by David Bergman
This has been said before countless times – but right now, with Bangladesh sliding fast down a hole, it needs to be stated with even greater urgency.
If there was a moment for Bangladesh’s two political parties to step up to the plate and find a way out of the country’s current political crisis, that time is now.
What has to happen, is something like this.
In the last three elections, it was the caretaker government, taking power three months before the election was due to take place, which ensured that this would happen – and this or some variant of a neutral interim government would still now be by far the best (and most popular) method to ensure a repetition.
But the caretaker provisions no longer exist in the constitution.
And however much the BNP might huff and puff – and indeed however right they might be in principle in their demand for a return to a caretaker system – the government has made it clear that this is simply not going to amend the constitution.
If we are to find a solution quickly, it has to be found within the existing legal and constitutional framework.
And, within it, there is a deal that can be made, far from perfect, but one that will allow a sufficiently credible election to take place – and allow the country to move out of this period of violent instability.
With opposition leaders in detention, and cases filed against dozens of others, the political situation is far from conducive to a deal – and clearly the leaders must be released, and cases withdrawn forthwith.
In terms of what a deal may look like, there are three issues that need to be resolved.
The position/powers of the prime minister as the head of the current election time government, the nature of the cabinet, and the strengthening of the election commission.
It appears that Sheikh Hasina is willing to give away a number of key cabinet posts – so that aspect of the deal should not be difficult to resolve. The cabinet may well need to be significantly cut, and the BNP given a good number of positions, including the home ministry – but it seems that this is not a problem.
The really difficult issue is the position of Sheikh Hasina, as prime minister.
With power so centralized in Bangladesh, and with the ‘rules of business’ allowing the prime minister to countermand any ministerial decision, no credible election can take place with Hasina having her full prime ministerial powers.
One only has to look at how hard in 2006 the Awami League fought to ensure that Justice KM Hasan was not made caretaker adviser – and he was not even a full party member of the BNP.
The easiest thing of course would be for the prime minister to resign, and for the president to hand over power to someone that ‘commands the support of the majority of the members of Parliament’ (as the constitution requires) and of course, in the circumstances, that person must to be acceptable to both the AL and BNP.
That person may well in the past have been Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, the speaker of parliament, but after she (unsuccessfully) sought nomination for an Awami League ticket, her acceptability as an unpartisan person is perhaps rather more questionable.
In any case, finding a replacement will not be necessary, as the prime minister is simply not going to resign.
Putting to one side that Hasina will in all likelihood never agree to it – just as important is that her party would simply never accept it.
As one influential AL member of parliament said, if she resigned, the party might as well kiss goodbye to the election. In his opinion, Hasina’s resignation would be seen as such a big victory for the BNP, that power would simply dissipate from the AL. Khaleda might just as well walk into Gono Bhavan.
There are however ways to reduce the prime minister’s power without her having to resign. To some extent her powers will be automatically constrained by the reality of a diverse cabinet, not a cabinet of ‘yes’ people. She would not simply be able to run roughshod over the opposition cabinet members who would simply resign if she did. Diverse cabinet brings with it collective political responsibility
Moreover, it would also be possible to change the ‘rules of business’, cutting the power that they provide the prime minister during the election time period.
It would also have to be agreed that this new cabinet, with the BNP ministers included, and working with the election commission, would be willing, to make the transfers of staff necessary to ensure that the worst partisanship of the police and civil administration is removed.
And new election commissioners could be appointed to regain the confidence of the opposition parties, with the date of election moved back to the latest date possible
It is not perfect – far from it – but if both parties wanted, there is a certainly a deal to be had that would move the country away from the current path of instability and violence that the country is heading down, and allow for a participatory election that will be free and fair.
But are the parties really interested in any deal right now?
Arguably, making a deal is in Awami League’s best interest.
The governing party perceives itself as ‘the party’ of democracy (in contrast to the BNP), and therefore to make a concession that brings in the opposition party for a participatory election would help bolster the party’s image of itself that it is so keen to foster.
It is also in the party’s clear interest to win the election through a fair competition with the BNP so that any new government it forms has clear legitimacy and can run its full five year course.
Otherwise, any one-sided election will lack legitimacy, and even if, through its control of state coercive mechanims, the Awami League can remain in power after such an election, its legitimacy is in all likelihood to be questioned day by day, decision by decision.
And the AL does have a good chance of winning.
Whilst there has undoubtedly been reasons why the AL has lost much popular support, since the 2009 election, the government also has achieved much – in particular compared to the last time that the BNP was in power. It has a good story to tell.
You only have to look at newspaper headlines at the end of 2006, after five years of BNP’s government.
Apart from articles on the nature of the election time government (some things never change!), the other big main front page issue was energy – with daily reports of protests about the lack of electricity.
Whilst, there may be some legitimate concerns about the cost and the corruption in getting the country where we are now, megawatt-wise, the Awami League government has found a way to produce enough electricity for the country – something that the BNP never came close to doing.
But more significantly, AL leaders themselves believe that it can win the election.
Though there have been a number of polls this year suggesting the BNP is in the lead, more recent polls suggest that the lead is diminishing.
And the Awami League’s own pollsters think that the trend of voters support is moving away from the BNP and they seem genuinely confident from the party’s own internal polls that the AL may even be pulling away from the opposition party.
Furthermore, AL leaders also think that the violence of recent weeks has further resulted in additional decline in BNP support.
So the AL has many good reasons to think that it has every chance to win an election against the BNP – and therefore reasons to find an accommodation.
And as for the BNP, it also has good reason for it to take part in the elections.
The party also feels that it can win a fair election.
There is a strong anti-incumbency factor, many polls have been strongly in their favour, there is a popular feeling that the AL government is simply clinging onto power – and the BNP have legitimate reasons to think that a desire for change will bring them into power.
Moreover, the opposition party must know that its popularity is likely to decline if the violence linked to the opposition sieges, in which many ordinary people are caught up, continues for the next month and perhaps even longer.
And furthermore the BNP must be aware that there is the risk that its movement will fail; that the election goes ahead, and that afterwards the Awami League manages to hold onto power.
With its continuing inability to provide political patronage, the BNP could easily weaken considerably, and then they will have lost a big opportunity to come to power though an election.
So both parties have good reason to find an accommodation which each other – that brings both of them into a participatory election.
But, despite this, this is not the way the party leaders are thinking – and there appears no chance of accommodation.
The Awami League senses victory in the air. They see themselves as operating within the law and constitution, and moreover pitted against a ‘terrorist’ opposition that it has to defeat at all costs to save Bangladesh from militancy and fundamentalism.
More significantly, it is confident that after a one-sided election they can retain power and credibility, helped in fact by the current violence associated with the BNP’s protests, which will allow the AL to blame any low turnout, not on lack of interest of voters, but on the opposition’s party intimidation.
Moreover, the leaders believe that the general population will get sick and tired of the violence, and will be willing to accept the rule of the Awami League, particularly when the alternative is the ‘violent BNP/Jamaat’.
And as for the BNP, it is pretty clear they are so caught up with the rightness of their cause – for the caretaker government – that they don’t seem to be able to think carefully about how sufficiently credible elections can take place even without the ideal scenario.
Moreover, the party does not seem really ready to take part in the elections – not having even started the process of seeking election nominations. It sees the Awami League, well prepared and its confidence in victory is less certain.
So one can’t be in any way confident that the parties will look to their own best interests and find a solution.
It is often stated that ‘Every nation gets the government it deserves’.
Well, the only government that Bangladesh deserves is one formed by a party (or a coalition of parties) with the largest number of seats from a fully participatory election.
This will inevitably happen sometime in the future.
But wouldn’t it be nice if it can happen without enormous amounts of violence and loss of life, without there having to be a state of emergency, and without the army having to step in. All of which are possible risks right now.
Why can’t the parties just make it happen now. It is in their best interests, after all.