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What the president can do

  • Published at 06:42 pm November 27th, 2013
What the president can do

Is the ball in the president’s court now? As violence has gripped the country and more lives have been lost in the past few days, the question has gained currency.

Each day that the stand-off between the ruling alliance and the opposition remains unresolved brings more mayhem and misery for the citizenry, and adds more uncertainty to the upcoming election. Safety and security have now become a matter of chance: insecurity is the norm in the country.  Members of the law enforcing agencies are becoming targets, and loss of property – state and personal – is an issue nobody seems to care about anymore.

For years, particularly in recent months, warnings that the absence of a compromise between the ruling and the opposition parties on the nature and leadership of the election-time government will bring chaos have gone unheeded. I wish I could say that the nation has reached the end of this ordeal; on the contrary, unfortunately this could well be the beginning.

The prudence of the Election Commission (EC) has been brought into question. The EC’s decision to announce the election schedule when some form of a conversation between two secretary generals was getting off the ground might be justifiable on the ground of legal requirements, but one can hardly escape the fact that it has added fuel to the fire.

The consequences of announcing the schedule without discussion with the parties who are inclined to join the election demonstrates that the EC has either failed to understand the gravity of the situation or is unconcerned about the consequences of its actions. Ignoring the opposition’s threat to unleash disorder won’t make it go away. It is only in the world of Harry Potter that “he-who-can-not-be-named” does not appear if you don’t say the name.

The indication by the EC that the schedule is open to change, if the opposition joins the election can be seen as damage control. In 2008 the schedule was changed thrice to ensure the BNP’s participation. The EC, which should have acted soon after October 25 waited until the Parliament was adjourned; but is it now in acting with unseemly haste to catch up?

While the ruling party remains unwavering on the stance that the elections will be held “on time” – which means by January 24, 2014 – if necessary without the participation of the opposition, particularly the BNP, the opposition has resorted to violence to make it impossible to hold the election; therefore, as of today, a common meeting point remains elusive. The wanton violence, which has a high human cost, cannot be justified in any situation. Continued violence will only exacerbate the crisis.

Six eminent citizens met President Abdul Hamid on Tuesday. The delegation included Barrister Kamal Hossain and Shahdeen Malik, both known experts on constitution, Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, Akbar Ali Khan and Sultana Kamal, who served caretaker governments at different times, and Badiul Alam Mazumdar, who has written extensively on issues of election and governance. (A delegation of the opposition alliance led by Khaleda Zia also met the President on 19 November). The delegation knew, perhaps better than us, that the President has no constitutional “power” to intervene. The constitution stipulates, in Article 48(3): “In the exercise of all his functions, save only that of appointing the Prime Minister pursuant to clause (3) of article 56 and the Chief Justice pursuant to clause (1) of article 95, the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister.” Therefore, the president’s hands are tied. Some members of the current delegation, for example Shahdeen Malik, admitted on a previous occasion, when asked, that the president has very little constitutional power.

That being said, there is one provision that gives the president a small window of opportunity to demonstrate his willingness to engage in the resolution of the political impasse. That is Article 48 (5); which states, “The Prime Minister shall … submit for the consideration of the Cabinet any matter which the President may request him to refer to it.”

Granted, one can validly argue that this is too limited a power to have any consequences. Whether the PM and/or cabinet will agree to make any changes is a different question. As to the question what role the cabinet can play if the president sends an issue to discuss, Shahdeen Malik responded: “It is the cabinet that has the right to reject or accept the same.”

Even if the cabinet desires to do something, it too can do nothing unless the PM agrees and acts. However, such a step will send a message that the President is inclined to see a resolution. This is where the issue of “moral authority” comes in.  In a country, where no previous President has set an example of digressing from the ruling party on a critical issue nor has anyone ever exercised his “moral authority,” will the current president do it? Can he do it?

Ruling party activists may object to the suggestion that the President takes a stand different from the ruling party and remind us that neither Abdur Rahman Biswas nor Iajuddin Ahmed, both BNP nominees, weighed in during previous political crises. History will not judge them kindly; we have no reason to believe otherwise.

But it is unfair to equate President Hamid with either of them, at least until now. In years to come, will historians write in one broad stroke that in each instance of political crisis incumbent presidents were asked to exert the moral authority and none did? We will soon know the answer.

The president may seek to limit the power of the incumbent prime minister, through amendments of the rules of business. The all-powerful prime minister position is not conducive to democracy at any time.  More so in case of a cabinet which is supposed to be working for creating an environment for an inclusive election.

The inclusion of a new provision in the rules of business that the interim cabinet can make decisions on the basis of consensus, has been proposed by these eminent citizens. Whether this will be enough to create a level playing field is an open question; but it surely will send a message that the president has acted and that both the “interim cabinet” and the prime minister are willing to make some concessions.

The call for the president’s engagement has come from a group of people who are linked to neither the ruling party nor the opposition. This provides the president with some maneuvering space. He can claim that he is not acting to “appease” the opposition but to respond to the “concerns” of the citizens. While it’s encouraging to hear that the president has confirmed that “he was trying to resolve the political standoff,” time is running out.

The constitution has not given the president enough power, neither has it placed him in equal status to the government and opposition parties in terms of resolving the political deadlock. Thus, it would be unfair and erroneous to say that: “The ball is in the president’s court.”

It is still primarily the ruling and the opposition parties who can stop this mayhem and find a solution, if they choose to do so. However, the president can take this opportunity to remind them, particularly the ruling party, as to what can and should be done.