The system of a supposedly neutral caretaker administration before elections is not only absurd but also contradictory to the spirit of democracy. Bangladesh had to go through this system following rigged bye-election of Magura under the 1991 BNP rule. That’s when the Awami League came up with the idea of a caretaker government. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party opposed the system and the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia ridiculed the proposed neutral interim system saying that no one could be neutral other than a child or a lunatic. Now ironical she is the one fighting for the same utopian caretaker system, which has already been abolished by the parliament following a Supreme Court verdict.
The ‘91 Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and the ‘96 Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman caretaker governments were quite successful in holding fair elections, perhaps as a necessity of law. But the 2001 Justice Latifur Rahman and the 2006 Prof Iazuddin Ahmed caretaker administrations unleashed the darkness inherent in such a system.
Prof Ahmed’s partisan approach resulted in an army backed 1/11 caretaker administration which interrupted the flow of democracy for two years. By the time elections were held in December 2008, the realization was driven home that unless we learn to institutionalize democracy the uncertainty of caretakers will remain a threat to the evolution of democracy. When the entire western world is run on the spirit of the Westminster system, why does Bangladesh at all have to nurture the caretaker concept? Rather, we should strengthen our Election Commission so that it can hold fair elections. The existing Election Commission has already demonstrated the strength of its neutrality during recent local body polls in which the opposition BNP got reasonable wins. We still have more than two years in hand before the next parliamentary elections to further equip and give autonomy to the Election Commission.
After ridiculing the caretaker concept in the past, the BNP has now started accusing the Awami League of election engineering by abolishing the caretaker system. Interestingly, this very BNP was noticeably absent from the parliament where it would have been within its rights to voice concerns about the said abolishment. Even though, top AL leaders have requested BNP parliamentarians to offer a formula for free and fair elections, BNP is unfortunately preparing for a showdown on the streets, which is nothing short of an attempt to assassin whatever little peace and economic growth we have left.
The role of opposition in the parliament has consistently remained absent, whereas all the while these opposition parliamentarians have never once refused their salaries and/or foreign tours. The Awami League may have failed to deliver all that it promised in its election manifesto, but really how responsible have we seen the BNP as a shadow government or party in opposition.
The 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat government turned a blind eye to the rise of militancy and corruption. Bangladesh became comparable to Pakistan in terms of grenade attacks and politics of religion. We even had to suffer the wrath of western Islamophobic blacklists. The Awami League has, at least, reestablished secular order in which minorities are safe like before and socio-cultural activities are free from the threats of religious traders and militants. The moment foreign investors, even from the militancy-torn Muslim world, started eyeing Bangladesh as a safe place for investment, the BNP-Jamaat duo has once again resorted to public strikes in a visible attempt to bottleneck the feel-good atmosphere for investment and business.
We have yet to see the opposition shoulder any pro-people agenda. All they are doing is showing concern about an election that will take place after two and a half years. This election- and power- politics has become boringly repetitive and out-dated. Having said this, one would also like to see the party in power address urgent issues like inflation, power shortage, security, stock-exchange dacoity, corruption and abuse of power by partisan cadres. To top it off, the unnecessarily totalitarianesque attitude of some of the sitting ministers and members of parliament are tarnishing whatever little good this government wants to achieve.
We ordinary people expect a higher level of tolerance and maturity from the party in power, not loose talk and disregard for public sentiment. The Awami League leaders should welcome criticism from every corner to show who the bigger person is, and they should, on priority basis, work towards strengthening the Election Commission as a means of upholding their promise for fair elections in 2014.
I fervently hope the ruling upper brass has learnt from the experience of 2001 and 2006 caretakers that any level of election engineering is destined to backfire. And the BNP should stop getting paranoid about election-rigging. Based on the lessons drawn from the trials and errors of democracy, it’s a safe bet that winning the hearts of powerless marginal people alone will decide the fate of 2014 polls.