Bangladesh Awaits Another Chaotic Election
The feud between the country’s bitter political enemies continues for another cycle
Political tensions and confusion are mounting in Bangladesh over the next general election, which must be held by Jan. 24, 2014, with growing calls for general strikes and rallies as protest blooms.
Under Bangladesh’s parliamentary system, the parliament must be dissolved at the end of its current five-year term on Oct. 25, with a general election required in the ensuing three months at the latest.
Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who heads the currently ruling Awami League, has been involved in one of the world’s bitterest and longest-running political feuds with Begum Khaleda Zia, the head of the Bangladesh National Party. The two have traded the prime ministership at virtually every election for two decades, with their rivalry all but paralyzing government in the poverty-stricken nation of 156 million people. As their feud has preoccupied both opposition and government, development has largely stalled. A staggering 81.33 percent of the population was reported living on less than US$2 per day in 2011.
There is growing international concern that the country will once again descend into electoral chaos, especially in the wake of riots and police retaliation earlier this year that killed scores in the worst political violence in recent history when the government hanged Islamist opponents of the government from the civil war that ended 42 years ago. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has tried to mediate between the coalitions, telephoning both women on Aug. 23 to discuss the situation.
Hasina reportedly assured the UN official that the election would be free and credible and would be held as per the provisions of the Constitution. Khaleda Zia, however, told Ban her party expects an independent Election Commission to conduct the polls under a caretaker government, or her Bangladesh National Party wouldn’t take part. However, the opposition leader agreed to Ban that there was no alternative to dialogue to resolve the present political crisis.
Concerns have also been raised by various countries and international agencies including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and the European Union, with all urging the parties to go for dialogue and to seek compromise.
After the most recent election five years ago, the Awami League sought to improve its chances of remaining at the head of the government by amending the Constitution in June 2011 to eliminate a requirement for the government to resign in favor of a nonpartisan government to conduct the general election. With a comfortable combined 262-member plurality in the 350-member National Parliament, Hasina pushed through the constitutional amendment over the objections of the opposition. The unicameral legislature does not have an upper house to act as a check on its power.
The Bangladesh National Party and its 18-party opposition coalition have reacted with fury, calling a month-long general strike earlier this year that brought the country to a halt, demanding that the caretaker government provision be restored and that power be handed over to a nonpartisan government to conduct the election.
Although the hangings of the Islamists drew considerable public approval, the Awami League’s popularity apparently has been falling, with Khaleda’s BNP winning mayoral elections in what had been considered the League’s safest constituencies. Sheikh Hasina has made it clear that her government wouldn’t give way to a caretaker government, declaring that the polls would be held under the incumbent regime.
Despite the amendment, the Bangladesh National Party is continuing its demands. The BNP is also demanding that the government table a non-party neutral government bill in the next session of parliament beginning on Sept. 12 to settle the issue. Khaleda has asserted that "elections to a parliament cannot take place without dissolving another parliament."
Terming the Bangladesh Election Commission a worthless puppet of the government, Khaleda argued that the nation cannot expect a fair election under its jurisdiction. The opposition has issued a series of other demands, saying that if they aren’t met, they would boycott the polls altogether.
Given past political history, the prognosis for a peaceful election isn’t bright. In 2007, the Awami League boycotted the general election over a variety of complaints, stirring widespread violence and rioting. Finally the military intervened. Ultimately the caretaker government ordered the arrest of both women and charged another 160 politicians, party workers, civil servants and businessmen with corruption. Two years of political paralysis ensued before both women were freed and once again resumed their feud.
Eventually, the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, 73, the founder of the Grameen Bank and its family of companies, stepped into the fray, briefly attempting to form an independent political party called Nagarik Shakti (People’s Power), then quickly dropped the idea.
That earned him the enmity of Sheikh Hasina. He was eventually removed by the government from the managing directorship of the internationally recognized bank, which pioneered the provision of micro-loans to the poor, almost all of them women. Earlier this year, the government sought to break up the Grameen bank into 19 smaller entities and bring it under the supervision of the government despite the fact that the government now only holds a 5 percent share. An international outcry apparently has forced the government to back away from that plan.
After announcing he had abandoned politics, Yunus has now added his voice to calls to restore the caretaker government provision to the constitution.
"There’s no scope to have a free, fair and peaceful election without a non-party neutral government," Yunus said recently. He also sought to emphasize the need for all political parties of Bangladesh to participate in the forthcoming general election.
Yunus’s statement is regarded as a major political stand. Although removed from the bank, Yunus remains an influential leader for its 8.4 million borrowers, most of them women. Yunus, who is otherwise reluctant to make any political statement, has lamented that even after 42 years of independence, Bangladesh is "yet to achieve the capability to hold a free and fair election."
Insisting on a sustainable peace in the country, Yunus urged all political parties to resolve various poll-related issues.
Yunus’s statement sparked rejoinders from top Awami League leaders including Abdul Latif Siddique, a minister in Hasina’s cabinet, who said Yunus would have jailed had Siddique been prime minister. He argued that Yunus should be punished since the parliament and the Supreme Court have both ruled out the caretaker. Finance Minister Abdul Maal Abdul Muhith described Yunus as a covert politician though he prefers not be seen as one.
Responding to Asia Sentinel via e-mail from Dhaka, Prof Yunus reiterated that he would not join in active politics.
"No, I don’t have any plan to join in politics," he said. "We want peace and that begins with the holding of a peaceful election. The people of Bangladesh will pay a heavy price in case of disturbances during the election. Hence we will vote the party which can bring peace to Bangladesh."
Nurul Huda, a Dhaka-based political commentator, argues that though the Awami League-led coalition claims success in curbing terrorism and corruption, the voters have rejected the party in recent by-elections in five major cities.
"If we carefully look into the results of elections held this year to five city corporations, the opposition parties have recorded sweeping victories. It shows that the urban voters have not endorsed the performances of Hasina government," Huda said in an interview from Dhaka.
Even after successful completion of the city polls, the Bangladesh election commissioner, Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, recently said the forthcoming national election would be a major challenge to the constitutional body. It is difficult to see a compromise that would result in a workable election.