General election to elect the members of the 12th Parliament is going to be held by the end of this year or early next year as it is going to complete its stipulated five year tenure. Here it may be recalled that the current National Parliament was formed with the elected members of the 11th General Election of Bangladesh 2018. The Parliament members were sworn in on the 3rd January 2019. In view of the above fact, the Election Commission of Bangladesh stated that the national election will be held at the end of December next year or in the first week of January 2024. Holding elections has always been a challenge in the country due to its extremely divisive nature of politics. However, elections were held overcoming these obstacles and hindrances. In the coming election there are two fundamental challenges that need to be dealt with. First one, the condition set by the opposition political parties particularly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of reestablishing a caretaker government with the dissolution of the current Parliament and stepping down of the Honourable Prime Minister including her cabinet. In its place, a caretaker government will be installed with neutral persons only to conduct the national election. This demand is similar to the earlier system of the caretaker government established in 1996 by amending the constitution. However, in later years, the highest court of the country declared the system to be ‘ultra vires’ or "beyond the powers" of the constitution. The government then through an amendment to the Constitution abolished the provision of having a Caretaker government for the purpose of holding the national election.
On the other hand, the Election Commission (EC) has identified a number of challenges in organising the next parliamentary polls in a free and fair manner. Among those, the trust of the political parties on the EC being the major challenge and the others include the neutrality of the government’s civil administration and the law enforcement agencies and lack of confidence on the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) etc. The EC also mentioned other challenges to hold a free and fair election that are the challenges of controlling muscle and money power, maintaining law and order during the election, political parties following the electoral code of conduct, candidates being able to campaign freely and creating the opportunity for the voters to vote according to their choice. The current EC has spoken about an action plan for the upcoming election. It has set five targets under the action plan. These are holding a participatory, transparent, neutral, credible and fair election. By participatory election it meant an election with the active participation of all interested registered political parties and by credible election, it meant that the results would be acceptable by all stakeholders.
Of these two challenges, the one concerning the reintroduction of the Caretaker system by amending the constitution has become the stumbling block in holding the national election, especially ensuring the participation of all political parties. The BNP and its allies are so far bent on having elections under the caretaker system. However, the ruling party and its allies are not in favour of reviving the caretaker system which has already been negated by the highest court of the country and subsequently deleted from the constitution by an amendment. To realise this particular demand the BNP and its allies have resorted to two prong strategies. First, convincing the international community of the need of the caretaker system for holding the national election in a neutral manner and second, by fanning up popular demand and support among the people for the caretaker system through political agitations of all kinds including, protest rallies, sit-ins and public meetings throughout the country. It appears that the first approach of securing the support of the international communities for the reintroduction of the caretaker system has been the primary one. The understanding is that once the international pressure could be mounted, the government will accede to their demand for the greater good, especially the economic and geo-political interests of the country. The international communities and countries that are of crucial importance to Bangladesh, among others, are the USA, the European Union, Japan, Russia, China and India. Here it needs to be mentioned that particularly the USA, the European Union, Japan, China and India are large trading and investment partners of Bangladesh. Any disruption of friendly relations with these countries will have far reaching consequences for Bangladesh and in all likelihood will derail the process of growth and development of the country in the future causing immense distress to the greater masses of the people of the country particularly slowing down the pace of poverty reduction. The BNP and its allies through various means as alleged particularly with the help of the lobbyist farms and individuals have been able to generate some support for their demands especially of holding the national election in a free, participatory and peaceful manner in the international arena. Towards that end they have been so far successful in mobilizing some foreign governments to send several missions to Bangladesh to have discussions on those issues. These initiatives were mainly undertaken by the USA and European Union. The other countries mentioned earlier have also reiterated their support for inclusive, fair and violence free elections. The Bangladesh government and its various agencies including the independent Election Commission, a constitutional body, also assured the international communities that they also committed to hold the ensuing election in a free and fair manner and ensure the participation of all parties in it. Here it is important to note that none of the delegation of these countries in their discussions with the government and its other relevant agencies have mentioned about the reintroduction of the Caretaker system of government for the purpose of holding the general election. In this connection, the suggestion of the Former European Union Commissioner JánFigeľ may be mentioned. "In 2011, Bangladesh's Supreme Court ruled that the system of interim administrations was unconstitutional,” and “The EU must not support a caretaker government in Bangladesh”. The former EU special envoy for freedom of religious belief stated that the tenure of the previous caretaker government, which “was taken over by the military which extended its 90-day term and postponed elections by over two years from 2006-2008.” “Political leaders of all parties from across the political spectrum were jailed and indicted on various trumped-up charges by the caretaker government — a common practice by juntas designed to exclude popular political leaders from ever contesting future elections,”. Jan Figeľ, in his opinion piece, highlighted the recent city corporation election in Gazipur held in June 2023 which was peacefully and without incident and an independent candidate defeated the ruling party's candidate by a narrow margin”.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)
The writer is a Distinguished Professor, Institute of Bangabandhu War of Liberation Bangladesh Studies, National University, Bangladesh