Bangladesh: A lull before the storm

Posted in Broader Middle East | 10-Nov-06 | Author: Sudha Ramachandran| Source: Asia Times

Bangladeshi activists from the youth wing of Awami League (AL) set fire to an effigy of chief election commissioner M. A. Aziz during a human chain protest in Dhaka.

BANGALORE - A political deadlock over who should head a caretaker government to oversee upcoming general elections in Bangladesh resulted in violent protests erupting on the streets of Dhaka over the weekend.

While the situation appears to have calmed somewhat, this could well be the lull before the storm. With disagreements over the conduct of elections that brought the opposition parties out on the streets still lingering, more unrest and bloodletting can be expected in the months ahead.

Under the constitution, at the end of a government's five-year term, a non-partisan caretaker government takes charge and is responsible for organizing elections within 90 days. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led coalition government's term ended on Saturday and elections are due in January.

It is the composition of the caretaker government that is at the heart of the current political standoff. The 14-party opposition alliance led by the Awami League (AL) alleges that the BNP government has appointed loyalists to the interim administration. It has been threatening to boycott the election if the caretaker administration is not in neutral hands.

Several rounds of talks between the BNP and the opposition to break the impasse met with little success. The government simply refused to reconsider its decision to appoint former justice K M Hasan - a BNP member prior to joining the judiciary - as the chief adviser of the interim government.

Neither was it willing to remove chief election commissioner M A Aziz and his deputies, who are known to be biased in favor of the BNP. With the interim administration due to take charge on Saturday and the BNP showing no signs of relenting, the issue exploded into violent protests on the streets.

Protests last weekend left at least 25 people dead and more than 500 injured, when rampaging mobs of opposition activists clashed with the police. BNP and AL supporters fought pitched battles in several neighborhoods in Dhaka.

On Saturday, as the situation on the streets showed no signs of calming, the political crisis took a new turn when Hasan declined to head the caretaker government a few hours before he was to take over from Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. This prompted President Iajuddin Ahmed to step in to take additional charge as chief adviser of the interim government.

At first, the opposition expressed unhappiness with Ahmed at the helm of the caretaker administration. It subsequently toned down its opposition. "We neither welcome the new caretaker government nor reject it," AL chief Hasina Wajed said. "We hope the president will be neutral and impartial in conducting the next general election. We will keep him under watch," Wajed said, signaling the opposition's conditional support for the interim administration.

On the face of it, it does seem that the crisis has been averted. But this could well be a temporary truce. "The opposition will return to street protests," said Smruti Pattanaik, research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. None of the demands it put forward have been met. It has not called off the street protests yet and has indicated that it is going to continue with its campaign for electoral reforms.

The opposition has placed before the president a set of demands, including reforms of the Election Commission and pruning of the civil and police administration ahead of the election. "We have given the president until November 3 to meet all our demands," Wajed said.

The issue of the president taking over as chief of the interim administration is not settled. "The president's swearing-in as chief adviser of the interim constitution is unconstitutional," said Pattanaik. Pro-opposition lawyers in Bangladesh say the president's move is likely to be challenged in the courts and could be struck down, triggering a new confrontation.

What makes more unrest a near-certainty is the fact that the election process is unlikely to be free or fair. Of the four institutions that will play a crucial role in the general election, three - the presidency, the head of the caretaker administration, and the Election Commission - either are politically biased, are in some sort of crisis or have lost credibility in the eyes of the public. The fourth - the armed forces - have in recent years maintained a low profile, but this could change.

It almost did over the weekend, claim political observers in Dhaka. As law and order spiraled out of control in the cities, there were rumors of the armed forces being called in to aid the civil administration in quelling the violence and ending the crisis. Many feared that Bangladesh was on the brink of a military coup.

Bangladesh is not new to having the generals in the political arena. It spent more than 15 years under military rule since it broke away from Pakistan in 1971. Democracy was restored in 1990, but the political scene remains explosive, dominated by the bitter rivalry between the BNP and the AL. While the roots of this rivalry might be political, it has been kept alive by the personal animosity between its leaders - Zia and Wajed - rather than substantial ideological differences. And sadly, this "battle between the begums" has undermined the functioning of Bangladesh's political institutions.

The BNP and the AL have alternated in power since 1990. When in power, both parties refuse to listen to the opposition. When out of power, both parties boycott parliament and call for crippling nationwide strikes. The Awami League, for example, has refused to attend parliament for most of this year; the BNP did the same when the AL was in power from 1996-2001. Both parties are therefore responsible for grinding Bangladesh's democratic process to a halt.

Media reports have been drawing attention to the shadow of the armed forces over the political scene. Indeed, the armed forces are waiting in the wings. "But a coup is not imminent," said Pattanaik. Since 1990, the Bangladeshi military has not been as politically active as its counterpart in Pakistan. "It will adopt a wait-and-watch policy and intervene when the situation really deteriorates, when all options have run out and when it is sure of some support among the public."

The more immediate danger is that posed by the Islamist parties and outfits, whose influence has grown significantly in recent years. In the 2001 elections, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Oikya Jote won 20 seats between them. They joined the BNP to form a coalition government and were allotted ministries. They have used their stint in government to consolidate their influence considerably. They could do better in the coming elections.

The principal beneficiary of the political impasse and unrest "has been the increasingly influential Islamist fringe, led by legitimate parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami but extending to the violently militant Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh", points out an International Crisis Group report on Bangladesh. "Islamic militancy has flourished in a time of dysfunctional politics, popular discontent and violence," the report warns.

Support for the religious parties is growing not because Bangladeshis are drawn by their fundamentalist vision - linguistic rather than religious nationalism remains the predominant driving force in Bangladesh, although this is being whittled down - but because these parties have an image of being more competent and organized.

"Parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote have a distinct ideology and vision. They are cadre-based and better organized," said Pattanaik. They seem more dedicated and driven. In a political scenario that is marked by squabbling and chaos, the religious right offers efficiency and order, making it an attractive option for a growing number of people.

In recent years, Islamist extremism and militancy have grown in Bangladesh. Islamic militants have targeted intellectuals, secularists, religious minorities and left-wing activists. AL leaders and activists have been killed. In August last year, some 450 crude bombs went off simultaneously across the country. The explosions were small and the casualties low, but the scale of the operation was worrying. The attack was followed a few months later by Bangladesh's first-ever suicide bombings.

Bombs and grenades have been hurled into political rallies. Wajed narrowly escaped a bomb attack on a rally she was addressing in August 2004. In January 2005, Shah AMS Kibria, a former finance minister, and four others were killed in a grenade attack on an AL rally.

It is not just street fighting then that Bangladesh needs to worry about in the run-up to elections; there is the danger of terrorism.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.