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Political stalemate in Bangladesh

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Bangladesh's former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, flanked by former Presidents H.M. Ershad (left) and Badrudouzza Chowdhury (right), waves to supporters during a rally in Dhaka on Wednesday.
Bangladesh's former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, flanked by former Presidents H.M. Ershad (left) and Badrudouzza Chowdhury (right), waves to supporters during a rally in Dhaka on Wednesday.

Haroon Habib

The proposed boycott of the January 22 general election by the main Opposition undermines the credibility of the whole exercise.

THE DECISION of the grand alliance led by the Awami League to boycott the January 22 parliamentary election has quickly reversed the short-lived election mood in Bangladesh. The League president and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced on January 3 that the alliance was left with no other option as the electoral preparations had been "staged-managed" in favour of the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Sheikh Hasina alleged that "Assuming the office of the chief adviser of the caretaker government illegally, Iajuddin Ahmed, who now heads Khaleda's shadow government, wants to hold an election without a valid voters' list and with a politicised administration ... We cannot give legitimacy to such an election."

On October 29, 2006, following the completion of the five-year tenure of the BNP Government, President Iajuddin controversially assumed leadership of the caretaker authority, a system designed to prevent the ruling parties from rigging polls. Bangladesh introduced the caretaker system in 1991.

Questioning the neutrality of Mr. Iajuddin, key leaders of the grand alliance including Jatiya Party chairman H.M. Ershad and Liberal Democratic Party president Badrudouzza Chowdhury vowed to "resist" the January 22 election.

The Khaleda Zia-led alliance is happy with the boycott as many of its key leaders, including Ms. Zia and her son, Tarique Rahman, have been elected "unopposed." She is now getting ready to form the next government. Her alliance sticks to one particular point: no deferment of the election, which is mandatory within 90 days of Parliament's dissolution. The Khaleda-led alliance has offered to hold mid-term polls after it returns to power. But this has hardly satisfied its challengers.

The arithmetic

The Awami League secured 38 per cent and 42 per cent of the popular vote in the last two elections in 1996 and 2001. In contrast, the BNP secured 34 per cent and 38 per cent. The BNP's ally Jamaat got 9 per cent and 4 per cent. The Jatiya Party of the former military ruler General Ershad, now an ally in the Hasina-led grand alliance, got 17 per cent of the vote in 1996 but only 8 per cent in 2001. So the arithmetic favours the Hasina-led alliance.

Mr. Iajuddin's conduct as head of the caretaker government has been so controversial that four leading members of the council of advisers resigned. The President has deployed the army in opposition to the wishes of the council. The police have been ruthless in dealing with political protestors, arresting more than 3000 people on the eve of the siege programme of the 14-party alliance. This was seen as a replication of the outgoing Khaleda Government's policy of pre-emptive arrests to thwart the Opposition.

After the grand alliance's boycott announcement, Bangladesh has virtually reached a political dead-end. Mr. Iajuddin's tough posture has apparently stalled the frantic diplomatic moves by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to ensure a credible election.

The U.S. State Department has urged the interim administration to create conditions for free, fair, and transparent elections. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns spoke to Mr. Iajuddin last week to urge him to create a congenial and participatory poll environment. However, the President's house said Mr. Iajuddin apprised Mr. Burns of the "constitutional compulsions" for holding elections within the stipulated 90 days.

The U.S. Ambassador in Dhaka, Patricia A. Butenis, who along with U.K. High Commissioner, Anwar Chowdhury, has been shuttling between the two political camps for weeks, expressed frustration over the preparations for the "one-sided" elections. "I continue to think this is a political problem, not necessarily a legal one ... We've gone on record saying that we'd have difficulty finding a one-sided election credible." The EU said a failure of the current electoral process would be a major setback for democracy in Bangladesh and for the international credibility of the country.

In New Delhi, a Ministry of External Affairs statement on January 3 said: "It is our hope that the people of Bangladesh will be able to elect their government of their own choice in a free, fair and credible election."

"Political tsunami"

But despite mounting domestic unrest and international concerns, the Election Commission, the caretaker government, and the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami seem bent on completing the unilateral polling exercise. Many political parties and constitutional experts believe a one-sided election will only aggravate the crisis. M. Zahir, a leading jurist, said, "It's now a political tsunami we are facing. The President has now only two options: hold an election adamantly, or solve the crisis sending reference to the Supreme Court seeking extension of date."

The options are limited. The President can reschedule the election in the interest of a credible poll and seek directives from the Supreme Court regarding the 90-day constitutional stipulation, or hold the election so that his political mentors return to power.

In a statement on January 6, Mr. Iajuddin clarified his position saying the parliamentary election would be held on schedule, although a major political camp withdrew from the race. Sounding a note of warning to the boycotting parties, he said: "My government has ordered the law enforcers to take stern measures so that no quarter can disturb law and order to thwart the upcoming election."

Mr. Iajuddin meant business. With the armymen patrolling the streets of Dhaka and other towns mounting machine guns, the police and paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) turned ruthless against the Sheikh Hasina-led grand alliance supporters during the January 7-9 countrywide blockade. The members of the armed forces, who will be in action for the next 20 days, also received blanket permission to carry out arrest without warrants.

Analysts see Mr. Iajuddin's failures as manifold: first, due to his allegiance to the BNP, he never tried to gain the confidence of the Awami League-led alliance. Secondly, his biggest failure lay in not being able to work collectively with his council of advisers, undermining the constitutional spirit of the non-party administration. And thirdly, the caretaker chief has failed to depoliticise the administration left by the outgoing government.

Khaleda Zia, the outgoing Prime Minister, told a news conference on January 5 that her alliance would participate in the scheduled election and form the next government even if that election was "less credible."

Bangladesh's Constitution stipulates holding of fresh elections within 90 days of the last Parliament's dissolution. But what has been so craftily left out now is the fact that the Constitution also requires the elections to be held on the basis of an accurate and credible voters' list and by a fully neutral caretaker government. The Election Commission has admitted that the electoral rolls are strewn with errors. That the caretaker government has proved its allegiance to the outgoing government is only too evident.

Critics said the Awami League-led grand alliance's decision to boycott the election may have been prompted by the rejection of the nomination papers of General Ershad. The alliance has denied this but said the way the long-dormant cases against General Ershad's were withdrawn one after another when he decided to join the BNP-led alliance but he was still disqualified from contesting when he finally joined the Awami League-led alliance surely raised questions.

Only the Supreme Court of the country can now find a logical way out if the President seeks its opinion for deferring the date of polling. But the President said he would not do that. While echoing the statement of the President, the acting Chief Election Commissioner, Mahfuzur Rahman, however, said on January 9 that the caretaker government should take responsibility for any violence and bloodshed on the poll day. "We will not be responsible," he said.

The grand alliance has formed committees in each parliamentary constituency to "resist" the January 22 election, and announced new programmes to demand Mr. Iajuddin's removal as head of the caretaker government and for rescheduling the election.


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