This commentary proposes the essential framework of an election time interim government in Bangladesh, an issue that seems to be at the heart of the long ongoing political impasse in Bangladesh. The proposal here is likely to be perceived as honourable by both the ruling party Awami League (AL) and the main non-ruling party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The stalemate commenced in 2011 when the AL-led regime enacted the 15th constitutional amendment to replace the unelected caretaker government (CTG) system instituted under the 13th amendment in 1996. Under the new system, the interim government is to be led by a prime minister and a cabinet, all being members of the parliament in place, but unlike the Westminster style tradition, the parliament may not be dissolved. The BNP refused to participate in the January 5, 2014 election under the new system and the AL won the election nearly uncontested that effectively disenfranchised more than 50% of the electorate.
Given questionable democratic legitimacy of the new government at home and abroad, there is a widespread call for holding another credible election. But the main sticking point still remains, namely, what should be the form of the election time interim government, for any such election and beyond. The principal contention of this commentary is that any proposed solution must (a) be honourable enough for both the AL leader Honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the BNP leader Honourable Ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and (b) factor in the potential and likely abuse of governance power to influence the conduct and the outcome of the election. Honourable Sheikh Hasina and Honourable Khaleda Zia have been instrumental in returning Bangladesh to the path of representative democracy and they have presided over unprecedented economic growth and enviable social developments. Both of their families have also made great sacrifices and paid dearly in advancing the cause of the nation, albeit in their respective manners. It is only befitting that the personal dignity of the two leaders be upheld in a new interim government system.
With the above in mind, the following are suggested as essential elements of a solution to the vexing problem of a mutually acceptable system of interim government:
Element 1: In accordance with the 15th constitutional amendment, the interim government will comprise of cabinet members, including the prime minister, selected from the members of the parliament elected through the last credible election in which both of the two parties, with most support in the population at large, participated. The number of members in the cabinet, excluding the prime minister, should be in the range of nine to eleven, a size nimble enough for the minimal but efficient functioning of the interim government and also modest enough for efficient management of the appointment and dismissal process described below.
Element 2: The ruling prime minister will, by default, be the prime minister of the interim government. However, as a gesture of good will to the leader of the non-ruling major party and to improve the neutrality image of the interim government, the ruling prime minister may choose not to directly participate in the interim government and instead select another member of parliament of the ruling party to be the prime minister of the interim government. In this case, the new prime minister should preferably be someone who was not a member of the cabinet at any time under the ruling regime.
Element 3: All the members of the interim government cabinet, other than the prime minister, will be nominated by the leader of the non-ruling major party. However, in democratic tradition, a majority of the interim cabinet nominations should be chosen from the members of the ruling party.
3A: The interim prime minister may reject a nomination, but will seek a new nomination within 24 hours of rejection, and will be obliged to accept the replacement nomination from the leader of the non-ruling major party.
Element 4: The interim prime minister will allocate the portfolio of all ministries to the interim cabinet members with the exception of some key ministries, namely, those with the most direct control over law enforcement, civil administration, judiciary, Election Commission and Anti-Corruption Commission. The assignment of these key ministries will be the prerogative of the leader of the non-ruling major party. Under the configuration as of the end of 2013, the key ministries are Law, Home, Cabinet and Establishment.
4A: The interim prime minister can sack a cabinet member, but will have to seek a new nominee within 24 hours and will be obliged to accept the new nominee. Over the course of the interim government, the interim prime minister can sack at most forty percent of cabinet members and can sack cabinet members two times at most for the same ministry. But no ministry can remain unassigned to a cabinet member for more than 24 hours.
4B: The cabinet must be in full strength and neither the cabinet nor the assignment of ministries can be changed any further, starting with 14 days prior to the date of the general election.
Element 5: No major long-term policy decisions can be implemented by the interim government. But the interim cabinet members can undertake administrative changes including appointment and transfer of officials and reassignment of tasks. However, in the case of the key ministries, the interim cabinet could transfer and reassign a maximum of forty percent of the pre-interim government officials at a given level, starting with the district or equivalent level and upward.
Element 1 above concerning the 15th Amendment is the signature constitutional reform by Honourable Sheikh Hasina and it is also a valuable step forward for the maturation of the democratic process in Bangladesh. The previous CTG system cannot possibly be a long-term solution.
Element 2 is the principal unofficial demand of the AL. Displacement of Honourable Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister until she is defeated electorally is absolutely unacceptable to the AL since this reflects negatively on her commitment to a free and fair democratic process.
Element 3, on the other hand, is pivotal to retain the dignity of Honourable Khaleda Zia, two time Prime Minister herself before. Although the BNP-led alliance won only ten percent of the seats in the parliament in the 2009 election, their support at the popular level was and still remains at par with the AL if not more. Contrary to parliamentary tradition, Honourable Khaleda Zia and her party have not been included with due importance in the reconfiguration process of a new interim government system. Perhaps they are also apprehensive of Honourable Sheikh Hasina engineering the process to return the country to a de facto one-party (BAKSAL) democracy.
Elements 2 and 3 together should bring about balance of interim governance power between the two major parties and between Honourable Sheikh Hasina and Honourable Khaleda Zia, and would also make the interim government truly an all-party one.
Elements 4 and 5 are intended to address the concerns about the non-neutrality of a partisan interim government and the associated abuse of governance power for electoral purpose. These two elements attempt to institute a system of check and balance in the use of interim governance power while retaining sufficient flexibility to undertake changes that may be desirable. They should act as disincentives for the ruling party to strategize the governance apparatus, ahead of the interim government. Similarly, the non-ruling major party would also be aware of their limitations in reshuffling the interim governance apparatus in their favour. Overall, a much needed sense of confidence may return in the interim government system on the part of all parties.
In conclusion, the proposed interim government framework is expected to be useful in negotiating a solution and breaking the current deadlock that, if persists, can be quite detrimental for Bangladesh. Ultimately, there is no perfect solution and there will never be one. Hopefully the compromise solution articulated here would be seen as acceptable enough by the principal contenders since it builds into it the preservation of the due dignity of both Honourable Sheikh Hasina and Honourable Khaleda Zia and their parties.
Mo Chaudhury, Ph.D., is a Professor of Practice at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
The Spirit of 1971January 16, 2014
Mukti Juddher Chetona (MJC), in principle, should refer to the spirits/values that guided the 1971 Liberation War and inspired its brave conduct. This commentary intends to catalogue the historical perspective and evolution of the MJC in a succinct manner.
MJC really started to shape up first through the Language Movement (Bhasha Andolon) of 1952, and then became more defined, mature and widely shared through the 6-Point mass movement of 1966 and the 11-Point student movement of 1969. At the time of 1947 partition and leading up to it, religious nationhood dominated linguistic/cultural nationhood (Bangali) among both Bangali Muslims and Hindus. In 1947, members (mostly Muslim League) of the Bengal Legislative Assembly representing the Muslim majority areas voted in favour of the undivided Bengal joining Pakistan. But ironically the members representing the Hindu majority areas voted against undivided Bengal that, under the Mountbatten Plan, led to the splitting of Bengal.
A few years later, the Bhasha Andolon marked a monumental shift in the chetona of the Muslims of East Pakistan. As their ethnic (linguistic/cultural) majority was turned upside down against them by the minority non-Bangali rulers of Pakistan sharing the same religion, the chetona of religion-based nationhood gave away to the chetona of linguistic/cultural (Bangali) nationhood. This led to massive realignment of political allegiance away from the Muslim League and catapulted the Awami League (formed in 1949) into the voice of the rediscovered Bangali nationhood. Instead of being prisoners of gratitude, shunning loyalty to the party that led the creation of the country they wanted in 1947 was pragmatic in 1952, and lending support to the newly born Awami League was a dynamic choice that reflected their audacity of hope for a future consistent with their reconfigured Bangali nationhood chetona, and freedom of expression and democratic rights in a broader sense.
In the decade that followed the Bhasha Andolon, it became apparent to the Bangalis of Pakistan that they have also become victims of economic colonialism by the non-Bangali rulers of Pakistan. This expanded their chetona to include economic freedom and justice that was soon incorporated in the demand for more provincial autonomy and power to self-govern in the 6-Point movement of 1966 led by Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Importantly, the 6-Point movement also strengthened the chetona of democratic norms by demanding the supremacy of a parliament elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.
A critical development during the next three years was the coming together of the Chhatra League and leading left-wing student organisations and the formation of the Sharbodoliyo Chhatra Shangram Parishod (SCSP). The SCSP launched the 11-Point movement in early January of 1969 that added to the 6-Point, demands for the rights of workers and nationalisation of bank, insurance, jute and large scale industries. This was also the first time that the dream of transforming East Pakistan into an independent country captured the imagination of a wider array of student organisations as they openly chanted "Tomar Desh, Amar Desh, Bangladesh, Bangladesh" and "Joy Bangla", although some left-branded organisations appeared to have circulated in print the call for an independent Purba Bangla in 1968 (David Ludden, Forgotten Heroes, http://www.hindu.com/).
The above historical perspective allows a clean articulation of the MJC and the goals of the Liberation War as they stood at the onset of and during the 1971 Liberation War. No less important it is to discern what values/spirits were not in the MJC and what the Liberation War was not about at the time.
First, the most primitive and overriding of the spirits/values in the MJC, in a literal sense, was the Bangali nationhood. But importantly the Bhasha Andolon of 1952 and the movements later did not want to take away the linguistic/cultural freedom from the non-Bangalis although Bangla was clearly the majority language. This means that the underlying core chetona was the freedom of expression (speech, language/culture, religious, political) without inhibition and with security for all, Bangalis and non-Bangalis. The religious freedom of expression and security was the principal chetona in 1947 and was behind the spontaneous support and martyrdom of Bangalis in the 1965 War against India. This requires territorial sovereignty and defence against predominantly non-Muslim neighbours, as forcefully advocated in the 6-Point Movement as well as in the 11-Point movement. To secure both religious and linguistic/cultural freedom, Bangali Muslims needed political freedom or more concretely a political jurisdiction where they will be majority both in terms of religion and language/culture. They won the right to this political freedom in the December 1970 elections, but when it was denied at gunpoint, there was just one way to achieve this, namely an all-out Liberation War.
Second, Bangalis have always cherished democratic norms and pursued democratic means of expressing and achieving their aspirations despite military regimes, distorted democratic forms of government and brutal suppression inflicted by the non-Bangali rulers. The demand for parliamentary democracy based on universal adult franchise in the 6-Point and 11-Point movements formally and clearly captured this chetona. Even to the last hopeless moment of March 25, 1971, Bangabandhu pursued ways of salvaging the fragile democracy of Pakistan. The democratic norms were so strong that the widely popular Chhatra League and Awami League joined hands with left-branded parties and formally adopted socialism as a chetona in 1969 for the first time. This was to widen the mass movement and also to strategically position the Awami League to win a landslide in East Pakistan that was necessary to gain exclusive majority in the Pakistan Parliament.
Third, economic justice and freedom became a prominent component of the overall chetona through the 6-Point movement and it remained as a cornerstone of the mass movement leading up to the December 1970 elections. With free enterprise and private property rights as the historical norm of the region and the Islamic tradition, the pre-liberation adoption of socialism as a chetona by the Chhatra league and Awami League was a temporary strategic move to win crucial support for the Liberation War from the left, and from Russia and its allied parties in India. But, instead of being held as prisoners of gratitude, the regimes (including the Awami League) after 1975 showed enormous pragmatism and dynamism in shunning socialism as a chetona in light of the epic global shift away from it.
Fourth, the most controversial use of MJC by the political parties since liberation concerns secularism (religion-independent governance). But Bangabandhu included secularism as one of the four pillars of the state of Bangladesh only after independence (Joseph T. O'Connell, 1976, Dilemmas of Secularism in Bangladesh, pp. 68-69). There was no reference to secularism, communalism and religious fundamentalism in the 6 Points, 11 Points, or in Bangabandhu's historic March 7, 1971 speech. Thus, as desirable as it is, secularism was not a part of the MJC. Eradicating communalism and religious fundamentalism is also a noble chetona shared by this author like most Bangladeshis, but it simply was not part of the historic MJC either since it didn't have to be at the time. The 1971 genocide took place to retain East Pakistan within Pakistan, not because the non-Bangali rulers were religious fundamentalists. In fact, the communal forces and fundamentalist parties (like Muslim League, Jamaate Islam) were cleanly defeated by the secular parties in West Pakistan in the December 1970 election.
The 1971 Bangali traitors (mostly Jamaat/Shibir) were communal and fundamentalist, and there is no compromise in prosecuting their crimes against humanity. But the freedom fighters sacrificed their lives principally to free Bangladesh from the (West) Pakistani invaders, and neutralising the traitors came only by the incidence of their collaboration.
Note that communalism and religious fundamentalism exist in most societies and are on the rise even in developed secular democracies like USA. In India and Israel, communal and fundamentalist parties even came to share governance power through the democratic process. These are extremist psyches as is effectively one-party rule and autocratic democracy (neo-communism), and they must be fought off and marginalised through democratic means and nurturing tolerance in all matters and at all echelons.
To conclude, the Mukti Juddher Chetona (MJC) is a historic collection of values/spirits that evolved from the 1947 partition to the 1971 Liberation War, and as such it must be recollected truthfully and respected gracefully. But, as the history of Bangladesh amply demonstrates, to succeed as a people, Bangladeshis need to practice strategic pragmatism and adapt dynamically to evolving circumstances instead of being held as prisoners of gratitude to chetonas, political allegiance and external relationships that made sense in the past, but may not be warranted driving forward.
Mo Chaudhury, Ph.D., is a Professor of Practice at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.