The latest faultline to surface in Bangladesh’s fractious politics is on the modalities of conducting the next general elections, scheduled to be held on January 5, 2014. But given the turmoil here, there are now doubts over whether it will take place at all. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has decided to boycott the election as has its main ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (currently de-recognised). The joker in the pack, ex-dictator-turned-unpredictable democrat, Lt Gen (retd) H.M. Ershad, after having joined a poll-time government only a fortnight ago, has downed his sails for lack of favourable election winds. His Jatiya Party will also boycott the election now.
An outsider may be forgiven if he fails to understand what is going on in this deeply divided society. “We are divided on the Liberation War, on secularism, on democracy, even on national identity,” declares veteran Awami League leader Suranjit Sengupta. Sengupta, who quit as railways minister on corruption charges, should have added that Bangladeshis are also divided on how to hold elections.
The BNP has demanded that the next election be held under a neutral and non-political caretaker government. The Awami League had itself demanded this in 1996 and managed to get the BNP to institute a non-political caretaker system of government for holding elections. But now the shoe is on the other foot. This time, the Awami League has amended the constitution to do away with the caretaker system and replaced it with an interim multi-party government-headed by the incumbent prime minister. The amendment, the Awami League argues, had to be made after a Supreme Court appellate bench struck down the provision of a non-elected neutral caretaker government for elections.
On the face of it, it is a convincing argument. “You may say that this is constitutional. But the Awami League amended it with its brute majority. It is doing politics through the judiciary to undermine the legislature. The court had permitted the general elections under the caretaker system for two more terms. This was ignored,” points out Prof Ameena Mohsin, chairperson of Dhaka University’s international relations department.
The Awami League, however, claims that the verdict allows a caretaker government to hold elections for two more elections only if it is ratified by Parliament. But the Opposition has not been able to force a parliamentary ratification vote on the issue, given the League’s majority. A special committee of Parliament on constitutional amendments (boycotted by the BNP) had also been in favour of the caretaker system before and after the SC appellate bench declared it null and void. However, Nooh-ul-Alam Lenin, presidium member of the Awami League, points out that caretaker governments have not only been partisan in the past, but “the last one was backed by the army and continued in office for two years”.
Several intellectuals share this view. Shyamal Dutta, editor of Daily Bhorer Kagoj, points out that none of the three caretaker governments—who organised elections in June 1996, October 2001 and December 2008—were without fault. “In the first caretaker government, there was an abortive military coup attempt. The second one of Justice Latifur Rahman acted against the interests of the Awami League and changed the entire administration within one hour of taking over. He claimed to have been “doing his homework” for a month before taking over. How did he know he was going to assume power?” he asks.
About the third caretaker government, Dutta says, “In 2008, after much jostling, a military-backed caretaker government was sworn in with Bangladesh Bank chief Fakhruddin Ahmad as its chief and 10 non-political advisors. They extended their rule for two years. So there are shortcomings to the caretaker system.”
Former minister of education in the BNP government, M. Osman Faruk, points out why comparisons with India, where incumbent governments assume a caretaker role during elections, are faulty: “What happens here is different from India. We have a partisan government, an Election Commission which has lost its independence and an emasculated administration and police force. That is why we want a neutral caretaker government for elections.”
The BNP’s intransigence also comes from the belief that it is now its turn to rule. And opinion polls show that in terms of popularity it is way ahead of the Awami League, whose tenure has seen major corruption scandals neutralising remarkable progress in power generation and infrastructure development.
An Awami politician who did not want to be identified said the political situation was “very bad” for his party. “If there are free and fair elections, we will be defeated. But we have to prevent the growth of Islamic politics in our country. So it is a do-or-die battle for us. We have to win somehow or the other,” he says.
The Awami League’s plan till very recently was to go ahead and hold the election even if the BNP did not participate. “The mood in the country is for elections. The psyche of the voters is important. If we can ensure peace and stability and get 51 per cent of the electorate to cast its vote, even if the BNP doesn’t, then the people would have participated,” claimed Nooh-ul-Alam. He felt that some BNP members might participate in the elections as independents, especially in the rural areas.
“The likely scenario the Awami League is looking at is to have Ershad’s Jatiya Party, earlier an ally, to sit in the opposition along with some BNP stragglers joining the newly formed and recognised Bangladesh Nationalist Front. Then with these people occupying the legislative oppositional space, the Awami League could claim that the elections were legitimate,” says Ameena Mohsin. This scenario now seems to be coming unstuck with Ershad developing cold feet. Ershad is given to changing his political positions overnight, so it remains to be seen whether this is his final position or merely a posture to blackmail the Awami League.
The nationwide protests against the one-sided elections since November 26 (when the election schedule was announced) have led to dozens of deaths and hundreds injured in road and rail blockades. It seems the BNP’s strategy is either to get its demands met or create instability. If elections are held despite its boycott, the BNP and a deregistered Jamaat-e-Islami are sure to step up the violence so that fresh and inclusive elections would be the only option.
Old BNP hands feel that street protests will change the relationship between it and the Jamaat. A senior BNP advisor says, “The BNP was confident of winning if the caretaker issue was settled. It would have kept the Jamaat on a leash. The Jamaat doesn’t have a mass base but has a dedicated cadre which the BNP now needs more than ever for street protests. So the BNP won’t distance itself from the Jamaat.”
The consequences of this for the BNP could be quite adverse. “Already the Jamaat infiltration and control of the BNP is complete. If this liaison between the BNP and the Jamaat continues, the party’s liberal character will be eroded further with the Jamaat eating into its vitals,” predicts Haroon Habib, veteran journalist and freedom fighter.
If the violence and the blockades continue, then might the army be tempted to step in? Former chief of army staff Lt Gen (retd) Mahbubur Rahman, now part of the BNP, rules out such an eventuality. “I have commanded this army. It is not a threat to democracy. This is a professional army which has become even more so with exposure to UN peacekeeping operations,” says the general, known for stopping a military coup in 1996.
There are some less lofty reasons keeping the army out of politics too. Although historically the Awami League has not had good relations with the army, it has tried to win it over with several measures. It has raised the salaries of army personnel, given them modern equipment and weaponry and sends them in large numbers on UN peacekeeping missions (Bangladesh, in fact, has the largest contingent of soldiers in the world on peacekeeping missions). A coup will mean that such lucrative UN assignments will dry up.
As Nooh-ul-Alam points out, “In the past, army leaders came from those who had fought in the liberation war. This is a new-generation army which is mainly non-partisan and neutral. They want to continue going on UN peacekeeping missions.” Some in the BNP, however, disagree. “If the violence levels rise, there will have to be an intervention by the army. I don’t see how that will benefit either the political parties or our neighbours. People will see India as being behind the Awami League and anti-India feelings will rise,” says another BNP leader who didn’t want to be identified.
The BNP believes India has a role to play in promoting political reconciliation in Bangladesh, an “advisory one, of course”. “But India’s policy should not be to ensure the continuity of a government they consider friendly, ignoring the sentiments of large sections of this country,” says Osman Faruk of the BNP.
About the perception in India about BNP not being sensitive to its concerns, Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, party vice-chairperson, decorated freedom fighter and former foreign secretary, says, “Begum Khaleda Zia gave specific assurances of seeking good relations with India when she went to Delhi last November. India has some concerns about whether the Jamaat would have any influence on BNP’s foreign policy. The answer is an unequivocal “no”. We will follow the BNP’s agenda and the commitments we gave in Delhi.”
If the BNP is so positively inclined towards improving ties with India, why then did Begum Zia snub the Indian president by unilaterally calling off a meeting with him during his visit to Dhaka? Mobin Chowdhury says there was a “hartal’ on that day—which incidentally was called by a BNP supporter. When it was suggested that this was done for political reasons and under pressure from hardliners—including her son Tariq Rahman—to keep up the anti-India posture distinguishing the party from arch-rival Awami League, he denies the charge vehemently. “This is just propaganda to create worries in the mind of India. Tariq has a very forward-looking view of India’s concerns about terrorism and insurgency. People should not sully him in Indian eyes,” he argues.
By Bharat Bhushan in Dhaka and Chittagong