The famous line from the philosopher George Santayana, those who do not learn from the past are condemned to relive it, resonates across the contemporary history of Bangladesh, from one decade to the next. What is left unsaid is that our learning failures over the years ensure that the fallout from each successive crisis is intensified with the emergence of newer and more dangerous fissures across our society.
The current confrontation over the issue of elections under a caretaker government is a re-run of an earlier crisis except that the roles of the dramatis personae over the two crises have been reversed.
I was actively involved in addressing the first crisis in 1995, relating to the conditions over ensuring a free and fair election to the 6th Sangshad in February 1996. During 1995, the Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, along with sundry allies which included the Jatiya Party (JP), the Jamaat-e-Islami and various parties of the left, were engaged in a non-cooperation movement for institutionalising elections under a non-partisan caretaker government.
Sheikh Hasina, argued that no incumbent regime, least of all one led by the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime, could be entrusted with holding a free and fair election. Sheikh Hasina’s views were widely shared across the country. So the move for holding elections under a caretaker government commanded considerable popular support.
At that time Hasina’s views on the caretaker system were not shared by the Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, and her colleagues in the ruling BNP. Khaleda Zia took the same view, articulated today by Sheikh Hasina, that elections under an unelected caretaker government were both a violation of the constitution and contrary to the principles of electoral democracy.
In order to seek a way out of this political impasse, which had brought the country to a standstill in the second half of 1995, a Group of 5 (G-5), was set up by a broad constituency from civil society. As a member of the G-5, we moved back and forth between the two leaders to seek a mutually acceptable solution. It says much for the political climate in those days that such mediation was acceptable to the two leaders who both generously gave us enough time on each visit for exhaustive discussions.
The formula for seeking an agreement for establishing a caretaker government had been crafted by a member of the G-5, the late Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed. The Ishtiaq proposal was constructed on similar lines to the recent proposal by Transparency International for an interim/caretaker government. The Ishtiaq model had been designed to maintain both constitutional continuity and democratic legitimacy. It suggested that each side nominate 5 members drawn from elected MPs but was to be headed by a mutually acceptable non-partisan person who would be specially elected to parliament.
It was this suggestion which provoked the now famous response to us by Khaleda Zia that the only non-partisan person in Bangladesh is a pagol othoba shishu (a lunatic or a baby). In an enlightened act of statesmanship Sheikh Hasina agreed to the G-5 proposition provided that Khaleda Zia would agree to the election of a non-partisan person who could head the caretaker government.
Tragically for the BNP, Khaleda Zia, refused to accept this final point and insisted, that the chief caretaker, would be chosen from her party as the BNP was the majority party in parliament. The G-5 mediation broke down on this final point and the BNP went ahead and held its non-participative and fraudulent election of February 1996, which effectively forfeited the democratic legitimacy earned by its victory in the 1991 elections.
The resultant mass agitation, where civil society joined hands with the political opposition, compelled the politically delegitimised BNP to legislate the 13th Amendment to the constitution that set up the caretaker system. BNP paid the price for reacting too late to a popular demand through its electoral defeat in the June 1996 elections which returned the Awami League to office after an exile of 21 years.
By a weird twist of politics the present AL-led government has today challenged the legitimacy of the caretaker system it had originally fought for, by legislating the 15th Amendment to the constitution. The political costs, both to the regime and country, of returning to an electoral arrangement, discredited through our historical experience may be high.
The political calculus of both sides may need to factor in the increasing violence initiated by the agitations of Jamaat over the War Crimes trials and the associated mobilisations of the Hefazat-e-Islam. The 18-Party Alliance appears to encourage, even fuel these agitations, in a shortsighted attempt to leverage their demand for elections under a caretaker system. Such a strategy could ignite a conflagration, which would spare neither the ruling coalition nor the opposition.
The 18 party leadership, therefore, need to decide whether they seek a negotiated settlement which would ensure a peaceful transition to a free and fair election or they aspire to use their own and related agitations to unseat this government before the expiry of its legitimate tenure at the end of 2013.
The opposition should keep in mind that since the democratic renewal in 1991 three regimes, two led by the BNP and one by the Awami League, drawing strength from their electoral legitimacy, have completed their full tenure in office in spite of major public agitations to unseat them. For the present opposition alliance to seek the premature ouster of an elected government, could set a dangerous precedent which could threaten the stability of all elected governments in the future from their first day in office.
The AL should, in turn, learn from the BNP experience of 1995-96 and 2006-07. If the AL aspires to legitimately return to power they can only expect to do so by defeating its principal rival, the BNP, in a participative, free and fair election. By attempting to retain power without going through this test of fire, they may forfeit the democratic legitimacy they command today and expose themselves to the same fate as the BNP in 1996 and 2008.
Under such circumstances, the present regime may do well to prioritise the resolution of its most immediate and potentially manageable challenge over the issue of holding elections under a non-partisan, interim/caretaker system. The precise formulation of a mutually acceptable electoral arrangement would need to be worked out without further delay between the concerned parties through consultations initiated by the ruling party.
BNP should also set its priorities right by responding to any such invitation for talks without setting preconditions. It is only through such a dialogue that the true intentions of the government can be ascertained by the opposition, who can thereby decide on their final course of action.
Failure by both parties to act constructively at this critical juncture in our history carries incalculable risks for the sustainability of our democratic renewal.