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Where did the caretaker debate go?

  • Published at 06:40 pm January 3rd, 2014
Where did the caretaker debate go?

Civil society leaders have called for the postponement of the January 5 elections – something that I wholeheartedly agree with. However, I also expected them to bring back to the table the debate over what form of an election-time government this country should ideally have.

When Sheikh Hasina made the announcement that the caretaker government (CTG), as we knew it, would be abolished in the 15th amendment, many in the society flared up as if heresy had been committed. The many negative reactions that I heard from different quarters can be summarised in the following 3 points:

Firstly, the AL itself fought for the CTG system how can they themselves now get rid of it? Secondly, politicians cannot be trusted with something as important as an election. Thirdly, polls suggest that people want the CTG how can AL overturn what is clearly a strong preference of the masses?

I would like to throw a counter-narrative to each of the above seemingly “popular” viewpoints.

Is it hypocritical of the AL to get rid the CTG system?

It is true that the AL itself campaigned for it in 1996 and got its way credit has to be given to BNP for agreeing, and saving the country from further violence and damage. After winning the elections in 1996, AL largely played by the rules of the CTG system in 2001.

Then comes 2006. BNP tries to abuse the system through a controversial chief adviser, then a military-backed CTG overstays its term by 2 years. If, after all that, AL feels that the CTG itself is a system that needs to be re-thought, given the history of its abuse, can we really blame them, no matter which side of the fence we are on?

However, what we can blame AL for is to give a formula for an election-time government during a late stage in the run-up to the election, thereby not giving enough time for the society to debate this matter constructively.

Can politicians be trusted with conducting a free and fair election?

This is a fair question. That is why we need some kind of a level-playing field so that we can ensure an election-time government with equal representation and power from major parties (given that our Election Commission still has significant scope for improvement in being able to exert its independent authority).

That is a discussion I feel has not yet got much traction in the media and in the civil society circuits, since we have already thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

It is true that the head of this election-time government, given the powers vested under the current rules, can over-shadow any other cabinet post. Hence, the discussion that should have been raised much more strongly by the civil society force was: How can there be a way to neutralise a head of this election-time government by placing certain restrictions, what should the ideal composition of this government be, and how should important ministries, such as Home and Establishment, that controls the posting of bureaucrats, be divided up?

It should also be noted that rigging of elections is not easy in this age of digital media, with about a dozen private TV channels, several national and local newspapers and a number of international election observer bodies, some equipped to engage the youth from different corners of the country for mobile phone-based reporting.

Yes, it is an age when citizens all over can rise up to the occasion, but only if we have an election worth rising up for.

How can the AL get rid of the CTG when polls clearly show its popularity?

It is true that multiple poll results have suggested that people do want an election to be held under the CTG. However, the implicit choice given to respondents of these polls was a CTG comprised of civil society members versus the incumbent in charge during the election.

And the result was as one would expect. But it is important to realise that the polls did not give people an option to choose between a traditional CTG and an election-time government with equal representation and division of control among major parties. So, we don’t honestly know what people really want.

I believe that it is time to put this issue of appropriate election-time government back on the table. Why don’t we as citizens, or civil society members, campaign for an election-time government comprised of elected representatives accountable to the people?

Why don’t we push the major parties to come to a decision about the composition and division of power in this government? We know that a government comprised of unelected officials, even if it is for a few months, is somewhat undemocratic in its very nature.

So why continue with yet another undemocratic instrument to fix a broken democratic system, and not try to strengthen democratic institutions accountable to the people, and the citizens themselves, empowered by new technologies?

Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star and a noted political analyst, has stated in his recent commentary on December 27: “Sheikh Hasina ... does not have to replicate the former CTG concept and can reflect much of the PM’s own ideas of an all party government. The only hurdle remaining is: Who will head it?”

Along the lines of Mr Anam, I believe that it is a critical need to re-surface this debate and put more directed pressure on the political parties to end this impasse. Instead of just calling to the AL for a postponement of elections, or to BNP for an end to the strikes, let us direct our demands to more specific and achievable terms.

I am sure that our civil society leaders can rise above the allegations that they are unwilling to vouch for an election-time government system, which they themselves are not a part of.