Deadlock over electoral reforms

The Bangladeshi people, embroiled in a political stalemate over the next general elections due to the opposition demand for reforms in the electoral system, are anxiously waiting for the start of a “dialogue” between the government and the opposition. But the talks are unlikely to take place soon even though the process has begun in that direction. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and main opposition Awami League are now engaged in exchanging letters on the modalities for the dialogue, but nothing concrete has emerged so far.

Political analysts believe that time is running out for deciding on the contentious issue of the elections since the polls are not far away and any change in the procedure needs some time before the agreed points are put into practice, if at all the contending sides reach any agreement. Bangladesh held the last two general elections under a non-party caretaker government and this system has been incorporated into the Constitution. The last retired chief justice remains at the helm for three months as the head of such a caretaker administration, which is committed to holding free and fair voting for the 300-seat parliament. The chief of the government also appoints ten advisers who are not supposed to have any political links and this government hands over power to the elected representatives.

However, the Awami League is now demanding reforms in this system arguing that it has loopholes resulting in unfair polling. Some other opposition parties too have joined in to form an Awami League-led 11-party alliance, which is seeking reforms in the electoral system. They are also complaining that the election commission is not neutral.

The government initially brushed aside the reforms proposal and asked the Awami League why it did not introduce the changes when it was in power the last term. But the opposition kept the pot boiling through street agitations. The prime minister lately proposed the formation of a committee to look into the opposition demands. Although the Lea-gue and BNP agreed to form a ten-member committee equally drawn from the government and the opposition, they are facing problems over the issue of accommodating their allies in the committee.

The opposition threatened that it would not take part in any dialogue if the ruling BNP included the Jamaat-e-Islami in the discussions because they consider this party as “anti-independence” for its role in the 1971 freedom struggle. This has put the BNP in a great difficulty because it cannot ignore the Jamaat, a partner in the ruling four-party alliance. The League itself is facing a difficult task of accommodating its ten allies in the committee.

The present government’s term expires in October and the polls must take place within three months thereafter. The schedule and preparations for the elections are to begin soon. But the government has yet to make the commitment that it is ready for changes in the present system while the opposition maintains that it would not take part in the polls without reforms. This impasse has thus made the upcoming poll uncertain.

Chowdhury, a foreign editor at BSS, writes for THT from Dhaka