Political Tension Rises in Bangladesh

After nearly two years of caretaker government in Bangladesh, the politics of the country seem to be heating up as all the political parties, including the two major ones, grow increasingly frustrated with the pace of progress toward elections.

Although the army-backed government headed by Fakharuddin Ahmed, a former World Bank economist, has announced elections for the third week of December, sudden mass arrests of an estimated 12,000 people since May 28 have added to the concern prevailing in Dhaka’s political circles. Some are beginning to doubt whether elections will be held at all. But the caretaker government continues to assure people at regular intervals that they are committed to holding the elections in time.

Electons were aborted in January of 2007 as violence between the two main warring political parties and their supporters veered out of control. An army coup installed the provisional government after 16 years of vitriolic hatred between Bangladesh’s dowager rivals, Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League, and Begum Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, had paralyzed the country’s politics. As the two alternated parliamentary control of the country between them, the economy stalled, the power of Islamic fundamentalists grew dangerously and corruption reached unprecedented levels. The country is ranked 150th of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, along with such sterling rivals as the Congo Republic and Kyrgistan.

At least 150 leading political figures were subsequently arrested on charges of corruption and dozens of former ministers and political figures were sentenced to jail by the caretaker government. Although officials said the latest round of mass arrests have been carried out in the name of improving the situation before the elections, police authorities say that law and order haven’t deteriorated although rising energy prices are beginning to cause unrest. The caretaker government has made little progress in attempts at political dialogue with either the Awami League or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Interestingly, the frustration is not limited only to the political parties. The caretaker government also seems stymied in its efforts to implement its so-called minus-two policy – minus Khaleda and Hasina. Both remain in jail. In fact, the government got so engrossed in getting rid of the two that it did not pursue the case against Khaleda as assiduously as it could have. It also failed to take the cases to their logical conclusion as it widened the crackdown on corruption. In a short period, it tried to set right everything that was wrong in Bangladesh politics.

The failure of the caretaker government to prosecute Khaleda effectively has once again made her assertive in her demands. Her confidence has increased as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s four coalition parties have come together again. The four-party coalition faced considerable strain immediately after it handed over power to the caretaker government headed by the president, Iajuddin Ahmed. No doubt, it was the glue of power that was holding this coalition together.

For instance, Jamaat-e-Islami, the fundamentalist Islamic party, was using this opportunity to increase its hold in the country. Once out of power, parties like the splinter Islami Oikyo Jote, with only three seats in the parliament, tried to bargain afresh with the BNP for greater allocation of seats in likely elections. It would have also bolstered their claim for ministries in the event that the four-party alliance came back to power.

Khaleda has already asked party leaders and the rank and file to prepare for agitation in case the caretaker government does not release her unconditionally. Some reports also suggest that Khaleda might accept some conditions but as of now the situation is completely uncertain.

The fundamentalists of Jamaat-e-Islami in all probability will join her once the unrest starts. The four-party alliance is actually waiting for the Awami League’s response. They think that if all the parties increase the heat, the emerging situation will be too difficult for the caretaker government to control.

But it would be unwise for the Awami League to join the BNP and Jamaat in agitating against the coalition. Last time it happened when General Hussain Mohammad Ershad was in power. He was driven out in 1990 by the combined forces of Khaleda and Hasina, who at that point had made common cause against the dictator who had seized power nine years before. But that agitation mostly benefited the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, giving it a certain amount of legitimacy that it has capitalized on in the ensuing years, to the detriment of the Awami League.

Bangladesh appears to be heading towards a possible economic crisis. Its 156 million people are among the world’s poorest, with per capita income of only US$450 annually. The food situation in the country has been severely affected because of Cyclone Sidr, which killed at least 3,447 people and reduced the country’s annual rice crop by 1.4 million to 2 million tonnes. The global food crisis, with its attendant rising prices, has worsened the situations. The common people of Bangladesh are unable to cope with the problem and they are likely to see the government of the day responsible for their woes.

BNP and Jamaat are now trying to capitalize on the misery, stirring unrest to seek to increase their political capital and make people forget the previous years of misrule. If Awami League joins this protest it will only serve the purpose of its political opponents.

Rising oil prices have affected all the economies of the world. But poorer countries like Bangladesh are feeling the heat much more. Though the restoration of democracy is desirable, the present economic and food crisis is not related to the form of government and in fact the caretaker government has done a better job of managing the crisis than the political parties previously in power. In earlier crises, local and federal political leaders gathered and distributed relief supplies on political grounds.

The country would definitely make progress towards restoration of democracy if the caretaker government and the two mainstream political parties show flexibility. Political agitation may serve the two main parties’ political purposes, but it is difficult to see if it could lead to anything but continuing instability.

In recent dialogues with the caretaker government, Bangladesh’s business leader expressed their apprehension. They are interested more in the smooth transfer of power than a return to confrontational politics. Restoration of democracy in Bangladesh with plus two rather than minus two, they say, bids fair to put the clock back to where it was prior to the 2006 takeover.