In 2011, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ruled that the caretaker government system was unconstitutional. Consequently, this system was abolished from the Constitution through the Fifteenth Amendment. Caretaker government system does not exist in any established democracy in the world. It can be said that this rare concept developed in the particular context of Bangladesh and Pakistan.
It is by no means possible for the United States or the European Union (EU) to directly support a caretaker government system, mainly for two reasons. First, a democratic state or institution cannot suggest another state to adopt undemocratic practices because of its commitment to democracy. Second, since the Constitution of Bangladesh does not support the idea of a caretaker government, the US or the EU cannot support such unconstitutional system on moral grounds.
It is natural for democratic parties including Awami League to completely reject the demand for the caretaker government system because of the past bitter experiences. The last caretaker government came to power in January 2007 and postponed elections for over two years. During this time numerous political leaders were jailed and charged with various offences by the caretaker government. Both Khaleda Zia and her son Tariq Rahman, have been convicted in cases filed during the caretaker government and consequently disqualified from contesting the upcoming elections. At that time conspiracies were also made to exclude popular political leaders from contesting future elections. Sheikh Hasina was also imprisoned by the caretaker government with the plan to remove her from politics for good.
A caretaker government was needed in some previous elections as there was no law in Bangladesh to appoint the Election Commissioners. In January 2022, a law regarding the formation of the Election Commission (EC) was passed. This Act provides a legal basis for the EC to transparently conduct the election process.
Former EU Commissioner Ján Figeľ wrote a column titled "The EU must not support a caretaker government in Bangladesh" in which he briefly addressed the above discussed issues. Mr Figel also wrote that the concept of caretaker government could pave the way for the rise of undemocratic forces in Bangladesh.
Political future of BNP in the current political context:
Uzra Zeya, Secretary of Democracy and Human Rights of the US Department of State, and the delegation of the EU came to Bangladesh with the aim of ensuring free and fair elections, but none of them spoke in favor of the caretaker government system. On July 30, after meeting the election commissioners the head of the US election observer group, Terry L. Isley, said, "I have called for a peaceful election according to the rules existing in the Constitution." On 3rd August the US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Hass commented that US has no position on caretaker government. Apparently, the members of international community emphasized only on free, fair, inclusive and peaceful election, which has complicated the political calculation of BNP. BNP realizes that no state or organization will exert pressure on Awami League to reintroduce caretaker government and the international community understands that fair elections are possible under incumbent party. Therefore, in the present reality, BNP may try either of the two things- rig the election at any cost (read violence and conspiracy) or participate in the election but subsequently rejecting the result alleging unfairness.
BNP and its allies are holding rallies in different places including Dhaka demanding a caretaker government. Few incidents of clash and agitation took place in the gatherings and protestations though broadly the gatherings manifest democracy, freedom of assembly and expression. Bangladesh has procedural democracy but substantive democracy has not yet flourished. Hence, in the context of Bangladesh some tension around political gatherings is not unusual though violence or bloodshed in the name of assembly is not desirable. There is a lot of concern among the people of the country as well as in the international arena pertaining election time violence. The post-election violence of 2001, torture, rape of religious minorities and political killings by BNP cadres is unforgettable. The 2014 pre-election violence, petrol bombs and vandalism still haunt us. These remind us of the need for a fair, peaceful and violence-free elections.
Over the years BNP has lost public support due to its violent activities and arson attacks. The leaders and workers of BNP have failed to relate to the people in the movement for caretaker government since people have realized that such demand is unreasonable. Before the 1996 elections, the anti-government movement of Awami League was successful because mass people were united under one umbrella and subsequently Awami League came to power. During BNP's protest program at the four entrances of Dhaka on July 29 it became apparent that the party was not prepared for any demonstration. According to newspaper reports BNP workers were not well aware of the programme. This indicates the leadership crisis of BNP which has made the party organizationally weak.
The 31-point outline of BNP shows that the party has lost its relevance and it can not offer anything pragmatic for the country. Point 12 of the 31 points outline stipulates that a white paper will be published in the investigation of money laundering and corruption of the last one and a half decades and legal action will be taken accordingly. This clause indicates how BNP wants to save its top leadership and what the real stand of the party against corruption is. It highlights the moral decay of the party.
Apart from the 35 insignificant political parties BNP has no effective political ally at the moment. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which once was closely tied with BNP, has announced separate political program on its demand for caretaker government. However, the ideological similarity of BNP and Jamaat can unite them once again in the “patrol bombing movement”. On the other hand, a large political party like Awami League has the support of several medium and small parties. The party is well organized in preparation for the elections. In addition, Awami League has an experienced, highly popular and visionary leader like Sheikh Hasina. Participation in the elections in this situation will just reveal the political bankruptcy of BNP.
In the 2014 elections the party denounced to participate and in 2018 BNP won only six seats in the Parliament. Boycotting another election would only mean the party's long-term political demise. On the other hand, while the EC, many civil society members of our country and the EU and USA delegations have emphasized inter-party dialogue in support of a fair democratic process, none have indicated their interest to play role in bringing the parties together in the dialogue. Therefore, the issue of dialogue is totally dependent on the political parties. Since no one is inviting BNP to participate any dialogue with the Awami League, if the party willingly seek a dialogue at this time when much is said, BNP will be considered by the people as a party without principles.
Considering all the above it is not unlikely for BNP to resort to extreme violence for resisting the polls. However, if BNP calls for election resistance through violence it will be identified as an anti-democratic force. This will lead to zero acceptance of the party within the country and in the international arena.
It is worth mentioning that in 2008, when BNP contested the elections under the caretaker government, they managed only 30 seats in Parliament. Therefore, it is not clear what benefit BNP could actually get from an election under a caretaker government. BNP did not gain much by appointing lobbyists rather international delegates and a large section of our civil society stated that fair elections are possible under the current government. Therefore, even if BNP participates in the elections the party may also plan to reject the election results and oust the elected government by resorting to violence. Because it is part of our political culture to claim that the electoral process was not fair if someone does not win the election.
A section of people also fear that BNP might have agenda, in the name of any movement, to bring any undemocratic forces into politics through domestic and foreign conspiracies. Because if the party was genuinely interested in the election, the BNP leaders would have worked hard to organize the party, bring Tarek Zia back to the country and increase public participation and support.
In the present political context for the sake of survival BNP should start practicing sound politics by avoiding any conspiracy and violence. In the ever-changing geopolitics BNP has no pragmatic leadership to comprehend the complex diplomatic strategy to advance the country while protecting the interests of the masses. Starting from the leadership of the party to the political ideology, radical changes should be brought about everywhere.
Writer : Dr. Farzana Mahmood, lawyer and researcher.