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Bangladesh: Caretaker Dilemma

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By Musawer Ahmad Saqif *

Bangladesh which has suffered major political setbacks since its independence in 1971, once again finds itself in yet another deadlock when the tenth national parliamentary election takes place at the end of this year. Last four parliamentary elections had been held under a caretaker government as mandated in the constitution (except for the discarded February 1996 election). But this time the ruling party Awami League (AL) has brought constitutional changes abolishing the caretaker government, following a Supreme Court verdict deeming the interim administrations unconstitutional.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina who enjoys an overwhelming majority in the parliament changed the constitution despite heavy protests from the opposition. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia wants caretaker government restored. Their fear that polls held under a political government will be rigged isn’t irrational since electoral malpractices by the parties in power are quite common in Bangladesh.

The caretaker government system was first tried out in 1991 following years of military rule. The idea was to allow an interim authority to take over the election process once the incumbent party steps down three months prior to the election. The 13th amendment of the constitution established the caretaker government in 1996. Without the exception of BNP’s 11-day stint on 1996, every election since 1991 has been held under a caretaker government. Khaleda Zia guided her party to power in 1991 and again in 2001. Sheikh Hasina steered AL to power after 23 years in 1996 and to another landslide victory in 2008. Local and international observers by and large consider these past four elections to be fair and free of political interference.

Hence the Supreme Court's verdict of the 13th amendment being unconstitutional is quite perplexing. Caretaker system came in aid of democracy, ensured free, fair polls and most importantly was introduced by national consensus. Seven of the eight amicus curiae consulted in this case were in favor of the caretaker system. In recent times this practice has been adopted in Greece and the upcoming elections of Pakistan in May will be held under the supervision of an interim government.

It is unconceivable that Awami League will give into the demands of the opposition. PM Hasina says she is determined not to overturn the apex court's verdict on the caretaker provision. In contrast Khaleda Zia made it very clear to the government that the only way to avoid mass upheaval is to table a bill to restore the caretaker government in the parliament. “Our formula is clear, too. The next election will have to be held under the supervision of an impartial non-party government”, she expressed her uncompromising stance on the issue.

Unless the treasury bench gives into their demand BNP will start agitation programs, same way AL did as the opposition during 1994-95 on the same issue - calling a staggering 173 days of hartals (strikes). Hasina’s vigorous movement was instrumental in the introduction of Caretaker system in the first place.

Calls for foreign governments and international communities to intervene will soon intensify with the start of endless strikes, vandalism and blockades. It is easy to perceive that an election without BNP will be far from being inclusive. US Ambassador in Dhaka Dan W Mozena pointed out, “The election has to be held in such a way that it will be acceptable to all political parties."

In the 2008 election BNP led alliance accounted for nearly 40 percent of the popular votes despite a landslide victory for the AL. A recent survey conducted by The Daily Star finds BNP hovering around AL in popularity less than a year before the election. What’s also noteworthy is 67 percent of the people enquired want the caretaker restored.

Caretaker government system originated from a lack of trust between the political parties. Unless a radical change is brought to the prevailing deleterious political culture of Bangladesh, politicians cannot carry out a fair election, period. That’s why the need of a neutral, non-partisan government to conduct the election is justified.

Whether it is inconsistent with democratic principles is a matter of fierce debate. Even the Supreme Court ruling suggested the caretaker system may be utilized up to two future elections. In a country where bitter political hostilities and mistrust prevails caretaker government is necessary to conduct the polls given that a smooth power transition is a prerequisite to functional democracy.

* The author is an undergrad at Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET), Dhaka. He welcomes any criticism at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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