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  • Bangladesh’s Second Chance
  • Yasmeen Murshed and Nazim Kamran Choudhury (bio)

Bangladesh was born out of a war for democracy, what André Malraux once called “the last noble cause.” Since seceding from Pakistan in 1971, this densely populated nation at the head of the Bay of Bengal has swung between democracy and dictatorship, between hope and despair, between mass apathy and violence in the streets, providing little hope that a stable democracy could ever be sustained. Although every political leader, including those who arrived in power at the head of military coups, has professed a commitment to democracy, democratic consolidation has remained a dream.

At times Bangladesh seemed destined to realize this dream, only to fail the test of consecutive, peaceful successions. The latest round of events has been encouraging, however, for an orderly transfer of power did take place from Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League (AL) following a neutral caretaker government’s successful conduct of the 12 June 1996 elections for the 300 directly elected seats available in the 330-member National Parliament. The June balloting followed February elections that had gone sour amid opposition boycotts, civil strife, extremely low turnout, and concern about possible military intervention.

The elections of February 1996 were supposed to have put an end to a lingering constitutional crisis that had begun on 28 December 1994, when the entire parliamentary opposition resigned en masse, charging that the BNP had rigged a by-election. Since the Constitution mandates that members of Parliament who fail to attend for 90 consecutive session days must lose their seats, by-elections to fill the almost 160 seats vacated by the opposition had become imperative by June 1995. [End Page 70]

After an advisory Supreme Court opinion confirmed the necessity of holding them, the elections were scheduled for September. The Election Commission then postponed them until December, deepening the crisis. The opposition continued to agitate for a neutral caretaker government, but the BNP refused to yield to such a government without a constitutional amendment. Since amending the Constitution requires 220 votes in Parliament and just 170 sitting members were left, the only way out of the impasse seemed to be to dissolve Parliament pending new elections. The dissolution came in late November 1995, and general elections were set for mid-February. Opposition parties, fearing government manipulation, called for a boycott. The voting went ahead as scheduled on February 15 in most districts, but the electoral process was in a shambles. Turnout was abysmal, and there were allegations of rigging by the ruling party. The opposition took to the streets as pressure on the government mounted.

Faced with a crisis of legitimacy that threatened to turn democracy into anarchy, the BNP government on March 28 passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, providing for an interim government headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court to take over prior to general elections (which must be held at least once every five years). The BNP government resigned two days later, and Parliament dissolved itself. All political parties announced their intention to take part in the planned elections. The dream of democracy was renewed.

Two particularly noteworthy developments manifested themselves in the events of February through June 1996. The first was the institutionalization of the practice of appointing a neutral caretaker government prefatory to elections. The second was the welcome new sense of political maturity and restraint displayed by the armed forces.

How the unique constitutional device of the caretaker government emerged and took its present form is worth examining. Like other countries of the region, Bangladesh has had serious problems with the electoral process itself. Many in the country, not least the opposition political parties, had long viewed the voter-registration process and the electoral rolls as highly suspect. No sitting government had ever lost an election, an atmosphere of intense partisanship prevailed throughout the country, those with power commonly violated election laws, and a strong central bureaucracy exerted enormous influence over the whole process.

As we have seen, the cumulative doubts of the opposition were strong enough to bring this same process to a halt. It became apparent that an...