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Bangladesh: Political Crisis Erupts Over Poll

It seems Bangladesh is not seeking any credible opposition to question the intimidating governance of PM Sheikh Hasina who has deliberately weakened the position of opposition parties in order to perpetrate single-party rule.  Democracy and freedoms are thus at stake in the land of Bengalis who resist the state attempts to curb political liberties.  

If Bangladesh government of Sheikh Hasina tries to use the election commission to pursue the ruling party’s poll prospects, one can’t find fault with the Premier.  Most of the world governments decide the poll dates and ask the election commission to announce the dates and procedures as per the government decisions. Not just that.  Many governments shamelessly use the election commission to win polls and the election commissioner maintains secrecy of all government planning and refuses to take  action against the government when serious  allegations are raised  by opposition  in public.   

Despite the Election Commission’s claim of neutrality and ensuring a level playing field ahead of the municipal polls, the BNP has made serious allegations of its highly partisan role. The ruling Awami League has dismissed the allegation, saying it is a mere propaganda of its main political opposition which boycotted the last general elections in 2014.

For the first time, the local government election is going to be held partisan except for the posts of councilor. The mayoral candidates will contest the electoral race with party symbols. Political analysts say the blame-game will worsen the election atmosphere which ultimately will not benefit anyone and rather weaken the electoral and political system of the country.

The EC has already been tested as it failed to deliver any fair election including the January 5 election and last Dhaka and Chittagong city corporation polls.

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia has said the Dec 30 municipal elections are going to be nothing but a ‘farce’.  The BNP chief alleged that the government barred BNP candidates from filing nominations and arrested its leaders and activists “like it did before the elections to the city corporations in Dhaka and Chittagong in April”. The BNP had boycotted the city corporation polls halfway through the voting alleging large-scale rigging. Khaleda said police, along with Bangladesh Chhatra League and Juba League activists, were barring the BNP adherents from joining the municipal polls.

PM Hasina expects the opposition parties to boycott the local polls as well.

BNP leaders blamed the Awami League-led government for the continued incidents of disappearance and killing of their leaders and creating congenial atmosphere for the militants to carry out attacks on the bloggers, foreigners and others. They said that the government had destroyed the country’s hard-earned democracy through holding January 5 general election and under the present government’s autocratic rule human rights of the people were being grossly violated in the country.

Although electioneering is on in full swing with the election watchdog’s scrutiny having ended on December 05, political camps have resorted to mud-slinging in the battle for votes scheduled for December 30.

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said: “The Election Commission’s role has not been impartial from the very beginning. It is totally partisan … It is clear that a free and fair municipal poll is not possible under this commission.” Fakhrul, however, said a little effort by the EC could hold a fair poll.

Meanwhile, Election Commissioner Shah Nawaz said they had taken all necessary measures so that no one is forced to boycott the local body polls this time. “We are alert as we have learnt lessons from the elections we have organised in the past. That is why I am saying we have taken all measures so that no one is forced to quit the election race, unless he or she does it deliberately,” he told reporters at the office of the EC Secretariat. He also said: “We can assure you that the EC will monitor everything everywhere so that a free and fair election is held.” Shah Nawaz said the commission will have nothing to do if anyone boycotts the election deliberately.

Awami League Joint General Secretary Mahbub-ul-Alam Hanif said: “The BNP propagates before every election that fair election would not be held. In Barisal City Corporation election, the BNP alleged that the vote had been rigged but finally the BNP-backed candidate won the poll.” However, after the election the party said the election was fair.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bangladesh was widely regarded as a paradigm case of a nation whose poverty was a direct consequence of over-breeding. But the Bangladeshis have shown a surprising resilience over the decades. They have made impressive strides in manufacturing, done far better than India with regard to health and women’s rights, all the while renewing their literary and cultural traditions. Given the inhospitable conditions like civil war, cyclones, and sectarianism in which it came into being, the economic and social advances made by Bangladesh are noteworthy.

What remains a worry, however, is the lack of progress on the political front. Bangladesh was created may be because West Pakistan did not give adequate space to the Awami League - the major political party of East Pakistan. The political history of Bangladesh has always been rocky

Father of Sheikh Hasina, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League stalwart who led the separatist movement against West Pakistani domination, headed the new nation’s government from 1971 onwards with Indian sponsorship and support. In early 1975, however, as the new ruler of Bangladesh he made a major push towards creating a one-party state. Many Opposition leaders were arrested. Popular disaffection grew, and ultimately the army stepped in, junior officers assassinating him, while senior officers (led by Ziaur Rahman) took control of the government.

The regime led by Ziaur Rahman was in office till 1981, when Zia himself was assassinated and the pro-Islamist general, H.M. Ershad, took power. Ershad was in control for almost a decade. Then, after a prolonged period of unrest and protest, elections were finally held in 1991. The Bangladesh National Party, led by Zia’s widow, Begum Khalida Zia, won the elections. Five years later, she lost power through the ballot box to the Awami League, now led by Sheikh Hasina. In 2001, the BNP came back, ruling till 2006. A caretaker government then assumed office; elections were finally held in December 2008, with Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League winning power.

When the next general elections were due in 2013, the BNP demanded that the Awami League demit office beforehand so that the polls could be supervised by an administration of independent technocrats. The Awami League refused, whereupon the BNP and other Opposition parties boycotted the elections- a bad move that cost them very dearly. Elected unopposed, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have since had untrammeled control of the government, the Parliament, and literally everything.

Sheikh Hasina has vigorously pursued the prosecution of those opposition leaders who supported Pakistan in 1971, and are alleged to have conducted “war crimes” against ordinary citizens. A leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami that had opposed the creation of Bangladesh and son of a prominent pro-Pakistan politician of the 1950s and 1960s, had himself been an adviser to Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP, were sent to jail. The Awami League government, aided by the police, paramilitary and army, appeared to be in complete control. No public dissent was permissible, or permitted.

Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have used the war crimes tribunal to deepen their political and ideological control over State and society. There is no question that horrific crimes were committed by the Pakistani army in 1971, nonetheless, there are serious reservations about how these recent trials have been conducted and the death penalty served by the Hasina regime. They are helped, of course, by the fact that there is no Without Opposition in Parliament, Hasina has easy time dealing with opponents.  Journalists and academics who raise legitimate criticisms about due process have been harassed.

Sheikh Hasina’s prosecution of war criminals is motivated partly by love for her father. Yet it must be said that the manner of her administration’s present functioning is dangerously reminiscent of her father’s most ignoble period, those early months of 1975 when he amended the Constitution to virtually outlaw dissent and consolidate power in himself.

The political opponents of the Awami League, the BNP and the Jamaat, are defeated and demoralized. Meanwhile, the government has conveniently forged an alliance of mutual convenience with the army. Always an important player, the army has recently been awarded lucrative contracts in construction and road building. The army’s growing power has assumed dangerous proportions – in one case, it forced telecom companies to stop advertising in a prestigious newspaper that had been critical of its actions.

There is much to admire about Bangladesh today: the advancement of its women, the creativity of its entrepreneurial class, its superb civil society organizations, its many gifted artists and writers. But further progress, whether economic, social, or cultural, has now been put in peril by the arbitrary and sometimes vengeful conduct of its government.

The ruling Awami League party stands in the way of the development of a multi-party system in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina and her advisers would do well to acquaint themselves with the history of one-party regimes that originally came to power through the ballot box. The Indian National Congress, the Pakistan People’s Party, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party all attempted to build one-party states in South Asia for decades – but none lasted more than a few years. One-party states are therefore fated to fail. When in power they can wreak considerable havoc. Indira Gandhi and the Congress damaged the bureaucracy and the judiciary so badly that they have never since properly recovered their autonomy or efficiency. The excesses of Bhutto and the PPP paved the way for the re-entry of the Pakistani army into politics. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his SLFP gave a massive fillip to Sinhala chauvinism, while undermining the universities, the press, and other institutions vital to democratic functioning.

BNP vice-chairman Abdullah Al Noman said that incidents of disappearance had not been happened even during the British, Pakistani and Ershad’s autocratic rule but Sheikh Hasina-led government introduced the culture of disappearance and killing of opposition men. He urged the party men to wage tougher movement to topple the government in the interest of establishing democracy and stopping the incidents of human rights violations.

The BNP has already been withered away. To stay in the political field, the BNP has to participate in the election. No matter what the voting result is, the participation will charge up the party leaders and activists.

The Awami League is also in crisis, especially for the security concerns. The Awami League will try its best to win maximum seats to prove that people are with them.

People have a perception that the Election Commission is weak.

Both the Awami League and the BNP are passing through crisis moments although they are different in nature.

Apparently, different political parties are participating in the election with different purposes and that is why they are making contradictory statements.

There is a perception that the Awami League will take most of the local seats and consolidate its strength more in the grassroots level while the BNP has no other option but to take part in the polls. This will basically be a pandemonium which will invite more instability and unrest in the grassroots and, more significantly, the political system in the lowest level will weaken.

Such electoral advances by the ruling Awami party and government would not be of use for the people. Military back up for corruption and crimes  would not do any good for the nation.

Of Bangladesh’s political future only one thing is certain – that the dominance of Sheikh Hasina and her party will end – may be sooner or a bit later and it won’t come back to power easily. The army may make a fresh bid for power. Either option will further delay the transition to a functioning multi-party Islamic democracy.

Present day political climate of arrogance and abuses has serious implications for Bangladesh’s democratic future.


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