On neutral ground

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

Bangladesh prepares for parliamentary elections under the charge of a non-party caretaker government headed by former Chief Justice Latifur Rahman.

WITH the completion of a full five-year term by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government, the first-ever elected government in Bangladesh's 30-year-old political history to record this achievement, a non-party caretaker government headed by former Chief Justice Latifur Rahman was sworn in on July 15. As per the Constitution, Rahman will act as the Chief Adviser; he has nominated a 10-member council of advisers to run the country for the period until the general elections.

It was the kind of constitutional transfer of power that Bangladesh, ruled successively by military and pseudo-democratic leaders, had never witnessed before. And, for the first time, the Seventh Jatiya Sansad survived until the last day of its tenure, though its smooth functioning was obstructed, mainly by the long absence of members representing the main Opposition parties.

Justice Latifur Rahman's assumption of power took place in accordance with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment was the outcome of a countrywide agitation in 1996, during Khaleda Zia's tenure as Prime Minister, spearheaded by Sheikh Hasina, who was then in the Opposition. It provides for the constitutional arrangement whereby a non-party caretaker authority, headed by the immediate predecessor of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, will take over the reins of power as soon as the term of the elected government expires. The caretaker government's job is to assist the Election Commission in holding free and fair elections.

Article 58 D of the Bangladesh Constitution says: "The non-party caretaker government shall discharge its functions as an interim government and shall carry on the routine functions of such government with the aid and assistance of persons in the services of the republic; and, except in the case of necessity for the discharge of such functions it shall not make any policy decision."

The whole of Bangladesh seemed to welcome the transfer of power, and that was evident in the congratulatory messages received by the caretaker government. The majority of political leaders attended the swearing-in ceremony at Bangabhaban. However, leaders of the four-party Opposition alliance, including Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson Khaleda Zia, boycotted the ceremony. The boycott was on the plea that Sheikh Hasina had "pressured" the President, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, to delay the ceremony.

However, the BNP-Jamaat-led alliance swiftly congratulated the Chief Adviser and pledged to extend their full cooperation to him. Sheikh Hasina, who is also the president of the Awami League, congratulated the Chief Adviser and promised him full support. But she said the caretaker government should hold the polls within the stipulated 90-day time-frame.

There is great expectation that the administration of Justice Latifur Rahman, the third such in the country's history, will be able to hold credible elections and aid the nation to make a success of its democracy. Latifur Rahman has earned a good image in the judiciary, and is considered neutral as far as politics is concerned.

Within an hour of his swearing-in, the caretaker government transferred 13 Secretaries appointed by the Awami League government. The transfers were mainly in the key Ministries of Home, Information and Foreign Affairs. The Principal Secretary and the Press Secretary to the outgoing Prime Minister were also transferred. The BNP-Jamaat-led coalition welcomed the action. The Awami League, shaken by the drastic action, was guarded in its response. It expressed shock over the way the transfers were made, within an hour of the Chief Adviser's swearing-in, and before that of the Council of Advisers. Sheikh Hasina, in a meeting with Latifur Rahman, reminded him of his government's constitutional mandate - that is, only to ensure free and fair elections, and not to undo or review the actions of any elected government. Non-political, "pro-liberation" groups reacted strongly and said that the caretaker government should keep in mind its constitutional jurisdiction.

Such a controversy over the very first action of the caretaker government was unexpected. The past two caretaker governments kept away from controversies. However, Barrister Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, a respected constitutional expert and one of the leading members of Latifur Rahman's Council of Advisers, defended the government action. Latifur Rahman, at a conference with editors of leading publications, explained that what his government had done was within its mandate.

The appointment of former Auditor and Comptroller General M. Hafizuddin Khan as one of the advisers was not to the liking of the outgoing government. The Awami League chief questioned the "legal and moral" authority of Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed to head the interim government's team to review the political cases filed during the tenure of the Awami League government. "How can Barrister Ahmed review the cases when he himself was the lawyer of a BNP lawmaker who filed a writ petition against the Public Safety Act?" she asked on July 23.

The leaders of the caretaker government were also criticised for not visiting, soon after their swearing-in, the national mausoleum in Savar to pay respects to the martyrs of the nation's War of Liberation. The Chief Adviser and the Council of Advisers made the visit after three days. The interim administration also faced flak for stopping the broadcast of quotations from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, "the Father of the Nation", by the state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) and Bangladesh Betar. The administration has issued a warning against damaging or destroying Mujib's portraits, after newspapers reported that BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami activists damaged Mujib's images and attacked the offices of the Awami League and its front organisations in many places.

The major political players are well aware of the limit to which they can criticise the government. Even if they feel aggrieved by any of its actions, they have to take it in their stride. They know that if the system of having a caretaker government to hold free and fair elections fails, there will be no alternative before the country.

THE initial controversies notwithstanding, the caretaker government has given top priority to seizing illegal arms and arresting terrorists and their patrons in order to make the law and order situation congenial for peaceful elections. It is reported that Bangladesh has more than 3,000 unauthorised small arms in circulation, mostly in the hands of terrorists, who are being hired by political parties. A countrywide drive has begun to round up the terrorists and seize their arms.

By all initial indications, Latifur Rahman's stint will be different from that of his two predecessors - President Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed in 1990 and Justice Habibur Rahman 1996. The challenges before the third caretaker government are much greater, and if it succeeds -probably it will - the credit will be of a much higher degree.

Justice Latifur Rahman has hinted that he will arrange a meeting between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the two main contenders for power, in an effort to make his job easier.

Despite her initial criticism, Sheikh Hasina felt that the caretaker government - she had insisted that the concept be included in the Constitution - should not be embarrassed. She, however, said that the caretaker authority should not consider the elected government of the immediate past as "an opponent".

In a dramatic development on the evening of July 23, Khaleda Zia led a five-member delegation to the Chief Adviser. After an hour-long meeting with him, Khaleda Zia told journalists that she had expressed her "dissatisfaction" over the performance of the administration, which she said had "failed to maintain neutrality". "Awami League people are being put at all places,'' she alleged. She threatened to announce certain "programmes" if the alliance's charter of demands were not met immediately.

It is certain that the coming round of elections will be a fiercely fought one. The battle lines have been drawn. The Awami League, which will go it alone, believes that it will win with a comfortable majority. In support of this confidence, it cites the "massive infrastructural development" its government has carried out, the achievement of "surplus food production from a situation of deficit", and the government's "laudable disaster management", "commendable women's empowerment", and achievements in poverty alleviation and on the foreign relations front, including relations with India. Its government, it says, made "immense successes" in the resolution of the decade-old Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) insurgency and in the signing of the 30-year Ganga water sharing treaty with India.

The BNP-Jamaat coalition has claimed that it will win a "two-thirds majority". Its confidence is based on the argument that the Awami League stands "discredited' after its "five years of misrule", for "pursuing pro-Indian and anti-Islamic policies", "plundering the national wealth", "rampant corruption" and "politicisation at all levels". One of the major charges levelled by the coalition against the Sheikh Hasina government is that its tenure witnessed "the worst forms of terrorism", which involved the ruling party's musclemen. Incidentally, the caretaker government, in its anti-terrorism drive, has arrested the son of a prominent Minister in the Sheikh Hasina Cabinet, besides several thousands of listed terrorists. It has seized large quantities of small arms.

It may be too early to predict the winner, but if one goes by the percentage of votes won by the BNP, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the small fundamentalist groups in the 1996 elections, the margin of victory will be very thin. But till date, the anti-Hasina forces have failed, despite repeated efforts, to create a sufficiently strong anti-incumbency wave to give themselves extra mileage in the race.

The fact that former President General H.M. Ershad dramatically quit the Khaleda Zia-led alliance and formed the Islami Jatiya Oikya Front with the Pir of Charmunai Maulana Fazlul Karim, an orthodox sectarian leader, has weakened the BNP-led alliance to some extent. Ershad's political compromise has gone to such an extent that he even agreed to the Pir's diktat that his wife, Raushan Ershad, an ex-Member of Parliament and a senior leader of the Jatiya Party, must wear a veil if at all she comes to attend any of the front's meetings. The Pir is against women's leadership in politics.

The 11-party Left-leaning alliance, in which the dominant forces are the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), the Workers Party, the Ganoforum led by Dr. Kamal Hossain, and the two factions of the Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal (BSD), has decided to field candidates in 180 of the 300 constituencies. These parties had no seats in the last Parliament. Their long-cherished dream to become the "third alternative" in national politics has also not materialised. They seemed highly critical of the Awami League, but were neither soft towards the BNP - mainly because of the BNP's alliance with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. The candidates of the 11-party alliance, if fielded, are likely to cut into the votes of the Awami League.

Another tiny stream in politics is the rebel faction of Ershad's Jatiya Party, which is now led by the Communications Minister in Sheikh Hasina's Cabinet, Anwar Hossain. This faction, with 12 MPs in the just-dissolved Parliament, will fight the elections on its own.

The selection of candidates has begun. The Awami League has finalised most of its nominees, even those for the prestigious seats in the Dhaka metropolis. The BNP-Jamaat-led alliance appears to have decided to delay the announcement of its list, maybe for strategic reasons. It is likely that Khaleda Zia will announce the nominees only after the poll schedule is announced by the Election Commission.

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