Demand for caretaker government system in Bangladesh
By Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury/IBNS
The cancellation of the caretaker government system, introduced in 1996 by the then BNP-led government, has now triggered stiff protests from the BNP-led opposition. They have been demanding restoration of the caretaker government system and reiterating that they will not participate in parliamentary elections under the Awami League (AL) - led government, alleging that the incumbent will utilize government machinery and manipulate the poll in its own favour.
To know how the idea of caretaker government system came into being one has to look back in history.
After overthrow of General HM Ershad’s military regime in Bangladesh in 1990 through mass upsurge, there was instability and complete chaos in the country with no formal government in position. So all the leading political leaders, eminent personalities and civil society activists unanimously reached an understanding over instituting an acceptable and credible mechanism to hold parliamentary elections under supervision of a caretaker government in order to install a democratic government in the country and put an end to the menace of frequent military take-over for ever.
The prevalent chaotic situation in those days warranted such a temporary system of governance to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition from military rule to democracy. The first election under this interim arrangement was held in 1991.
But now, when democracy is in the process of taking firm roots in the country, does Bangladesh really need a caretaker government to oversee parliamentary elections? 41 years have already passed since its emergence as a democratic country. Do the political leaders even now require supervision of an un-elected caretaker government for conducting elections and handing over power to the elected regime? Have they not grown and matured enough, personally, professionally and politically even now? No other country in the world has such a strange mechanism of governance for conducting elections.
Initially warranted by exigencies of circumstances this quick-fix solution called caretaker system was conceived as a short term solution to ensure smooth transition to democracy. This is basically an undemocratic system and can not by any means be a long-term cure for democracy.
Whenever general elections are held in a democratic country, there are neutral election observers, including impressive arrays of foreign teams, to oversee the election process. Interestingly, their reports carry a great deal of weight in determining whether there were irregularities and electoral fraud or malpractices and find out if the voting was conducted in a free, fair and transparent manner. Depending on reports of the neutral observers, election results gain credibility or otherwise. The new government is formed on the basis of election results endorsed by the neutral observers.
The new government is then sworn in for a fixed period when they have total power and full jurisdiction under all the laws of the land and subject to the rules and regulations set for conducting the state business. And they do so - good, bad or indifferent - whatever may be the opinion of the people in general and the parties in opposition, the incumbent government holds sway over the state apparatus on the pledge to do their mandated jobs.
How can the same government, whose coming to power is deemed constitutional and lawful and who had all the trust and expectations of the people to deliver, all of a sudden become untrustworthy and unfit to undertake what may be called its final lawful act, that is to arrange and hold the general elections in the country.
Recent months have witnessed a resurgence of interest in Caretaker government system after the country’s Supreme Court in a historical verdict dispensed with this undemocratic system. Strangely enough, the only argument proffered in this regard is that the incumbent government cannot be trusted to be neutral to ensure free and fair elections. The demand for caretaker government is the product of politicians’ mutual disrespect, distrust and disagreement.
It is not caretaker government but a truly independent and strong Election Commission (EC) that is a pre-requisite for free and fair elections to save democracy. The EC must be composed of non-partisan, capable and bold members. To have such an EC what the country needs is a political consensus across the board. If politicians care for the country, its people and democracy, reaching such consensus would not be difficult at all. What seems to be lacking is their true and moral commitment for the country.
Apart from an independent EC responsible for all aspects of conducting the elections in a free and fair manner, there are law courts, the High Court and the Supreme Court as well. There are many neutral watchdogs and above all, there is a vast, vibrant and vigorous media, both electronic and print. Moreover, can the government of any developing country afford to risk its credibility before international community and donor agencies by resorting to electoral fraud to hold on to power?
Nowhere else in the world such a strange mechanism as caretaker government system exists. In the aftermath of cancellation of the provision for caretaker government system by the Supreme Court, the demand for its restoration seems not only ridiculous but also ill-motivated. Bangladesh has completed 41 years of state existence and democracy in the country is no longer in the same nascent stage as it was after the fall of General Ershad’s military rule. Moreover, is there any guarantee that after its restoration, this solution to a perceived problem would not itself become a more vicious one and jeopardize democracy in the country?
This is exactly what happened in Bangladesh in January 2007 when an Army- backed dispensation seized power under the cover of a caretaker government with an assurance to hold parliamentary elections within the stipulated 90 day period. But in reality, in the name of caretaker government, Bangladesh continued to remain under de-facto Army rule for two long years. During this period, democracy in Bangladesh was a casualty. The so-called caretaker government sought to perpetuate indirect military rule in Bangladesh on the pattern of Pakistan where democracy is basically a façade for Army rule.
After toying with several ideas to perpetuate indirect Army rule in the country this so-called caretaker government finally yielded to intense international pressure brought upon it for restoration of democracy. Finally it found no option but to hold parliamentary elections for handing over power to a democratically elected regime.
Elections held so far under the Awami League led government since it assumed office in 2009 have been free, fair and impartial. There were no allegations or reports of any electoral malpractice. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has reiterated that the next parliamentary elections would be conducted by her government despite the opposition demand for revival of caretaker government system. She has assured that there will not be any interference by the government and EC will remain independent and neutral. She also pointed out that since her government assumed office in 2009 the EC conducted 5,175 elections in the country and all these elections were free, fair and impartial.
The preconditions for democracy to survive and flourish do not include a caretaker government. They include healthy and independent democratic institutions that comprise the de-politicized civil administration and bureaucracy, the military, the judiciary, all academic institutions, and above all, the EC. Each must be equipped with competent, ethical and impartial individuals with sound and appropriate academic backgrounds. They all must be recruited and rewarded through a fair process with no political interferences. They must be kept non-partisan and sanctity of all these institutions must be preserved to ensure survival and flourishing of democracy.
(Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury is a Program Director with Aspen Institute India, New Delhi. The views expressed in the article are of the writer and not IBNS. He can be contacted at email@example.com)