President Abdul Hamid is a lucky president for many reasons. He is set to complete a five-year term next April without being mired in any controversy. And he is likely to get re-elected in a month for another term setting a record in the history of Bangladesh. None of his predecessors in the past have had such luck.
This article focuses on his predecessors of the last 27 years, since restoration of our parliamentary democracy following the fall of the autocratic Ershad regime in December 1990. The previous 15 years since 1975 have been excluded in this analysis as the country did not have democracy in that period.
Among President Hamid’s predecessors, Iajuddin Ahmed was the most controversial president due to his biased and bizarre activities including sudden assumption of the office of the chief advisor of the caretaker government at the end of 2006, violating the constitutional provision. As the caretaker chief he was a nightmare, engaging in unilateral and controversial activities that served to further deepen the political crisis. That resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency in January 2007 that lasted around two years.
Abdur Rahman Biswas was elected as the first president after restoration of democracy in 1991, but initiated an acute political crisis in 1996 by sacking the then army chief during the election-time caretaker government. It was Justice Habibur Rahman, the then caretaker chief, who saved the country from chaos by demonstrating his sagacity.
Biswas’ successor Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed took the presidency to a new height. He emerged as a statesman and pragmatist, calling a spade a spade. Justice Shahabuddin was also acting president for around a year after the fall of Ershad and his government was successful in holding a free and fair parliamentary election in 1991. Parliamentary democracy was restored following that election. He then returned to the office of the chief justice. After his retirement as chief justice, he was elected as president in 1996. Unfortunately, he was dragged into political controversy at the fag-end of his five-year term for his neutral role during an election-time caretaker government.
Shahabuddin’s successor AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury was most unlucky as he was forced to resign from the presidency after seven months of his five-year term. That resignation brought fortune for Iajuddin Ahmed who stayed in the presidency for around two extra years after his term ended as election could not be held due to the state of emergency.
Seasoned politician Zillur Rahman’s election to the presidency brought an end to Iajuddin’s period in February 2009. Zillur, who was elected as the fifth president, died in office in the final year of his term in March 2013, opening the doors of Bangabhaban for Hamid, who was speaker of parliament at that time.
As President Hamid’s tenure nears an end, the current Jatiya Sangsad will elect the next president within a month according to the constitutional provision which says the election will be held between 90 and 60 days before his tenure expires. Hamid took office on April 24, 2013, and his five-year term expires on April 23. This means the election should be held by February 22. The election may be held on February 19.
The ruling Awami League, according to media reports, is likely to nominate President Hamid again as its presidential candidate. Upon his election, he will also be the first politician in the history of independent Bangladesh to get re-elected as president after completion of the first term.
Amidst all the smooth sailing, there is one little blemish to his re-election. Although he and all his predecessors in the last 27 years were elected by parliaments formed through largely free and fair elections, the formation of the current parliament was different. The current parliament was formed in January 2014 through a one-sided election with more than half of its MPs elected unopposed.
If re-elected, he may witness almost the same political crisis as the one faced in 2013. Amid growing political turmoil centring the January 2014 parliamentary election with escalation of violence, he was elected as the president following the death of President Zillur Rahman. BNP Chief Khaleda Zia and some eminent citizens separately met President Hamid in November 2013 urging him to take steps to resolve the political crisis. President Hamid was quoted by his press secretary as telling the opposition leader Khaleda Zia, “No government has incorporated any provision in the constitution that allows the president to take steps to overcome a critical situation.” Eventually, he did not take any step to resolve the crisis.
This time around he is set to get re-elected in an unusual political situation. We have never witnessed such calmness in politics since the restoration of democracy in 1990. In the last two years, the government had the upper hand over the entire political scene. There was little street agitation. The hand-picked main opposition in parliament, Jatiya Party, did not cause any discomfort to the government. The BNP has been shattered after it boycotted the January 2014 parliamentary election and enforced the three-month-long non-stop countrywide blockade in early 2015 during which unprecedented violence was seen. It could not go for any strong agitation programmes. What the party did in the last two years is hold some rallies in the capital on some occasions with permission from the police. Many of its leaders, including its chief Khaleda Zia, are entangled in numerous cases.
But fear of political turmoil is growing because of unresolved issues over the mode of the government during the next parliamentary election. Citing past parliamentary elections, some political analysts have termed the present calm as the lull before the storm. Therefore, the president may again be urged to take measures to resolve the political disputes between the two rivalling camps.
Citing the constitutional provision in defence of an inability to again take any steps to resolve the political stand-off will not help the president to retain people’s confidence in his office. The people always look up to the presidency to find a way out when the country faces a major political crisis.
As guardian of the State, the president may always exercise his moral authority to protect and preserve the constitution and to save his people from political danger. Constitutional experts believe a man of high stature, integrity and experience holding the office of the president can exert great influence on the executive government by way of advice and counselling. The president can also play a role in building a bridge between the government and the opposition to strengthen the parliamentary democracy, they observed.
If re-elected, President Hamid’s image as being free from controversy and his acceptance among the public may be his major strengths to exert authority on the rival political camps to come to a solution to the political dispute over the mode of the election-time government.
If re-elected, Hamid will be the seventh elected president after restoration of democracy. Seven is universally considered a lucky number. Seven is the most significant number across religions and cultures. People expect that the seventh president will do something magical that contributes to removing the uncertainty over a participatory free and fair election. If that is the case, it will further brighten the image of the presidency and President Hamid will truly be a lucky president.
Shakhawat Liton is special correspondent at The Daily Star.