Time for govt, Election Commission to pause and ponder

Editorial, NewAge, November 15, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The legal notice, issued by the detained BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, to the Election Commission, asking for withdrawal of its invitation to M Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, who was appointed acting secretary general at an eminently controversial meeting of the BNP standing committee, which also made Saifur Rahman the acting chairman, effectively nullifies the effort by the Saifur-Hafiz faction to create the impression that it enjoys Khaleda’s blessings and is, therefore, the mainstream BNP. The notice, endorses as it does Khandaker Delwar Hossain’s claim that he has Khaleda’s support, also poses a legitimacy crisis for the Saifur-Hafiz faction in the public in general and the party’s rank and file in particular. Crucially still, the faction stands exposed in the public eye as a part, if not a product, of the military-driven interim government’s scheme to politically neutralise Khaleda.

Alarmingly, however, neither the government nor the Saifur-Hafiz faction appears daunted by such a decisive turn of event. The faction has already been afforded the right to use the BNP central office, which it exercised gleefully on Wednesday, albeit in the presence of an elaborate security blanket provided by the state’s law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. The security blanket did avert a showdown between the followers of the government-orchestrated and the Khaleda-backed factions of the BNP for the time being, although clashes between the two groups still remain a distinct possibility.

Overall, and we note this with grave concern, the interim government is following to the letter the script, developed and enacted by authoritarian regimes during military rules in the country, of imposing pliant leadership on one major political party or the other, in an effort to reconstructing the political order. History tells us that such attempts never succeed but take a huge toll on the political process nonetheless. Moreover, the government’s persistence with such a detrimental political project runs counter to the pledge it made upon its assumption of office in January to create a level playing field for the political establishments in the run-up to the general elections and will further erode whatever faith the public still has in it. Consequently, all its actions and inactions will remain questionable.

The Election Commission has, meanwhile, made the situation even more complicated by becoming party to the political crime that is being perpetrated. We have already indicated in these columns that the chief election commissioner may have inexorably damaged his and the commission’s credibility by first inviting Hafiz to the reforms dialogue and then unabashedly defending the decision. On top of it, comes the decision to take legal recourse to Khaleda’s notice, which would no doubt put the entire electoral process into question. Thus far, the commission has, through a series of questionable actions, appeared to be toeing the line of the government, which is contrary to the people’s expectations for it to be independent.

In the final analysis, the interim government seems to have put the country in a greater political and legal mess than it was in prior to January 11. The government can still get the country back from the brink of sustained political uncertainty by moving away from its political projects. The Election Commission, on the other hand, should rethink its position and play a proactive role so that the political parties can be democratised under their existing leadership.

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