The litany of grievances against the Hasina government is long. But the issues of governance, vital though these are, will not necessarily determine the course of politics.
Constitutional politics in the country is imperilled from the beginning by the absence of a viable party system. This weakness now looms larger than ever before as the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution has triggered an intriguing process of political reconstruction.
The Fifteenth Amendment has introduced in the country the fourth constitutional dispensation following the adoption of the Constitution in 1972, the Fourth Amendment of 1975 and the Fifth Amendment of 1979. During the earlier three constitutional dispensations, party system hardly played any effective role. And since 1979, power struggle among the political parties used to be overwhelmed by crude power game, orchestrated by domestic and international power brokers. As a result, the institution of election lost credibility and conspiracy theories proliferated. Political stability, as distinct from the longevity of a particular government, had been eluding the nation. What is in store now?
Phase One: The Proclamation of Independence of April 10, 1971 was the basis on which the country was run until the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was adopted on November 4, 1972. The Constitution established multi-party parliamentary system –– but with two distinctive features. The parties which participated in the war of independence and liberation formed the core of the party system and all the open parties, old as well as the new ones, subscribed to the four Fundamental Principles of State Policy, viz., secularism, democracy, nationalism and socialism. Secondly, religion-based parties were banned in the secular-socialist polity.
The Awami League, the behemoth among the parties, captured 293 out of the 300 seats in the election to the First Parliament in 1973. The opposition parties those mattered got restless and lost faith in the possibility of winning or sharing power through elections in the foreseeable future. The Awami League, on the other hand, became triumphalist and found the multi-party system a hindrance in the governance of the country.
Phase Two: The Fourth Amendment of January 25, 1975 replaced multi-party parliamentary system with one-party presidential form of government. The Awami League metamorphosed into the national party in which joined some other parties and its leader Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, who was designated as the Father of the Nation, became the president.
The experimentation with the one-party system ended even before the formation of the national party, the Bangladesh Krishak-Sramik Awami League (Baksal), could be completed. The counter-revolution of August 15, 1975 struck in which Sheikh Mujib and most members of his family were killed.
Phase Three: General Ziaur Rahman began the process of civilianising his regime with the proclamation of the Political Parties Regulations (PPR) in July 1976. The PPR withdrew the ban on religion-based parties. All the old parties, including the Awami League, revived. And the military produced the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as the political prop of the Zia regime.
The party system the PPR introduced was apparently intended to consolidate the Bangladeshi Islam-pasand polity Zia had improvised through martial law proclamations and later given constitutional sanctity through the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. That is, the parties would broadly accept the Islamisation of the constitution, Bangladeshi nationalism which is a euphemism for Bengali Muslim nationalism, neoliberal economic policies and the abolition of secularism and socialism. But this was not to happen. The Awami League and its allies in democratic and left politics continued to harp on the Mukti Juddher Chetana (the spirit of the liberation war).
One referendum, one presidential election and one parliamentary election took place during Zia’s time. The 1977 referendum on the presidency of Zia, which he assumed through a martial law proclamation, was a non-party affair. The presidential election of 1978 was staged primarily to formalise the position of Zia as an elected person. Zia was still on his uniform and the BNP, his party, was yet to be born. In the 1979 parliamentary election, the BNP bagged 41.2 per cent votes and established its claim as the leader of the Bangladeshi Islam-pasand politics. The Awami League, with 24.5 per cent votes, emerged as the main opposition.
The Zia regime neither originated from nor did it rely on the political system. Zia rose from the cantonment, his power base was cantonment and cantonment was his undoing. A military revolt on May 30, 1981killed Zia and ended his regime.
The powers that be installed Justice Abdus Sattar, a political weakling, as the acting president of the country as well as chairman of the BNP. The presidential election was not due until 1983. But, the politicians played into the hands of the power-players in the cantonment and opted for an early presidential election which was held in November 1981, only five months after Zia’s death. The BNP made an electoral overkill, the government-opposition relations deteriorated to a new nadir and factionalism in the BNP became rife. In this atmosphere of chaotic politics, the military top brass put pressure on Sattar to give the military a constitutional role in the government, and finally, General HM Ershad staged his coup on March 24, 1982.
Phase Four: General Ershad gave a twist to the party system. He embraced and embellished General Zia’s Islam-pasand politics but formed, with the help of the cantonment, a rival party to the BNP to perpetuate himself in power. The leadership of the Islam-pasand polity got divided between the BNP and Ershad’s Jatiya Party.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina, who was in self-exile in India since 1975, was elected president of the Awami League in 1981. She returned home the same year and Awami League politics rejuvenated with Mujib’s daughter at the helm of the party. In another development, Khaleda Zia was elected chairperson of the BNP in 1984. Once Zia’s widow took to the political field, Ershad was reduced to a pretender to the leadership of the Islam-pasand polity.
The discord in the Islam-pasand camp made an unintended but profound impact on politics. This facilitated the development of a united “anti-autocracy movement” by the political parties across the ideological divide. The condemnation and denunciation of the Ershad regime as “autocratic”, was, in retrospect, a rebuke to the BNP and Islam-pasand polity in general as these were also made in the cantonment.
At the peak of the anti-autocracy movement, the cantonment abandoned Ershad and he abdicated presidency on December 6, 1990. This paved the way for the holding of elections to the Fifth Parliament and the peaceful dismantling of the 15-year-long regime of direct and civilianised military rule in the country.
Phase Five: Khaleda Zia brought the BNP back into power in the election to the Fifth Parliament held in 1991. Parliamentary democracy was restored in fulfilment of a pledge of the “anti-autocracy” movement. But the treasury and opposition benches failed to work amicably, and the parliament became non-functional. The opposition members, led by the Awami League, resigned en masse in 1994, demanding the introduction of the system of non-party caretaker government.
The election to the Sixth Parliament was held in February 1996 without the participation of the opposition parties. The election turned into a farce. The re-elected BNP government of Khaleda felt obliged to amend the constitution to bring in the non-party-caretaker system and resigned in March. The Sixth Parliament lasted only 12 days (19 March 1996 – 30 March 1996).
The election to the Seventh Parliament was held in June, 1996 and the Awami League returned to power with Hasina as the prime minister. In the election to the Eighth Parliament, held in 2001, the BNP recaptured power, again, under Khaleda’s leadership.
Boycott of parliament sessions by the opposition, led either by the Awami League or the BNP as the case might be, was a regular feature from 1991to 2006.
By this time, politics was reduced to a duel between the Awami League and the BNP. Partisan politics took a civil-war-like antagonistic character.
As the election to the Ninth Parliament neared, which was scheduled for January 2007, then BNP government of Khaleda stubbornly resisted Awami League-led opposition’s demand to create a level-playing field. Civil strife erupted. The military, encouraged by the America-led West, the United Nations and India, made a covert intervention and put together a puppet caretaker government which initially drew support from the so-called Sushil Samaj (civil society) and the people at large.
Thanks to the quixotic handling of politics and governance by the junta, the quasi-military government soon disenchanted its domestic and international supporters. It, however, did a splendid job in implementing necessary electoral reforms, including pruning the voters’ list of ghost voters.
Phase Six: When the military eventually returned to the barracks and election to the Ninth Parliament was held in December 2008, Hasina led the Awami League to power with three-fourths majority in parliament.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed in the parliament in June 2011in the absence of the BNP-led opposition, prescribes an ideological fusion between Islam and secularism while keeping the neoliberal economic policies undisturbed –– a hybrid Islamic-secular-capitalist polity, mixing elements of the pre-’75 secular-socialist polity and those of the post-’75 Islam-pasand polity.
Precipitate power game: The Fifteenth Amendment should have arguably turned ideological confrontation between the political parties into political competition within the constitutional framework –– some using the amendment to implement their Islamic agenda and some others for strengthening secularism. But the amendment has, instead, sharpened the antagonism between the two pillars of the extant party system, the Awami League and the BNP.
The BNP has become a collateral victim of the Fifteenth Amendment. Though the amendment has co-opted essential elements of the Islam-pasand polity it, along with the Supreme Court judgement on the Fifth Amendment, has demolished the legacies of General Zia. The BNP cannot compromise with Zia’s legacies on which depends the sustainability and viability of the party.
At another plane, the BNP cannot think of any alternative to the leadership of Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman, her son, to run the party at this juncture. Both of them face court cases and, if found guilty, the threat of disqualification for participating in elections for certain periods of time.
Politically as well as organisationally, the BNP finds itself in the midst of an existential crisis. In response, Khaleda Zia has vowed to bring down the government in a mass upsurge. This has precipitated a power game of a sort.
One may speculate whether the BNP will succeed in its insurrectionist tactics or the tactics will boomerang on the BNP itself, but one thing may be safely stated –– that the present party system has become anachronistic.
In this deepening crisis, there is, however, a silver lining. The power brokers, at home and abroad, and the politicians in general would possibly bear in mind that the co-existence of martial law and constitution, which was improvised by the Fifth Amendment, is no longer possible in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement on the Fifth Amendment even if they do not respect the Fifteenth Amendment. Besides, the Fifteenth Amendment has kept no scope for any indirect military intervention as one took place in 2007-08. Either constitutional continuity will be maintained –– the change of governments through elections and the amendment of the constitution through constitutionally prescribed process –– or the constitution will have to be abrogated. The wager is: whatever may happen in the streets or the corridors of power and how much redundant the party system might have become, nobody will risk plunging the country into total uncertainties by abrogating the constitution. Political stability will, though, remain elusive in the ideological hotchpotch of the Fifteenth Amendment when the mainstream parties will confuse the people with their diverse Islamic cards and the Islamist outfits will push their retrogressive ideas while the left parties wander in political wilderness.
NM Harun, now retired, was a journalist by profession.