over a year and a half through strikes and resorting to violent means to bring home their point. In addition, they have been refusing to be party to any kind of talks to look for an alternative to the issue. Their argument is that the elections held under the incumbent government would not be free and fair. Meanwhile, the Awami League has also been adamant about not reversing the decision that was taken in 2011 and wanting elections to be held under an Election Commission arguing that is the way parliamentary democracies function.

The current political stance of Awami League and the BNP, however, is diametrically opposite to when the Caretaker system was introduced constitutionally, with the Awami League pressing for the system while the BNP being reluctant to concede to such a demand. It was primarily an outcome of lack of trust amongst the political parties as well as the belief that the incumbent government could not hold an election without meddling with the political process which would lead to electoral fraud. This however, is the perception even today.

The controversial Caretaker Government that was installed in 2006 after the BNP rule from 2001-2006 brought to the fore the way the provision could be exploited. Under the system that was introduced through the thirteenth constitutional amendment it was important to install a caretaker government within 15 days of the previous parliament being dissolved which had to ensure that fresh polls were held within 90 days with the help of a commission.1 The fear of many thinkers that such a system would be misused got materialized when the last caretaker government far extended its time period and was there for two years. It was a tumultuous time and proved detrimental to any kind of political process in the country. The political rollercoaster that led to a take over by the military only led to more political chaos which put democracy in deep jeopardy.

The Caretaker government being a foolproof system against extra constitutional take-over or being entirely neutral, however, is far from the truth as was seen what transpired from 2006 to 2008. The primary reason for the political turmoil was the lack of neutrality of the Chief Advisor that was seen to have close political affiliations with the BNP. Adding to this, the military takeover of the caretaker government in 2007 brought into focus firstly, the glaring deficiencies in the Caretaker Government system through which a political process could be hijacked and secondly, it served as a huge setback to democratic progression which engulfed the country in deep political crisis.

Moreover, the advisors that were appointed in a Caretaker Government were an unelected set of opinionated people who had to deliver within a short span of time.2 However, it is principally the duty of an Election Commission, the government officials in the secretariats and the law and order agencies who are required to perform in a democratic set up.3 In the current scenario, the Election Commission should be strengthened and made more independent devoid of any political influences with non- partisan officials to oversee the election process.

Although, there have been international observers that termed the elections under a Caretaker Government as free and fair, that was never the opinion of the party that lost, who always cried foul and blamed the winning party of election fraud. Therefore, no matter what system is put in place the losing party would continue to have doubts over it. The current opposition had itself rejected the verdict of the elections held under a caretaker government when it lost. Therefore, the stop gap arrangement in the shape of the Caretaker Government that was put in place had definitely outlived its utility as it could not continue to be the solution to the basic mistrust amongst the political parties and the unstable political situation in Bangladesh. Such an undemocratic feature definitely needed to go to let democracy take deep roots in Bangladesh.

The need of the hour is to not let the country go through another round of political mayhem and have a smooth transition by holding parliamentary elections in a free and fair manner devoid of electoral fraud. It is high time that after almost 42 years of independence to have a stable parliamentary democracy with solid foundation keeping the influence of the army at the minimal and to have checks for any kind of extra constitutional take over. The arguments for and against the system have been put forth aplenty but the larger issue is to strike a balance, look for an amicable solution to the problem and shun the confrontationist stance by putting the needs of the nation above petty politics.

Endnotes
  1. The Economist (Aug 2012 )“Running elections in Bangladesh: Generally trusted”, [Online: web] Accessed: 1 Feb 2013, URL: http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2012/08/running-elections-bangladesh
  2. Hussain, Syed Muhammad (May 2012), “Thought on an Interim/Caretaker government”, [Online: web]
    Accessed: 1 Feb 2013, URL: http://ns.bdnews24.com/blog/en/index.php/syed-muhammad-hussain/1351
  3. ibid

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