On the caretaker system

Posted in politics by jrahman on August 4, 2011

The caretaker system is a terrible idea that has brought little good to Bangladesh.  I am glad that it’s gone.  Good riddance.

Yes, you read that right.  I support the abolition of the caretaker system.

No, I haven’t changed my mind about the state of Bangladeshi politics.  I still believe that the 15th Amendment is about the AL’s desire to cling on to power at any cost.  And as long it has the establishment support, or the establishment remains apprehensive about BNP, it will be able to stay in power.

But the above notwithstanding, the fact remains that the caretaker system was neither necessary nor sufficient to resolve recurring political crises in Bangladesh.  If anything, the system made things worse by adding higher judiciary to the list of things the executive needed to control.  If for no other reason, the abolition of caretaker system is a good thing because it makes it possible for the judges to be judges again.  But the damages done to our politics by this system is actually deeper.

The evolution of the discourse around this system exposes the intellectual bankruptcy of a large section of our punditry.  And the paths not taken in the mid-1990s — to a large extent because of that intellectual bankruptcy of the punditry — point to what the chattering classes should do in the years ahead.

I make these points in this and a follow up post.  Over the fold I describe why I believe the system was neither necessary nor sufficient to resolve Bangladesh’s political conflicts.

The caretaker system was not necessary to resolve the fundamental problem of our politics.  A highly centralised unitary state, the first-past-the-post electoral system, the unicameral legislature, and the Article 70 limiting the freedom of MPs combine to create a situation where the winner of an election controls everything, and the loser is completely shut out of power, for five years.  This increases the cost of losing enormously.  Given voting population that is sharply divided between two similarly sized major parties, it’s not at all surprising that our politics would be prone to repeated crises.

And the caretaker system is not necessary to solve this fundamental winner-take-all problem.  Sincere devolution could significantly improve our politics.  The Article 70 could be amended.  The powers of the executive could be divided between the president and the prime minister.  We could consider a proportionate system.  Any combination of these could be debated and discussed.  But none of them require a caretaker system.

However, is a caretaker system necessary for a free and fair election?  After all, that was its raison d’etre.

I contend that a caretaker system is not necessary for an election that reflects the popular will under most circumstances.  But that’s an argument I’ll leave for a future post.  For now, let me accept that a caretaker system is needed for a decent election (or rather, a partisan administration cannot be stopped from rigging the election).  But even if that were true, there is no guarantee that the post-election situation will not degenerate into a crisis.  That is, the caretaker system is not sufficient to resolve our political problems.

It is, in fact, quite surprising that our political class needs to be explicitly told that elections don’t in and of themselves resolve political problems.  After all, Bangladesh was born in the circumstance and manner it did because the Pakistani military regime refused to honour the results of elections held under them.  And a decade later, Justice Sattar was freely and fairly elected president, and that did nothing to stop the main political problem facing the country then — a corrupt general’s hunger for power.

Closer to our time, in the post-1990 Bangladesh, we have had four elections under caretaker governments.  Have these elections stopped recurring political crises?  The ruling party, faced with manifold problems, fear about what might befall them when they lose power.  To ensure re-election, they resort to all sorts of chicanery, including physical elimination of the opposition.  The opposition, for its part, figures it’s best to meet violence with violence.  The result is inevitable crisis.

Even if the caretaker system is needed to hold elections, it is not sufficient to avoid crisis.

Given the above, how is it that this system gathered so much currency?  And now that it’s gone, what should we be asking for?

I answer these questions by way of a history lesson in the follow up post.

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