Bangladesh ends caretaker system

Bangladesh will no longer have a constitutional provision under which the incumbent government yields to a caretaker administration of technocrats prior to an election.

BBC reports

The 345-member legislature passed the amendment by 291 to one, in a vote boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

Last month the Supreme Court ruled that the system of interim administrations was unconstitutional.

The Bangladesh provision has been in place since the mid 1990s. I am not aware of other democracies with such a provision. Predictably, the opposition is claiming that the constitutional change is a move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to rig the election due in 2013.

Bangladesh is striking for how big its swings are. For instance, in 2008, the incumbent party lost 167 seats (out of 300 total). The scale of the swing in seats is a result of the use of FPTP; in votes the swing was 9.5 percentage points against the incumbent party. Notwithstanding the use of a “majoritarian” electoral system, without many relatively close districts seeing vote shifts in the same direction, the seat swing could not be so massive. Some earlier elections also had seen similarly large swings. I wonder if the caretaker provisions have had anything to do with the unusual scale of Bangladesh’s incumbency disadvantage in the past. If so, the opposition charges against this constitutional change may have merit.

Bangladesh swing

Bangladesh’s first elections since emergency rule was imposed just under two years ago1 have resulted in the second consecutive swing away from the winner of the preceding election.

The Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina, who has been the country’s premier before, has won big, with 258 of the 300 seats. The other main alliance has won 38; this bloc includes the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose leader is also a former premier, Khaleda Zia.

That is quite a sweep, but while aggregate votes results are not yet available, I would caution against assuming this was a big mandate in terms of votes. To see why, one must look back to the last election, in December, 2001. At that election, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won almost as big as the Awami League did this week: 198 seats (also out of 300 total). Yet the party had won only 42.7% of votes, against 40.1% for the Awami League.

In turn, the 2001 election also marked an alternation in power between these parties. The Awami League had won the June, 1996, elections, though not as decisively–in fact, just short of a majority.2

Bangladesh has a strictly parliamentary system (with a mostly ceremonial president, elected by each new parliament to be head of state).3 Other than during these past two years of emergency military rule, it has been democratic since 1991.

Bangladesh uses FPTP, which is what can permit a small swing in votes to produce such a large swing in seats. However, such uniform swings as the country saw in 2001 and 2008 are relatively unusual in developing democracies with large assemblies. Given the deep polarization between these two parties and their family dynasties, an electoral system that is less responsive to small vote shifts would seem to be called for.

1. Click the country name in the “Planted in” line and scroll down for more. (I was surprised to see that this is my seventh Bangladesh planting!)

2. According to the Statesman’s Yearbook (138th edition, 2002), in 1996 the Awami League won 146 seats to 116 for the BNP; national votes totals do not seem to be available. The Awami Party formed a coalition with the Jatiya Party (32 seats), but that the coalition broke up in March, 1998. Wikipedia reverses the seat results for 2001, saying the Awami League had 110, but it agrees with the Statesman’s Yearbook that Awami and Jatiya formed a coalition government (which would have been a minority government if Wikipedia has the seat totals right). Adam Carr lists partial results (the votes totals of the winner and runner-up only) for the 1996 election, and the interested reader is invited to count up the total number of districts won by each party and report to us all in the comments.

3. Even in some cross-national lists that I have seen in some political science literature, the country is often mis-coded as either presidential or semi-presidential. The Statesman’s Yearbook says that the country had an “executive presidential system” prior to a referendum in September, 1991. However, even if the presidency at the time was popularly elected (and I do not know), this was clearly before the transition to democracy.

Bangladesh president resigns as head of caretaker government

As soldiers enforce the state of emergency that he declared yesterday, Bangladeshi President Iajuddin Ahmed resigned as head of the interim caretaker government that serves in the period leading up to elections. He will remain as President (a “mostly ceremonial” post, as I often say). He has also delayed the elections from 22 January to an unspecified date. The new head of the caretaker government will be Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former governor of the nation’s central bank. Bangladesh Nobel Peace Prize winnner and microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus earlier turned down the post.

The opposition Awami League, which was boycotting the elections over irregularities in the voter list, has praised the decision.

Is this the making of a salida?

Bangladeshi election crisis deepening

The United Nations has suspended technical assistance to the Bangladesh elections, scheduled for 22 January. The EU and the two US party institutes (NDI and IRI) are also suspending their missions.

Meanwhile, with the crisis deepening, Bangladeshi President Iajuddin Ahmed has declared a state of emergency,

suspending fundamental rights as described in the Constitution, a day after thousands of army troops and paramilitary forces were deployed across the country to maintain law and order and aide the civil administration in the smooth conduct of elections.

The Indian government is worried (same link as last):

The deteriorating security situation in Bangladesh is a cause for serious concern, a senior [Indian government] official said, and directly impacts India, as the growing violence and bitter rivalry between the major political combines allows the Islamic fundamentalists, some affiliated to the Al-Qaeda, to gain credibility with the populace.

Bangladeshi President Ahmed, who heads the caretaker government, is backpedaling on earlier insistence that the elections would go ahead, despite the opposition’s announced boycott. A deferment of “over a month” is under consideration. However, the Awami League (the main opposition party) is not impressed with the proposal.

Bangladeshi boycott

Former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, head of the principal opposition party, the Awami League, has announced that she and her alliance partners will boycott the 22 January general elections:

We want to take part in the polls which will reflect the peoples will, but that is not possible keeping President Iajuddin Ahmed as the chief adviser of the interim caretaker government.

As has been the case since the caretaker government came to power in preparation for the elections back in October, the issue for the Awami League is the absence of neutrality of election administration, including an allegedly inaccurate voter-registration list. I will repeat now a question I asked then: Are there any other countries besides Bangladesh where the incumbent government is formally replaced by a caretaker in the period immediately before a general election?

Obviously, Bangladesh could use an independent electoral commission. Its presidency is selected by the parliamentary majority and is thus not credible as a neutral caretaker.

The alliance partners to the Awami League include the Jatiya Party (JP) of former military ruler HM Ershad and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of ex-president Badruddoza Chowdhury. Ershad had made his own boycott announcement on Tuesday. Ershad’s bloc (one of several variants of the JP to contest the 2001 elections under its own banner) and the Awami League combined for 47.3% of the votes in 2001, but only 77 seats, while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won 198 of the 300 seats on only 40.1% of the votes. The LDP is not shown in Adam Carr’s summary of the 2001 election. The Awami League formed a government with the Jatiya Party after the 1996 elections and its leader is the daughter of independent Bangladesh’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated by junior military officers in 1975.

Caretaker government in Bangladesh

Are there any other countries besides Bangladesh where the incumbent government is formally replaced by a caretaker in the period immediately before a general election? I do not know of such a case.

There have been several days of rioting in Bangladesh as the main parties have failed to agree on who the interim leader should be. Now the President has been sworn in as interim head, but the primary opposition party, the Awami League, does not recognize him for this role.

In fact, unlike the presidencies in most parliamentary democracies, Bangladesh’s presidency is in no way a neutral and primarly ceremonial figure. He is appointed by the same majority as that which appoints the prime minister and cabinet, and to the same term. He is thus a bad candiate for a “caretaker” role.

But the very idea of a caretaker to administer elections is rather odd. Given the history of government intervention in elections in Bangladesh, the aim of a neutral campaign-period government is sensible, but this institutional “solution” is clearly less optimal than would be the establishment of an independent electoral commission. In fact, arguably the chimera of a neutral caretaker government–and the resulting conflict over who will head it–is worse than leaving the incumbent government to administer the elections, as is the case everywhere else that I know of.

I acknowledge the work of SK, a student from last spring’s Institutional Engineering and Democracy course, who wrote a really interesting paper on elections and institutional reform in Bangladesh.