A Vicious Matriarchal Bangladeshi Standoff Continues

Elections in Bangladesh have always been tumultuous and the upcoming one in January promises to be no different. In fact, polarization between the country’s two dowager politicos, Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her bitter enemy Begum Khaleda Zia, has surpassed all previous records, leading to extreme tension between their cadres and sympathizers.

Khaleda’s five-year term as prime minister ended October 27. She was supposed to be succeeded temporarily by former Supreme Court Justice K.M. Hasan as head of a caretaker government as required by law in preparation for the January national election. However, Hasan refused to accept the responsibility in the face of the volatile situation.

Both sides since have given less attention to the battle of ballots and focused more on battles in Bangladesh’s streets of towns and cities. In October, the capital of Dhaka witnessed some of the worst political violence since the desperately poor country became a nation in 1971. As many as 50 people have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded as supporters of the rival political blocs fought pitched battles. On 20 November, a nationwide blockade of roads, rail and waterways crippled business activity. Armed clashes between Hasina’s Awami League 14-party alliance and Khaleda’s Bangladesh National Party supporters in the town of Bagrehat left at least 27 wounded, while other clashes in Nantore left 15 more with bullet wounds.

At regular intervals Dhaka is cut off from the rest of the country by rail and road blockades by the Awami League alliance. Protesters have burned vehicles and attacked the offices of the BNP and the homes of officials including that of former President Abdur Rahman Biswas, a BNP member. Police have fired rubber bullets and tear gas to attempt to disperse rock-throwing protesters.

The chaos engendered by years of mistrust between the two women, who represent competing political dynasties, has created further opportunities for fundamentalist Islamist forces such as Jamaat-e-Islami that are operating at the moment under the ambit of democracy. But their ultimate aim is to overthrow this democracy as they do not believe in man-made laws. Although Bangladesh has long rejected claims that it harbors Islamic or other militant elements, the United States, India and other nations are growing increasingly concerned about the rise of fundamentalism, which has been described by some as the “Talibanization” of Bangladesh as madrassas, or fundamentalist religious schools, sprout across the landscape.

Largely ignoring the rise of fundamentalist Islam, however, the two sides have continued to battle it out for primacy. The Awami League-led opposition parties have been in the streets sporadically ever since July 2005 to demand electoral reforms.

A large number of steps taken by the immediate past government convinced them that it was out to create a biased caretaker government and a politicized Election Commission. Hence the opposition parties wanted certain changes in the two bodies. The previous government, led by Khaleda’s BNP, was however in no mood to oblige Hasina’s Awami League. In fact, when former Supreme Court Justice Hasan refused to accept the responsibility to form a caretaker government, which according to the constitution must take place 90 days before an election to allow the country’s election commission to organize supposedly neutral polls, Khaleda handed over the caretaker remit to the country’s president, Iajuddin Ahmed, a BNP ally in violation of the constitution. There are several alternatives before the president himself is required to assume charge.

After taking over, the president promised electoral reforms, appointing 10 other advisors as required by the constitution. For the Awami League, this was surprising enough that for a few days the party didn’t know how to react. Hence it decided to give Iajuddin time for electoral reforms. The league said it would judge the neutrality of the president on the basis of his actions. The international community, including the US was also putting pressure on the Hasina’s party to allow the president time to try to make changes in the administration and the election commission that would accommodate democracy.

Unfortunately, very soon the president realized that introducing reforms on the eve of elections was not going to be easy. Unlike Justice Hasan, Chief Election Commissioner M.A. Aziz, appointed by the immediate past government, was not willing to oblige the opposition groups. He refused to resign voluntarily when the president sent one of his advisers to him. Though three other election commissioners - Justice Mahfuzur Rahman, SM Zakaria and Mahmud Hasan Mansur - were apparently initially willing to resign, they also changed their mind under pressure, probably from the BNP.

Now under great domestic as well as international pressure Aziz has reportedly informed the president that he would take a three-month leave of absence in response to the presidential initiative to resolve the political deadlock centering the popular demand for reconstitution of the election commission.

Iajduddin Ahmed, who initially tried to show some amount of neutrality, has now assured the BNP that he would not do anything that goes “beyond the constitution.” He is keeping all the important ministries with himself, allocating insignificant portfolios to other advisors. In this situation any meaningful change in administration is not possible.

The president earlier has created entirely avoidable controversies. At a meeting with secretaries to different ministries he stated that the present administration had become what he called a "presidential form of government" because he had also assumed the responsibility for the caretaker government.

This remark created utter confusion. Hasina cautioned Iajuddin against considering himself the chief of a presidential form of government, reminding him that for three months he should forget that he is a partisan president and that as the chief of a non-party caretaker government, he has to perform his duties neutrally following the constitution.

Iajuddin also asked senior Bangladesh Army officers at the Dhaka cantonment to remain prepared to assist the civilian administration. A circular to this effect was issued by the Home Secretary without consultation with the caretaker government’s other advisors. That led to protests by the advisors that Ahmed was attempting to use the army for the political benefit of the BNP and its allies. Opponents protested that the decision was putting democracy at great risk, given the country’s past affinity for military coups.

The international community including India, the EU and the US are closely watching the developments, not least because the marathon political squabbling between the two women and their followers created fertile soil for the rise of the Islamic fundamentalists. Richard Boucher, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, recently visited Bangladesh to assess the situation, telling officials that a temporary military takeover would not help to conduct a free and fair election. He urged the caretaker government and Election Commission (EC) to act neutrally to ensure that each vote is counted and results are trusted.

The Islamists in Bangladesh are using this opportunity to further gain ground. Although Bangladesh emerged from its split from Pakistan as a moderate Islamic state, from the 1990s on the moderates began to give way to the rise of fundamentalism. Jamaat-e-Islami, originally despised for allegedly collaborating with the Pakistan Army in its attempts to keep the Bengali population in line before independence in 1971, has achieved some legitimacy by tying up with Khaleda Zia’s BNP government, becoming part of her ruling coalition and claiming two ministries.

Though Jamaat-e-Islami remains in alliance with the BNP, a large number of smaller Islamic groups have formed a separate alliance and are contemplating contesting the upcoming elections separately. Like the ageing former dictator Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who remains a force in parliament even though he lost his membership after being convicted of corruption charges, the Islamist fundamentalists are hoping to become kingmakers after the next general election. Conscious of their growing strength, no party wants to annoy them. Even the Awami League is now maintaining a studied silence against the rising Islamist forces.

Bangladesh at the moment is experiencing extreme volatility. Though the decision of the chief election commissioner Aziz to go on leave has given some hope for stability, the country is far from politically stable. The Awami League-led opposition alliance is demanding removal of three remaining election commissioners. However, the president wants to expand the existing election commission by adding two more commissioners, to ensure, his opponents say, the dominance of BNP-nominated candidates in the election commission.

It is a tricky situation. A lot depends on how the president handles the situation.

Anand Kumar is a New Delhi-based researcher and writer.