Sheikh Hasina's Speech

Sheikh Hasina's Speech

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 18th October proposed forming an all-party election-time government to oversee the next general election

“We want to hold the next parliamentary elections taking all parties with us. It’s my proposal to the opposition party that we can form an ‘all-party government’ comprising all parties for the election period,” she said in her 21-minute address to the nation televised at 7:30 pm.

Sheikh Hasina said the aim of the government is to hold a free, neutral and peaceful election. “That’s why I’m proposing the opposition party that you could send names from opposition MPs for including them in the interim cabinet for forming the all-party government so that no one could have any suspicion about the election,” she said.

In this connection, Hasina said there could be an election removing all mistrusts where people would be able to cast their votes to elect a government according to their desire.

“I request the opposition leader to respond to my plea and she’ll accept my request and value our goodwill with a positive gesture,” she said.

Constructive speech but certain facts remain uncertain:

It cannot be denied that there is a pressure from within and outside to hold free, credible and inclusive parliamentary election and many analysts argue that the Prime Minister has to come up with some pragmatic proposal to the opposition to hold free and fair elections.

It would have been desirable if the Prime Minister could have addressed the nation much earlier than at the fag end of her government’s tenure in a move to solve the ongoing political stalemate that casts a shadow on the next general election.

Furthermore the Prime Minister could have avoided the criticism of the Khaleda Zia’s past governments in her speech. It was not considered necessary and did not go well with the main theme of her speech which was to resolve the political crisis.

The October 18th speech has been the most conciliatory and constructive one from the Prime Minister who was earlier perceived as uncompromising and unnecessarily stubborn to the demands of major opposition party-BNP for restoration of a non-party government during the election time.

The speech has many positive sides; namely,

· acknowledging the political crisis,

· indicating the blue print to hold talks with the BNP on the type of the interim government during the election period and

· declaring the period of holding parliamentary elections between October 25 to 24th January and in “due time” the Prime Minister will write to the President for holding election after discussing with all parties. This announcement has removed many wild rumours including the one that election could be held in April as permissible under the constitutional provision.

PM ‘s Public Administration Adviser HT Imam reportedly said at a TV talk show on 18th October after the speech that 35 days were necessary for the Election Commission to hold the elections while the Constitution required holding elections within 90 days from October 25th. Once the election schedule was announced by the Election Commission, the interim government would come into effect.

The Prime Minister has shown an olive branch to the BNP and the BNP may hold talks for resolving the political crisis which people wants. The public is very much worried what would be the law and order situation in the country after October 25. The political crisis has dampened foreign and domestic investment and it has an adverse impact on economy.

Observers say that Prime Minister’s speech fell short of making it clear the following:

· Who will head the interim government?

· How big will be the interim government?

· What will be functions of the government?

· Who will occupy the positions of core Ministries, such as Defence, Home, Public Administration, Finance and Local Government?

· Whether and when the current parliament will be dissolved?

Many analysts say that the above details could be the subject of talks between the AL and BNP.

AS of writing the BNP has not officially responded to the PM’s proposal. However the reported statements from a few BNP policy makers seem to suggest that BNP will not accept the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the head of the interim government. There lies the big political problem.

BNP wants a neutral person to head the interim government for the sake of free and fair elections. BNP claims that it is not only the party’s demand it is also a demand from 90% of the people in the country.

A Way Out:

Under the Constitution Article 55.2, the executive power of the Republic of Bangladesh is vested in the Prime Minister and the Cabinet has no role in it unlike the provision in India where the Prime Minister and the cabinet exercises executive power through the President.

The question is how to dilute the powers of the Prime Minister during the interim government? One analyst suggests to amend the Rules of Business of the government to reduce the powers of the Prime Minister.

Second, the Constitution allows non-elected persons to become Ministers under the “technocrat quota” and two full cabinet ministers occupy the current cabinet. Moreover the current Speaker is an unelected person and became a nominated MP from a reserved seat of women by the AL Party. Although technically there is no difference between an elected MP and a MP from reserved women seats under the Constitution, in reality the MP from reserved seats are unelected persons and that is why many women MPs this time are eager to get elected from general constituencies..

Given the above context, the Prime Minister could advise the President to nominate a neutral person agreed by the major parties on the “technocrat quota” of the constitution to head the interim government.

Third, there is another alternative. A neutral person could be elected through a bye-election from a constituency vacated by an AL member to head the interim government.

Local versus parliamentary elections:

One may be mindful that local elections are different from parliamentary elections. The results of local elections do not affect or change the government. The results of the parliamentary elections change the power dynamics because whichever party wins or manages 151 seats in the parliament, it can form the government with all the powers and privileges- often called “winners take all”.

In Bangladesh the Prime Minister is the most powerful person under the constitution as the person has unfettered powers because there are little checks and balances of powers in the constitution and the Presidency since 1991 is only a ceremonial institution. Some say the powers of the Prime Minister are more extensive than those of the Roman Emperors.

Election Commission:

Although the Election Commission is an independent constitutional body which conducts the election, the Constitution is silent about the independence of the secretariat that provides logistical and operational functions to the Election Commission.

In 2008 elections, Deputy Commissioners are appointed as Returning Officers (RO) in 64 districts, for 300 constituencies and 35,263 were appointed as presiding officers, one each for each polling centre. To assist the presiding officers, 1,77, 277 assistant presiding officers and 3,54,554 polling officers were appointed ( See Sakhawat Hussain: Electoral Reforms in Bangladesh: 2012).

According to the former Election Commissioner Brig. Gen. Sakhawat Hussain almost all of these officials were government servants who “are the kingpin in any given election”. He writes in his book: “the most important is that RO at the constituency or administrative district level and ARO at the Upazilla level who under the law given with enormous power in the conduct of the election”

He recorded allegations of manipulation of election results at RO’s level to alter the results of polling centres. He cited: “one such case was in Sadar Munshiganj constituency in 2001. The result was manipulated by then RO in favour of a BNP candidate against rival AL candidate.” (page 69 of the book).

Government servants should be impartial and non-political persons. They are paid by tax payers and should serve people. However regrettably in Bangladesh since 1991 government servants remain highly politicised by their political masters whoever in power.

Given the circumstances, many suggest that the Election Commission should appoint all 64 Returning Officers to conduct the elections and therefore the manpower of the Commission needs to be strengthened

Concluding remarks:

Anyone who has lived in a dysfunctional or struggling democracy knows that confrontational politics leads to political violence. The politics of confrontation between the ruling party and the opposition party in the parliament including the boycotting the sessions of the parliament has become “the culture of politics” to their detrimental effect in Bangladesh.

Besides political confrontation magnifies the differences between the parties and political attacks tend to be viscerally personal. The politics of personal destruction have come to seem normal and acceptable.

Many argue that when an environment of tolerance and respect for each other party- leaders is restored, the non-party government will not be required during the election-time. Such type of government is admittedly contrary to democratic government. However it is accepted as a “doctrine of necessity” for free, fair and credible parliamentary elections for some time in future.

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