For a brief period this week, the possibility of a breakthrough in the persistent standoff between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party afflicting the country's politics and thus many facets of life for Bangladeshis seemed to shine through the clutter. But it was all too brief, and by the end of the week things were back to square one.
At a rally of the 14-party Mohajote ruling coalition on Tuesday (Jun. 6), Amir Hossain Amu, the veteran AL leader who acts as coordinator for the coalition, reportedly said: "We're prepared to sit with you [BNP] for the sake of continuing democracy. Sheikh Hasina has said the door to discussions is open. She has said she is ready to hold free and fair elections by whatever means."
Amu said the Awami League was also open to hold discussions like the ones during the visit by UN Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco before the 2014 polls.
"Let the UN send a representative again if necessary. We want to hold talks with the BNP and find out the differences. We want to find out the hurdles to holding free and fair electrons, and overcome them. This issue can be settled through discussions, nothing else."
Not that the effort held particularly happy memories. Taranco held meetings with both sides in 2013, but the BNP boycotted the elections the next year. The party joined the 2018 elections, but lost, alleging widespread irregularities. The opposition party is in a standoff with the Awami League over the administration under which the election will be held.
The BNP has launched a movement demanding the resignation of the government and the installation of a neutral caretaker administration before the polls. The AL has rejected the demand, saying unelected governments will never be allowed in Bangladesh again. Amid growing concerns over possible violence during the election, Amu's comments about talks with the BNP stirred a night of excited discussions in Bangladesh's political arena - already leant a degree of excitement in recent weeks by the sustained interest of the United States government through its embassy in Dhaka.
On Wednesday (Jun. 7) however, Amu was forced to backtrack. Prime Minister and AL President Sheikh Hasina spoke to Amu about his statement that very morning after she placed a wreath at the portrait of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Dhanmondi-32 on the occasion of the historic Six-Point Day.
Hasina conveyed to Amu that what he said on Tuesday was not the party line. There is no need "to go so soft", she reportedly said.
Talking to the press later, he said the BNP can be asked to contest in the next election, but it cannot be invited to discussions for other agendas. Amu rowed back on his comments about UN-mediated talks with the BNP, saying he has not invited anyone to discussions.
"A conspiracy about the election is unfolding. There is no scope of calling someone to talks," he said at a Six-Point Programme Day discussion attended by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. "We proved in the discussions with Taranco that a constitutional vacuum would be created if the elections were not held, which is not desirable for any country."
"The elections were held, through which the Sheikh Hasina government retained power and took the country forward. The country has now emerged as a developing nation," Amu said.
"Everyone must participate in elections and let the people decide who will get power. Someone can be asked to take that test, but not to join talks."
Earlier in the day, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader also said the ruling party had not yet taken any decision on holding discussions with the BNP. He added the Awami League would resolve its issues on its own if necessary.
And so that was the end of that. Although looking back, it becomes clear that talks between our political parties have had a chequered history at best.
Talk is cheap
After the fall of the administration of the late General HM Ershad in 1990, the first successful talks among the political parties paved the way for a smooth transition to democracy. They reached an agreement and requested then chief justice Shahabuddin Ahmed to lead the interim government after Ershad's resignation as president.
The Shahabuddin government was successful in leading a peaceful transition to democracy through holding a free and fair national election in February 1991. Parliamentary democracy was restored in the country.
But only four years after the restoration of democracy, as the next election approached, the political parties failed to resolve a deadlock through talks. From September 1994 to January 1996, the country's eminent citizens, foreign dignitaries, including a special envoy of the then Commonwealth secretary general and diplomats in Dhaka, mediated a series of negotiations between the then ruling BNP and the opposition AL to resolve the political crisis over the introduction of an election-time government.
As the negotiations failed, the country witnessed a massive street violence and eventually a one-sided parliamentary election in February 1996. The polls were boycotted by the AL and its allies who had been agitating for the introduction of a nonpartisan caretaker government system. Eventually the BNP was forced to introduce an amendment with a provision for a caretaker government to hold elections, under which another election was held in June, and the Awami League was returned to power for the first time in 21 years - after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
In 2004, a political crisis developed over the BNP government increasing the retirement age of Supreme Court judges through a constitutional amendment. The amendment paved the way for then chief justice KM Hasan to become the chief adviser of the election-time caretaker government.
Under the leadership of Hasina, the then AL-led opposition alliance strongly rejected the amendment saying they would not accept Justice Hasan as the chief adviser. Towards the fag end of its five-year tenure, the BNP-led government agreed to sit for talks with the AL to break the political deadlock. Then BNP secretary general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and AL general secretary Abdul Jalil held several rounds of talks at the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban. But the talks failed to resolve the crisis. The tenure of the BNP government came to an end with the crisis remaining unresolved. There were regular bouts of violence in the street.
President Iajuddin Ahmed opened talks with political parties to end the impasse. The BNP rejected the AL's proposal for finding an alternative to Justice Hasan. At one point, Iajuddin, on the BNP's advice, assumed the office of the chief adviser. The crisis worsened further.
At one stage, the AL-led alliance pulled out of the national election scheduled for January 22, 2007, and intensified street agitation. The party announced that it would resist the election. The country plunged into political chaos resulting in the declaration of the state of emergency on January 11.
Sir Ninian's legacy
Eminent Australian jurist and an ex-governor general was assigned by the Commonwealth secretary-general as his special envoy to resolve the political crisis in Bangladesh in 1994. The AL had started a movement to install a caretaker government ahead of the next elections due in 1996, after widespread allegations of rigging by the ruling party in a by election held in Magura.
At the end of his mission, Sir Ninian Stephen described his honest-broker visit to Bangladesh for six weeks as "tough going for our small enclave in a country with virtually no tourist traffic".
"We did not see any other European faces for the six weeks, although the Bangladeshi people were very friendly and helpful," he said. Sir Ninian was reluctant to express optimism about the political future of the troubled country. He told The Canberra Times that the personality clash between the country's two key political figures made an acceptable solution 'virtually impossible'.
Sir Ninian, who was accompanied by his wife and two Commonwealth staffers, from Ghana and England, travelled to Bangladesh initially for a two-week assignment as a Special Commonwealth Envoy.
The small entourage stayed at a government guest house, formerly the home of a wealthy Pakistani businessman, in the centre of Dhaka. Radical Muslim demonstrators burnt an effigy of Sir Ninian, but the envoy and his colleagues did not witness a single protest.
He said that unlike other political negotiations in which he had been involved, such as Northern Ireland, the crisis in Bangladesh had no particular terms to be argued out and there were no apparent ideological differences.
Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Opposition Leader Sheikh Hasina had earlier agreed to discuss their differences, but because of "deep suspicion and mistrust" were unable to agree to a settlement.
"The Opposition Leader exhibits bitter antipathy towards the Prime Minister personally and she has made it clear she [Ms Zia] is to step down," he said.
Sir Ninian said the situation had worsened towards the end of his stay with the opposition threatening strike action which would grind the country to a halt. "If that happens then chaos and violence will result," he said. He was right.
He would be prepared to return to Bangladesh, but only if he could fit it into his busy schedule and only if there was movement to a caretaker regime and fresh elections.
Before departing, Sir Ninian did draft 'a peace plan' that he shared with the parties during his stay. This would have established a 45-day caretaker government headed by the Prime Minister with a Cabinet of four appointed by her and five appointed by the Opposition.
"No portfolios would have been allocated and the country would have been run by department heads until the new elections were held," he said. Khaleda Zia had agreed to the plan, but the opposition had refused.
But this framework he had provided may still hold the seeds of a plan around which the two parties can coalesce this time around, even if the caretaker issue remains off the table. It would still require the BNP to accept Sheikh Hasina staying on as prime minister though, and that may prove to be a huge sticking point.
Why weaken the EC?
Meanwhile in another significant development this week, The Representation of the People Order (Amendment) Bill, 2023 was placed in the parliament during the ongoing budget session this week with a new provision to authorise the Election Commission to postpone or cancel the election result of one or more than one polling station during the election - but not an entire election, as the EC had done in a Gaibandha by election. The RPO is the law governing elections in Bangladesh.
Law minister Anisul Huq placed the bill, which was sent to the ministry's parliamentary standing committee for scrutiny, requesting that it be reported back to parliament within 15 days. As per the new provision, the EC can postpone or cancel the result of one or more polling stations at any time during the election for any irregularity.
In the existing law, it says that the election commission may stop the polls at any polling station (or entire constituency, as the case may be) at any stage of the election if it is convinced that it will not be able to ensure the conduct of the election justly, fairly, and in accordance with the law due to malpractices. The proposed law, however, replaced 'election' with 'polling' u.e. voting.
A new para is inducted into the bill saying that the commission may withhold the result of any polling station or polling stations if it is convinced that the result of such a polling station or polling stations is grossly prejudiced by malpractices.
The issue of punishing offenders for hampering media people from performing their 'lawful' duty during the election has also been included in the proposed law, incorporating a provision of a jail sentence between seven and two years for this offence.
Now a returning officer's decision regarding a nomination paper cancellation can be challenged.
But under the proposed law, a returning officer's decision to declare a nomination paper valid can also be challenged.
An appeal can be made against any returning officer's decision regarding both the cancellation and acceptance of nomination papers.
According to the proposed law, an aspirant will not default if he repays a bank loan or an instalment and also clears all utility bills a day before nomination papers submission.
The aspirant needs to attach a TIN certificate and receipts of tax payments to the nomination paper as well, according to the proposed law.
Opposition Jatiya Party lawmaker Fakhrul Imam objected to the bill, alleging that the power of the Election Commission was being curtailed through the amendment of the law. He claimed that this amendment was against the constitution and democracy spirit. But his objection was rejected by voice vote.
In response to his statement, the law minister simply claimed that the RPO amendment did not undermine people's rights. The law minister said that, as per the amendment, if there was a disturbance at any polling station, voting could be stopped there.
"But due to the chaos in 2-3 polling stations, power is not given to stop polls at other stations where fair polls have been conducted. It is not against democracy," he said. But the EC had intervened in Gaibandha finding irregularities in 48 out of 151 centres, not 2-3.
Civil society platform Sushashoner Janno Nagorik secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar said that the new move to amend the RPO would decrease the EC's power.
"It seems that the commission can take any action just on polling day instead of the entire election process," he said, on the significance of replacing 'election' with 'polling'. "The election is a complete package, from the announcement of the election schedule to publishing official results."
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