Challenge of a Credible Bangladesh Poll

As Bangladesh slowly moves towards its much-delayed December parliamentary elections, the military-backed caretaker government is still trying to figure out what to do with the bitter political enemies, known as the “battling Begums,” whose decade-long feud nearly wrecked the country and debilitated its political system.

It appears likely that Shaikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League, and Khaleda Zia, who heads the Bangladesh National Party, will be in the thick of electoral politics despite attempts by the caretaker government to neutralize them in a desperately poor country where politics have overshadowed attempts at economic reform, state-owned enterprises are strikingly inefficient, power generation is inadequate to handle the economy and there have been continuing delays in exploiting natural gas resources.

Per-capita income is only US$1,300 and public debt is a staggering 37.4 percent of GDP. Garment exports and remittances from Bangaldeshis working in the Middle East and East Asia are mostly responsible for economic growth of 5-6 percent as the two women struggled for political power until the military heaved them out in January 2007 as the country descended towards chaos, partly in alarm that religious fundamendalists were making dangerous inroads on power.

The government’s credibility is at stake, given the continuing emergency. Although hundreds of political, judicial and government figures were jailed on corruption charges after the crackdown, the return of corruption has been another dampener and many fear that the country has gone back to square one.

The parliamentary elections now look almost a certainty as both former prime ministers have been freed. Shaikh Hasina, chief of the Awami League party, was released on July 11 by the government, and subsequently went to the United States for treatment of her ears, damaged during a bomb-blast in a political rally in Dhaka in 2004. The blast was suspected to be organized by her political rivals.

Khaleda Zia, on the other hand initially resisted an offer of freedom from the caretaker government, demanding the release of her elder son Tarique Rahman, widely seen as her political heir. Although the caretaker government wanted her to go abroad as well, Khaleda refused, fearing she would not be allowed to return before the elections. The caretaker government, like many others in Bangladesh, views the two bitter enemies as responsible for many of the country’s woes and would prefer what has been called a “Minus-two Formula.”

But the Minus Two Formula seems to have fallen flat, now being exchanged for what is being termed the “Manage Two Formula.” The government has been unable to foster any alternative political scenario despite including encouraging splits and dissensions in the existing two parties. They are now trying to create a better democratic environment by putting restrictions on the two women.

When Shaikh Hasina and the Awami League criticized the release of Tarique Rahman and Khaleda, the caretaker government got the sense that the old political rivalry had not disappeared. To stop Bangladesh from returning its era of perennial political hostility they have pressured the two women to enter face-to-face talks although it is believed that they have not spoken with each other for nearly a decade. The purpose of these talks is to discuss how to promote fair competition in politics and do away with the culture of mudslinging.

The caretaker government has apparently asked Barrister Rafique-ul Huq, who is defending both of them in court, to mediate. Khaleda appears to be ready, but Hasina and the Awami Legue first want an apology from Khaleda for her earlier behavior. They also see her hand in the attack on Hasina which deafened her in the 2004 rally in Dhaka.

Khaleda has also been asked to keep her son Tarique Rahman out of politics for few years. Often referred to as the most powerful man in Bangladesh despite having held no ministerial post in his mother's government, Rahman is widely regarded as the epitome of corruption. Khaleda has agreed, sending Tarique to the UK for "treatment." He is not likely to return before the coming elections. She also announced that Tarique’s continuing treatment will keep him out of politics for the next three to four years.

The caretaker government has also suggested that Khaleda withdraw the expulsion order of ex-BNP secretary general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and joint secretary general Ashraf Hossain and accommodate the pro-reformist faction of the party.

It is clear, however, that the earlier feudal trend in Bangladesh is not that easily eradicated, as was manifested when, after a meeting of the BNP Standing Committee, the party's highest policymaking forum, it was decided that Khaleda would lead the party for life. When that proposal was made public, however, it attracted widespread criticism and created controversy among the party rank and file. The development shocked the lower rungs of party leadership who were expecting the devolution of power and intra-party democracy instead of the earlier centralized party structure.

Khaleda refused the offer although it was because of the overarching presence of the military-backed caretaker government. Some of her party members even offered to make changes in the BNP constitution, in which the chairperson now nominates all 15 members of the National Standing Committee (NSC) with the chairperson as its chief. That would have effectively reduced Khaleda’s fiefdom.

Dissenters are also being sidelined in the Awami League. Abdul Jalil, the former party general secretary, was not allowed after his release from jail, mainly because he fiercely criticized Hasina in a mercy petition to the caretaker government in July last year. Instead, Syed Ashraful Islam was asked to continue as acting general secretary Hasina’s instructions.

Another problem is likely to emerge from the religion-based parties, particularly the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which is also part of the BNP’s four-party coalition. New provisions promulgated by the caretaker government bar parties from being registered on religious ground. This will create problems for Khaleda’s partners like Jamaat and Islami Oikya Jote. The registration of political parties is however being resisted even by the two leading parties BNP and Awami League. They are citing shortage of time for not being able register.

The present political situation in Bangladesh has created a dilemma for the international community, which wants a political transition to democracy and are concerned by the continuing emergency. However, they also seem to have reached a compromise.

European Union (EU) officials say that the EU might not send a full election observation mission if the government does not restore people's 'basic freedoms' at least six weeks before the national polls planned for December. However, if fundamental rights such as freedom of movement, assembly, association, and speech are reinstated, it would send observers even under the state of emergency.

A struggle for concessions seems to be on between the caretaker government and the leading political parties of Bangladesh before the parliamentary elections that are likely to be held in the third week of December. If the two main political parties have agreed for certain restrictions, the caretaker government has also conceded few things. The government has relaxed the ban on trade-union activities at industries, commercial enterprises, ports and factories on certain conditions.

They have also now agreed to hold Upzila (sub-district level) elections after the parliamentary election. This has been a major point of dispute between the Bangladesh Election Commission and the leading political parties. This seems to have removed the last hurdle. But whether Bangladesh get the democracy it needs, for which the caretaker government tried during their stay in power for last two years, remains uncertain.