By: Our Correspondent

bangla-fakhAfter
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.