Making A Difference

Looking For An Adversary

An electoral consensus continues to elude political parties

Looking For An Adversary
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Yet the other day, General Ershad, to his utter surprise, found his wife Raushan being ushered into his high security cell inside Dhaka central jail. Through her, according to a report in the Banglabazar Patrika , the government offered to set Ershad free and drop all the charges against him if his Jatiya Party agreed to participate in the forthcoming general elections. There was a catch: freedom would come only after the elections. The move fell through reportedly because of this—the government did not accede to Ershad's demand that he be set free before the polls.

The dramatic move, which took almost everyone by surprise, underscores the BNP government's desperation to persuade at least some political parties to agree to contest the much-postponed elections, now scheduled for February 15.

But so far, the ruling party has failed to enlist the support of even smaller parties such as the Ganotantrik Forum headed by former foreign minister and respected jurist Kamal Hussain, let alone his parent party, the Awami League, Ershad's Jatiya Party or the Jamaat-e-Islami. These three main opposition parties have formed a loose alliance and have vowed not only to boycott the elections but also to resist them at any cost.

The bone of contention is who should conduct the next election. The opposition wants the election to be held under a neutral caretaker government to ensure free and fair polls. They maintain that, given the manipulation and high-handedness they have experienced in some by-elections under this government, the proposed poll would be rigged beyond doubt to benefit the ruling party. Even a Jatiya Party leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while they would like to see Ershad freed, "we will not give up our demand for election under a neutral caretaker administration".

The BNP, on the other hand, insists that the Constitution makes no provision for a caretaker government and that it cannot do anything of dubious legality. The BNP's newfound love for the statute has evoked sharp reactions from even some of its sympathisers, who cite the fact that the BNP government itself is the product of a similar arrangement during the 1991 elections. They argue that even if the Constitution does not make provision for it, the party in power should have accepted the demand given that more and more people are endorsing the idea, as recent opinion polls indicate.

The counter-argument is more convincing: no party in power has lost an election in the entire history of Bangladesh. It is widely believed that the Election Commission and the local administration, which are directly involved in conducting the polls, tend to favour ruling party candidates.

As of now, the ruling party shows no sign of bending. The opposition insiststhat this is because the BNP would be routed in a free and fair election. The widespread corruption in the government has alienated them from large sections of the people, it says.

 "This (the government's refusal to go for a caretaker administration) is pure hypocrisy," says Abul Hasan Chowdhury, a former Awami League member of Parliament. And, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, he adds: "The Constitution is the last refuge of scoundrels." Indeed, all the previous governments have arbitrarily amended the Constitution to suit their personal interests. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's first premier, did it to introduce one-party rule—inflicting the first body blow on democracy. His 1974 switch to the presidential system actually sowed the seeds of autocracy in Bangladesh. It was only in 1990 that a mass upsurge against Ershad finally uprooted the malaise. Both Zia-ur-Rahman and Ershad brought constitutional amendments to indemnify their military takeovers and all the illegal actions that come with it.

On the surface, the current crisis may seem constitutional. But for seasoned observers, this is more a clash of egos. Many people may accuse Khaleda Zia ofbeing stubborn. But old-timers know Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina is equally to blame. They say it is hypocritical for Sheikh Hasina to demand a caretaker regime as she is the one who opposed the idea when the Jamaat-e-Islami first tabled a bill in parliament in 1991, making such a proposal.

However, while all parties trade charges, there is virtually no disagreement that the crisis has done Bangladesh a lot of harm—both political and economic. Matters had come to such a pass that it was even being speculated in the media that the US Ambassador David Merrill had intervened to resolve the crisis—the ambassador promptly denied the reports.

In the last two years—ever since opposition MPs walked out of parliament, triggering the current crisis—Bangladesh has been hit by frequent hartals and demonstrations, called mainly by the League. Apart from causing immense hardships for the common man, experts believe the frequent disruptions might have cost the economy upwards of millions of dollars.

"I believe the maximum damage has been done to garment export and small businesses," says Wahiduddin Mahmud, professor of Economics at Dhaka University and president of the Bangladesh Economic Association. The garment indus-try is Bangladesh's largest forex-earner, accounting for nearly 62 per cent of total exports. The hardest hit, however, are the small businesses. "I'm almost bankrupt because of the shutdowns and it's the politicians who are responsible for this," fumes Joynal Abedin, 27, who runs a small business in central Dhaka's New Market. His sentiments are echoed by other shop owners, like Mohammad Osman who sells fish in the same market.

"The gradual erosion of public faith in politics and in the democratic process is the biggest concern for us," says Mahfuz Anam, editor of Daily Star . The immediate concern, however, is whether there would be some kind of mutual compromise between the two sides. Indeed, there are some favourable signs. The opposition has shifted its earlier stance and has hinted that it could take part in the election under the current President, Abdur Rahman Biswas, who would act with a group of advisers but without any executive authority. The ruling party has also softened its position, saying it is not opposed to the idea, provided executive authority is vested in the president.

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Hoping to nudge the two sides closer to a complete consensus, the Election Commission has once again shifted the polling date from February 7 to February 15. "We hope the postponement could enable us to reach a compromise," Abdus Salam Talukdar, minister for local government and BNP secretary general, told the press after the January 11 announcement.

Hopes have been raised in recent weeks because of the concessions from both sides. In fact, for all practical purposes, the differences between the two sides have narrowed to the point of disappearing. "If you ask me," says Chowdhury, "now there's virtually no difference between us." It's only a question of a formal agreement—always the simplest solution, but the hardest to achieve.

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