Shakhawat Liton

* General elections under elected govt
* Polls to elect a new parliament during last 90 days of current JS
* No change in state religion

Parliament is set to pass the 15th constitutional amendment bill today making a series of changes, including repeal of the provision for holding national elections under a non-partisan caretaker government amid stiff protests from the BNP-led opposition.

The parliamentary standing committee on law ministry yesterday recommended that the House vote in favour of the bill after incorporating its suggestions.

The bill was placed in the House on Saturday and it was sent to the parliamentary body the same day to scrutinise and place its report within two weeks. The committee did it in four days.

Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shafique Ahmed is scheduled to propose passage of the bill with the opposition boycotting the House.

The passage will be easy and smooth as the Awami League-led government holds more than the required two-thirds majority in the 345-seat parliament. BNP and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami have been boycotting the House since the current session began on May 22.

The passage will also mean that the incumbent government will stay in power during the next parliamentary elections due in 2014. The BNP-led opposition fears that it will lead to rigging of the polls in favour of the incumbents.

Under the current system, an elected government at the end of its tenure hands over power to a non-partisan caretaker administration to supervise the polls.

Introduced in the constitution in 1996, the caretaker system has overseen the holding of three parliamentary polls, including the last one in 2008 that was swept by the AL-led grand alliance. All the three parliamentary elections were considered by and large free and fair by local and international observers.

Protesting the move to repeal the caretaker system, the BNP-led opposition has already staged three days of hartal. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia is due to address a news conference today to announce more protests.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insists that the repeal was necessary after the Supreme Court struck down the 13th amendment to the constitution as illegal.

It was Hasina who as the then-opposition leader spearheaded the campaign for installing a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee free and fair polls. The then ruling BNP vehemently opposed the idea until it bowed to the opposition pressure in 1996.

The move to amend the constitution has triggered much debate and raised fears about renewed political unrest at a time when the government aims at nearly seven percent GDP growth in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Another key change proposed in the bill deals with the timing of the elections.

According to the bill, elections will be held under the elected government within 90 days before parliament is dissolved. Parliament will stay, but it can’t hold any session during the 90-day election period.

Lawmakers-elect would not assume office until the five-year tenure of the outgoing parliament expires, according to the constitutional amendment bill.

The bill, however, has proposed no restrictions on the powers of the outgoing government during the 90-day election period.

Defending its decision, Suranjit Sengupta, head of the parliamentary body, told The Daily Star the powers of the interim government should be set in consultation with the main opposition BNP.

Scrutinising the bill, the committee also proposed making it mandatory for the court to hear the Election Commission first before issuing any order in relation to a voting for which schedule has already been announced.

The committee, in consultation with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also made a recommendation for omitting the provisions for national party — popularly known as Baksal (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League).

The provision made by the fourth amendment in 1975 introduced the presidential form of government and one-party rule. Following the amendment, Baksal was formed by the then president by dissolving all other political parties.

These provisions were later deleted by the martial law proclamations and ratified by the fifth amendment act. The Supreme Court last year scrapped the fifth amendment, condoning some changes including the one for deletion of provisions for one-party rule.

But in response to a review petition recently, the apex court announced that the condonation will remain effective till December 31, 2012 and said parliament will decide the next course of action by this time.

“The parliamentary body on Tuesday decided to propose for dissolving the constitution’s part VIA on national party to prevent its revival after expiry of the condonation period,” a committee source told The Daily Star yesterday.

The AL Parliamentary Party (ALPP) sits this morning to discuss the procedure of passage of the bill.

Sheikh Hasina is likely to give directives to her party’s MPs to effectively face possible political unrest following scrapping of the caretaker system, party sources said.

The bill has also proposed several other amendments that might have far-reaching political impact. These are highest penalties for illegal seizure of state power, no amendment to the constitution’s preamble, fundamental structure and principles of state policy. It also proposes constitutional recognition of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Father of the Nation and inclusion of his historic March 7 speech and his declaration of independence in the constitution.

Islam has been retained as the state religion, allowing followers of other faiths — Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity — equal rights to pursue their religions.

The bill seeks to keep the phrase ” Bismillahir Rahamanir Rahim” above the preamble of the constitution and allows religion-based politics.

A special parliamentary body for constitutional amendment was formed on July 21 last year to recommend the constitutional amendments. The 15-member committee, headed by Deputy Leader of Parliament Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, had members only from the AL-led ruling alliance as BNP declined to nominate any representative.

The move came after the Supreme Court declared illegal the 5th amendment to the constitution that legalised the military proclamations of late president Ziaur Rahman, the founder of BNP. Subsequently, the highest court struck down the 7th amendment to the constitution made by another military ruler HM Ershad and the 13th amendment that provided for the caretaker system.

After holding a series of meetings and consultations with political parties representing the present parliament, eminent jurists, personalities and editors of different national dailies, the special committee placed its report in parliament on June 8 with a 51-point recommendation for changes to the constitution.

However, the main opposition BNP and its alliance partners Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh Jatiya Party did not join the consultation organised by the special committee.

The cabinet on Monday approved the proposals prepared following the committee’s recommendations, clearing the way for placing the proposals in parliament in the form of a bill.

Source: The Daily Star – 30.06.2011