Electoral Chaos Spreads in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s latest three-day general strike ended Wednesday as an ominous harbinger for the next several weeks, with vandalism, clashes between opposing parties and crude bomb blasts as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led 18-party opposition alliance continues to demand that a neutral government conduct the next national polls

Under Bangladesh’s Westminster-style constitution, the general election must be held before Jan. 24, 2014. Since the third week of October, the poverty-stricken country, ranked 192nd in the world by per-capita GDP, has witnessed two 60-hour nationwide strikes, resulting in the killing of at least 20 people and injuries to thousands including police personnel. The damage so far has included more than 100 vehicles set afire, the destruction of many roadside shops and other property by the protesters and their pro-government opponents.

In 2007, relations between the two parties became so poisonous in the run-up to the 2008 election that the military was forced to intervene to suppress political activity under a state of emergency that lasted two years. Both Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the current prime minister,and her political adversary Begum Khaleda Zia were jailed while forces attempted to restore political stability. There are growing concerns that the same kind of electoral turmoil will strike again.

The ruling Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, remains adamant that it will lead the government and supervise the polls. Opponents say that will give the Awami League an unfair advantage to rig the election in their favor.

Sheikh Hasina has been locked in bitter political combat for two decades with Begum Khaleda, the head of the BNP, who became the country’s first woman prime minister in 1991. Despite the fact that their political philosophies are broadly similar, the two have traded the office back and forth with little attention to actually governing, saddling the country with disorder and fettering its economy.

After the Awami League came to power in 2009following the suspension of democracy with Hasina as premier, the country remained in a state of uneasy political calm until June of 2011 when the prime minister, armed with a 262 majority in the 250-seat Jatiyo Sangsad, or national parliament, pushed through a constitutional amendment removing the requirement that an independent interim government conduct the election.

The Belgium-based International Crisis Group warned at that time that “The hope, both at home and abroad, was that Sheikh Hasina would use her mandate to revitalize democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, ending the pernicious cycle of zero-sum politics between her AL and its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Three and a half years on, hope has been replaced by deep disillusionment as two familiar threats to Bangladesh’s democracy have returned: the prospect of election-related violence and the risks stemming from an unstable and hostile military.”

While the military has stayed in the barracks, the other half of that prediction has come sadly true. Hasina has made it clear that she won’t resign although she said she could countenance an all-party interim administration to run the election. Terming the Bangladesh Election Commission a government puppet, her opponent Khaleda charged that the country can’t expect a free and fair election under the present statutory arrangement.

Just before the end of the second 60-hour nationwide strike Wednesday, BNP party leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said his party would not join in any all-party government with Hasina as its chief to supervise the polls, reiterating Khaleda’s refusal to join in the election until it is conducted by a non-party government

“We are not participating in the government’s unilateral polls, through which it has conspired to win the election,” Alamgir said. The BNP party leader claimed that Hasina is pushing the country towards chaos.

Addressing the media in Dhaka, Alamgir said he hoped the Prime Minister would talk to the opposition leaders and resolve the issue. Otherwise, he said,the opposition parties intend to intensify their agitation for a neutral non-party caretaker administration.

Hasina, participating in the ongoing parliamentary session, refused to bow to pressure. She declared that the upcoming election would be he held “in accordance with the constitutional provisions”and that she would lead the all-party interim government. The prime minister said she was optimistic that all major political parties would participate in the election. She also rejected outright the opposition parties’ proposal for restoring the caretaker government system to run the polls.

“The democratic future of Bangladesh has become absolutely uncertain following PM Hasina's firm decision to hold parliamentary elections in the country with herself remaining in power, which stance the main opposition BNP and its 17 alliance partners see as a complete rejection of the time honored concept of a ‘level playing field’ for political opponents and perceive this as a ploy to rig election with the help of the highly politicized bureaucracy, police and other forces which will be directly under the Prime Minister’s command,” Holiday, a prominent English weekly from Dhaka, editorialized.

Delwar Hussain, a Rajshahi University student, expressed serious concern over the continuing near anarchy, arguing that since Bangladesh’s 1971 birth the people have continued to suffer from the prolonged political instability.

“The country is undergoing a transition dotted by hartals(strikes) and a deteriorating law and order situation,” Hussain said in an interview. “Due to political instability, the economy is in jeopardy. It is a pity that although we are a democratic country, every ruling party has been reluctant to hold a free, fair and credible election, which is totally against the principles of democracy.”

Although the Awami League-led government has claimed success in curbing terrorism and corruption, the voters have rejected the party in the last corporation polls in five major cities. [Corporations are self-governing units that run the affairs of suburban cities.],The loss incurred by the ruling party in the corporation polls are a clear indication that the outcome of the forthcoming general election may not go in the Awami League’s favor.

“There are many people openly saying that Sheikh Hasina does not want the opposition to participate in the elections,” wrote Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, a Dhaka based popular English-language daily. “So she will take all sorts of outrageous positions that will force the BNP to boycott the polls.The argument here is that the Awami League cannot win a free and fair election and hence wants to create conditions that will force the BNP to boycott.”