Column
Emerging political scenario in Bangladesh

07 Aug 2013

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According to constitutional provisions, the parliament is set to complete its tenure on 24 October this year. The ruling Awami League (AL) and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are likely to face each other soon in a do-or-die political battle over the issue of caretaker government.

 As the present government is left with only a few months tenure, political atmosphere in the country has heated up and turned extremely volatile. Possibility of any election under the present government has been ruled out by the opposition BNP. The BNP chief Khaleda Zia continues to remain rigid and shows no signs of flexibility on the issue of restoration of caretaker government system which has now been abolished by the present government. She has been emphatically saying that her party will not participate in elections organized by the AL government. On the other hand, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made it clear that un-elected and un-democratic caretaker government system will not be allowed to make a come-back.

 

Bangladesh regained democracy after an interregnum of two years, when an army backed dispensation ruled the country under cover of a caretaker government. The army had indirectly taken reins of power on January 11, 2007, following turmoil created by failure of the two main political parties BNP and AL to reach an understanding over instituting an acceptable and credible mechanism to hold parliamentary elections originally scheduled for Jan 25, 2007. The AL and its allies had walked out of electoral process as the then ruling BNP-JEI regime had subverted all institutions and government machinery to rig the polls.

 

Taking advantage of the volatile situation the Army seized power under the cover of a caretaker government. After seizing power, the army-backed dispensation had put behind bars a large number of politicians, including heads of the two major political parties - AL President Sheikh Hasina and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia - over various charges of corruption and sought to ensure army’s participation in governance of the country by offering to install a pliable government headed by the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus who was persuaded to set up a political party ‘Nagorik Shakti’ for this purpose with army and civil society support.

 

After toying with several ideas aimed at perpetuating indirect army rule, including ‘minus two theory’ designed to send both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia out of the country and into political oblivion and decimate the main stream political parties AL and BNP to ward off any threat, the army backed regime finally yielded to pressure from international community and donor agencies, and dropped the idea of altering the contours of polity. It released all prominent politicians, except the two sons of BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia, and handed over power to an elected regime after holding a credible and most participative election in the history of Bangladesh. Return of AL led secular forces to power with unprecedented majority through the parliamentary elections held on December 29, 2008, apparently ended all apprehensions about prolonged army intervention in that country.

 

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina assumed power in January, 2009, with considerable promise. She promised to change the confrontational political culture of the country and work for realizing aspirations of converting Bangladesh into a developed country by 2021. She also assured to stamp out terror from the country and seek closer and friendly ties with all countries in the region.

 

Whatever its flaws, the army-backed caretaker government in 2008 left the AL government with a strong foundation to build on: a powerful Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), reformed Public Service Commission, a revamped Election Commission and a judiciary separated from the executive.

 

The massive mandate was achieved largely off the AL’s election manifesto – a “Charter for Change” – largely focusing on developmental issues and containing a pledge to curb terrorism and reform the pre-2007 confrontational political culture. To do so, the AL President Sheikh Hasina needed to strengthen democratic institutions in her party and in government and reconcile with the opposition, especially the BNP, to build a functional multi-party system. But by 2012, all these expectations have been belied and overtaken by a perception among the people that the AL failed to deliver.

 

Promises of an end to confrontational politics came to naught when both AL and BNP reverted to original form, almost immediately after the 2008 election, with the BNP boycotting parliament over the relatively trivial issue of seating arrangements in parliament and the AL evicting Khaleda Zia from her Dhaka cantonment house.

 

Cancellation of caretaker government system by the Supreme Court is not the only issue bothering BNP; the party is also concerned about the possible conviction of Khaleda Zia or her son, Tarique Rahman, in the ongoing court cases. Khaleda Zia’s younger son Arafat Rahman Koko has already been convicted. Now it may be Khaleda Zia and / or Tarique Rahman’s turn. Their conviction in criminal cases, which seems a possibility, would bar them from contesting the elections.

 

As time is running out fast the AL has been weighing various options to find out a mechanism for holding the upcoming election. It could go ahead with elections without participation by BNP and its allies. “If one or two of the opposition parties do not participate in the elections, that’s their problem”, said an adviser to the prime minister. Similar views have also been aired by AL senior leader and Minister Suranjit Sengupta. Another option available is that the AL may push through the elections encouraging the Ershad-led Jatiya Party (JP)) to contest as an opposition for the sake of credibility and invite other small groups and breakaway factions to take part. While unlikely, this cannot be completely ruled out. Ershad has already indicated that he was ready to walk out of the AL-led Alliance and field candidates for all the constituencies.

 

Other options include appointment of an all-party or “national unity” government that would ease fears of possible rigging. AL and JP leaders are inclined towards the ‘all-party’ government, which would consist of a cabinet nominated by those parties and including parliamentary representation. However, the BNP is opposed to this, as the AL is proposing that the number of members from each party has to be determined by its proportion of seats in parliament giving a massive advantage to the AL led alliance, which controls 87 per cent. Moreover, it proposes to have either the Prime Minister or the President as the head of such an interim government which will not be acceptable to BNP.

A variant might be an all-party government composed of cabinet members taken from the AL and BNP, with the incumbent prime minister as its head. Sheikh Hasina had even agreed to step down as prime minister if the BNP accepts this model. A BNP negotiator, however, said the AL would still be able to influence the key levers of electoral control, such as the Election Commission, which was unacceptable, and the party has since reverted to its demand for a caretaker government.

 

Amid mounting heat and tension in the political arena people are worried about what happens next. Both ruling and opposition parties are getting prepared for final round of political battle in the streets to attain the goal. The people, media, civil society and international community want the two parties to sit together and hammer out differences to resolve the deadlock over caretaker government issue. But the two parties are unlikely to reach any understanding on resolving the political standoff.

 

Political analysts apprehend that inability to find out a mutually agreed and acceptable mechanism for conducting the parliamentary elections could lead to violent confrontation and provoke military intervention once again. The confrontational political atmosphere has become a hindrance in Bangladesh’s pursuit to consolidate democracy and representative government.   The crux of Bangladesh’s political crisis is that BNP is not ready to accept anything short of election under caretaker government, while the AL is not willing to accept caretaker government. At this stage the restoration of caretaker government without the AL’s consent is not possible and the ruling party is not at all ready to do that.

 

With sharp deterioration in the political situation, the international community apprehends that the country is again heading into confrontational politics. The dispute over how the next general election will be held in a free, fair and transparent manner is one of the root causes of the present political crisis. Nevertheless, the recent city corporation election indicate that free and fair election could be possible under Awami League Government.  The prevailing situation could be extremely volatile if fundamentalist element come to power in Bangladesh.  Now, it is for the people of Bangladesh to decide whether they want a secular, democratic and progressive government like Awami League or to enter into the clutch of fundamentalist forces which can ruin the country. 




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