As chaos continues to torment the nation, Bangladeshi politics is currently mired in a crisis around questions of national identity. A common theme of concern for the nation among the people remains the looming uncertainty in the country. The capital Dhaka and other parts of the country have been witnessing a series of shutdowns and violent protests in the past few months. Violent protests and large scale destruction have claimed more than 100 lives so far across the country and the crisis shows no signs of abating.
The ruling Awami League government refused to treat the unrest as a political crisis and call fresh elections. The incumbent Awami League, led by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, was re-elected easily thanks to an opposition boycott. Nearly 50 people have been killed and more than 10,000 opposition activists arrested. BNP leaders are mostly in jail, in exile or in hiding, and face criminal charges that will probably bar them from running in the next election. The government temporarily cut the electricity supply and internet cables to Mrs Zia’s redoubt.
Ever since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in the early 1990s, the country has been marred by a deep distrust between the two main political parties – the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). This distrust stands in the way of strengthening democratic institutions, such as the Electoral Commission (EC). As a result the main opposition does not want to run for elections while the ruling party controls the EC and is demanding the formation of a neutral government to oversee the poll. This issue led to a logjam in 1995 and 2001 and the suspension of democratic processes from 2006 to 2008. When the Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina, came to power in 2008 with an overwhelming majority, it nullified the system of caretaker government despite opposition from rival political parties.
Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and BNP of Khaleda Zia are known for rigging elections, necessitating an interim caretaker administration to conduct the poll. In 2006 Mrs Zia’s party, at the end of a particularly corrupt and incompetent stint in office, tried to rig that system too but the army stepped in to back a non-party “technocratic” government, which after two years held an election in favor of a landslide by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League.
Bangladesh, a country of nearly 160m people, has been paralyzed but the government does not think it should do anything to make the nation and government properly functional. The opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, had been confined to a party office in the capital, Dhaka. Her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has staged a nationwide blockade of roads, railways and waterways.
The 10th parliamentary elections, held in a hurry without the participation of the opposition parties, did not bring any new changes to the political landscape of the country. The ruling party had already won more than 150 seats unopposed in the House, out of 300, and the polling in early January was a mere formality. Awami league won with hands down without opposition participation.
Such bogus polls anywhere in the world do not have any legitimacy. But the western and eastern democracies would not interfere with the political process of Muslim nations if they are endorsed by Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has not objected to the political fraud of the ruling party.
Despite the constitutional amendment, the BNP was not willing to participate in general elections unless its demand for a caretaker government was met. But the Hasina government went ahead with the poll and won the majority of seats. Intervention from the international community and the United Nations has failed to bring any kind of reconciliation between the major political parties. The general elections on January 5 was held without any participation from the largest opposition party and its alliance partners, thereby raising serious question about the legitimacy of the electoral process and the future of Bangladesh’s nascent democracy.
In the just concluded municipal poll, BNP was wise enough to participate because no power on earth can cancel the polls if held by the regime by ignoring basic democratic traditions. USA and its western capitalist allies would talk about democracy probably just for fun in order to suit some cause and in fact they are not at all serous about nay democracy or human rights. Hence they did nothing to stop the elections held without opposition participation.
Local poll victories seem to have empowered the ruling party not to take the opposition parties seriously enough. The opposition claims that ruling party adopted unfair means in the polls. The government prefers to ignore the call by the opposition BNP for a constructive dialog for building a better nation. The confrontational attitude of ruling and opposition parties gives little scope for peaceful development of the nation.
Meanwhile, the ruling Awami League organised the rallies to celebrate January 5 as ‘victory day for democracy’ claiming that the January 5 municipal elections helped protect the country’s democracy and uphold the continuity of the constitutional process. The party’s local unit at different district and metropolitan cities also organised rallies marking the day.
The BNP, however, observes the day as ‘democracy killing day’ alleging that the country’s democratic process was destroyed by the January 5 elections, in which 153 lawmakers were elected unopposed amidst boycott by all opposition parties. ‘We have no grievance or grudge against anyone. But Hasina should confess to mistakes…We want to work together to restore democracy,’ Khaleda said.
It was for the first time in more than one year that the BNP chief addressed such a big open rally. Law enforcers equipped with water cannon vehicles and Armoured Personnel Carrier were deployed around the rally venue. Leaders and activists of BNP and its associate organizations join the program from different wards of Dhaka city and its adjacent districts including Narayanganj.
Bangladesh Commerce minister Tofail Ahmed said Khaleda should observe January 5 repentance day as she failed to bring army to power through foiling the elections. Tofail, also presidium member of Awami League, said that BNP joined the municipal polls under the Sheikh Hasina’s government, but they boycotted the national polls. He also said BNP will be defeated in the 2019 general election like it suffered in the municipal polls.
BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia on January 05 urged the Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government to sit for a dialog immediately to create positive environment conducive for holding a fair and neutral general election to restore democracy in the country. ‘Let us find a solution through discussion,’ Khaleda said at a rally Dhaka city BNP organised in front of the central BNP office at Naya Paltan marking the second anniversary of the January 5, 2014 general elections, boycotted by all opposition parties.
The Awami League claimed that by contesting the municipal polls under the incumbents BNP has accepted the government’s legitimacy to rule. Khaleda said that Awami League had also contested local body polls under BNP government and local government elections are usually held under the political government and hence it contested.
Awami League leaders urged BNP and its chairperson Khaleda Zia to stop creating problems and wait three more years for the next general elections and said the polls will be held under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina in accordance with the constitution. Addressing two separate rallies at city’s Bangabandhu Avenue and Russel Square, they defended the January 5, 2014 elections and said martial law would have returned in the country if the elections were not held.
Recently, Awami League General Secretary Syed Ashraful Islam yesterday said BNP will be thrown into the dustbin of history if it fails to accept the truth. “The formation of a party doesn’t mean it’ll survive forever. A party can lose its existence if it refuses to accept the reality,” he said, and questioned patriotism of former premier of BNP. He claimed the BNP and its chief are creating controversies over the number of martyrs, the proclamation of independence by Bangabandhu and his contribution, and Liberation War. Pakistan is her sacred place and she can’t move even an inch from it.
Several specialists blame the Hasina led Awami League’s rigidity for the present chaos in the country. The war crimes tribunal is flawed and prejudiced and that it serves to prosecute political opposition. She wanted to punish those who are closed to the opposition BNP which spearheaded demonstrations against the government and she performed that ask pretty well. Those supporting the government hold BNP-Jamaat responsible for the current mess in the country.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh suffers a dysfunctional two-party system, in which the two major party leaders, the “battling begums”, wage a personal vendetta at the country’s expense. From 1991 they have rotated in office, promoting chaos. The personal animus between the begums has helped foster a winner-takes-all approach to politics in which the futility of rigged elections forces the opposition on to the streets.
The AL party has used its majority to entrench its power, and make it impossible for the BNP the ever to win an election: by abolishing the caretaker system, hounding its leaders and banning its largest coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, for its avowedly Islamic platform by deliberately bringing in the so-called crimes during the 1970 freedom struggle. Now the government claims it is combating acts of vandalism and terrorism by the BNP. The opposition accuses the government of trying to create a one-party state.
At the center of the continuous political crisis today was the 10th parliamentary election wherein only the ruling party contested and won as per a conspiracy, making a complete mockery of democracy, in which , but a larger issue is at hand: the fight between moderate and secular forces on the one hand and radical Islamic forces on the other. The infighting takes place around the roles India and Pakistan play viz a viz Bangladesh. New Delhi plays a great role in deciding the political direction of its eastern neighbor, considering the proximity the ruling Awami League enjoys with political leadership in India.
The main fight is between Islamic forces, led by Jamaat-e-Islami and Hefat-e-Islam, both of whom are allied with the BNP, on the one hand and the semi-secular and pro-anti-Islam political coalition with the Awami League as its head on the other. The battle between these two opposing ideological coalitions became more pronounced after the setting up of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal, which is prosecuting war criminals who sided with Pakistan and indulged in violence against Bangladeshis during the country’s liberation movement in 1971.
Last month, a prominent Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, became the first prominent leader to be sentenced to execution by the tribunal. His hanging stoked violence in several parts of the country.
The former Prime Minister Khaleda urged AL to test its popularity through an election under a neutral government. She said that fair and neutral election was never possible under Awami League government and that the Awami League wanted to show its popularity holding partisan local government polls for the first time. She said that AL could not assess its real popularity because it used police, RAB, Chhatra League and Juba League in election.
Demanding immediate resignation of the Election Commission, Khaleda said that the commission exposed its feeling of ‘helplessness’ seeking prime minister’s intervention to contain irregularities in municipal polls. She alleged that the commission violated the constitution by not deploying army in the municipal polls and worked as an ‘agent’ of AL party and government.
But the AL general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam, presiding over the rally at Bangabandhu Avenue, said that Khaleda as opposition leader killed 64 people, injured 1,500 and destroyed 700 vehicles in the name of protecting democracy. He called on BNP to practice ‘peaceful’ politics in the country and said the next general elections would be held in a free and fair manner. ‘It will not be necessary to anyone in that election. We believe in democracy,’ he added.
The BNP chairperson alleged that the Awami League had a link to militancy.
Citing incidents of bomb blasts at Udichi function in Jessore, Ramna Batamul and CPB rally, she said that militancy rose when AL was in power. Khaleda said that Awami League frequently scared foreigners that secularism would not exist if AL was not in power. She said that BNP wants peace not militancy. She alleged that secular credentials of the nation are under threat during the rule of Awami League.
Khaleda said that none would be allowed to use the soil of Bangladesh to attack others. She asked why perpetrators of the recent killing of foreigners in Bangladesh were not identified rather BNP leaders and activists were being arrested in false cases and why street lights and CCTV cameras were switched off in Gulshan during the killing of select persons. Referring to ongoing movements of teachers, engineers, physicians and various public servants, Khaleda said the government was discriminating against different cadres. She asked the government to meet the demands raised by different cadres or to face the consequences.
Khaleda urged people of all walks of life to get united and to carry out peaceful democratic programs to oust the ‘oppressor’ government. The BNP chief also asked the government to stop repression, killing, arrests and enforced disappearance to avoid dire consequences. The government is enacting new laws to repress opposition. She demanded immediate release of detained politicians and journalists including Nagarik Oikya convener Mahmudur Rahman Manna, Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, journalist leader Shawkat Mahmud and Chhatra Dal president Rajib Ahsan.
The AL leaders said BNP, along with Jamaat, made an all-out effort to save the war criminals by foiling the January 5 general elections. They urged the BNP to come to the path of democracy through participating in the next general elections and cut off all political ties with Jamaat and destructive politics. Sheikh Fazlul Huq Selim asked Khaleda why BNP had joined the municipal polls if Hasina’s government was illegal. He said there was no alternative to Awami League and Hasina for development of the country.
Awami League leader Mahbubul Alam Hanif urged the BNP leaders to reorganize the party without Khaleda Zia saying Khaleda had lost the right to do politics in Bangladesh after making derogatory remark regarding the number of liberation war martyred. Some local AL leaders addressing a rally at Chittagong Central Shaheed Minar premises said Khaleda should be driven out of the country for her derogatory remarks over the Liberation War martyrs.
In Bangladesh there is a deep-seated problem of political mistrust between the two main political parties. This distrust is rooted in history. The seeds of distrust were laid when Islamic groups opposed the idea of Bangladesh and later on extremist religious groups found patronage at the hands of the BNP. This is the reason that institutions like the Election Commission are not strong and independent in the country. Bureaucracy is divided along political lines and civil society also plays partisan roles.
The ruling Awami league government continues on collusion politics even after the party swept the local municipal poll last month, leaving a meager number of seats to the opposition parties.
As it stands, the general tone of the ruling party is very rough and tough, even mocking at the opposition for its failure in winning enough seats at least in the municipal polls.
India, for the first time since 1971, has lost some credibility in the eyes of the people of Bangladesh. The impression among a section of the populace is that New Delhi has failed to help, support and guide its junior brother in the hour of crisis. This failure is not because of political leadership but because of lackluster diplomacy of New Delhi.
Bangladesh is also unhappy that Indian forces detect and harass Bangladeshis who go to Indian side for work.
The big question is whether the major political players will bury their differences and allow the democratic process to go on in Bangladesh or seek military rule again. The answer could be rooted in the very idea of Bangladesh: a predominantly Muslim country separated from Pakistan in 1971 on the question of its linguistic and ethnic identity.
The Hasina regime has made Islam look like a sham. So much so Bangladeshis have very little concern for genuine Islamic faith, possible except in certain rituals. People under the AL government have no time or interest in Islam. Many Bangaldeshi politicians even see Islam as the religion of Pakistan and hence they do not want to promote it as their prime duty as faithful Muslims.
The pseudo patriotic passions the Hasina government seeks to espouse among the people in order to win polls would not last long. Its premises are very close to the Indian Hindutva parties.