A defining moment

At stake in the impending elections is the identity of the Bangladeshi state.

Written by Bhumitra Chakma | Updated: January 9, 2014 9:43 pm

At stake in the impending elections is the identity of the Bangladeshi state.

The “violence of democracy” in Bangladesh has made its usual comeback before the general elections set to take place on January 5. In a ritualistic fashion,the violence,including deadly Jamaati savagery “provoked” by the war crimes trials,has returned.

The 18-party opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami has announced that it will not take part in the forthcoming election. It wants the election to be held under a non-party,caretaker administration,which the incumbent 14-party coalition government led by the Awami League (AL) has rejected.

To force the government to heed its demand,the opposition alliance has employed several tactics — boycott of parliamentary proceedings,protest marches,demonstrations,blockades,strikes and hartals. The BNP has been absent for 83 per cent of parliamentary sittings during the tenure of the ninth parliament,has called for frequent strikes and resorted to intimidation and violence in its campaign for a caretaker government. The outsourcing of violence to the Jamaat has turned the situation more deadly this time around.

Jamaat activists have exploited the current electoral gridlock to vent their anger against the war crimes trials and the hanging of Abdul Quader Mollah,a top Jamaat leader. Many senior Jamaat leaders are currently under trial for war crimes they allegedly committed during the 1971 war.

The opposition alliance has now called for a continuous blockade between January 1 and 5 to disrupt the forthcoming election. The AL has been equally heavy-handed in dealing with the opposition’s demand,and has misused state force. Using its overwhelming majority in parliament,it struck down the caretaker government system in July 2011. To ward off the opposition’s demand,it offered to create an all-party government,which the BNP rejected.

The intransigence of each side has resulted in a gridlock. Meanwhile,scores of people have lost their lives,and more casualties are expected as time for a compromise has run out.

Violence surrounding general elections is not new in Bangladesh. In its recent history,except for the 1991 general election,when the caretaker government system was first introduced following the removal of the dictatorial Ershad regime,all general elections have been marred by violence. In 2007,helped by political bickering,the army seized the opportunity to come back to power. The military ran the country for two years under the garb of a civilian government. It eventually bowed out under international pressure in early 2009.

What is happening in Bangladesh now is a repeat of events during the February 1996 general election. However,there are two notable differences. First,the two leaders are now wearing the other’s hat from 1996. Second,today’s Jamaat-led violence was largely absent at that time,although the Jamaat was a part of the opposition agitation. In February 1996,the opposition political parties led by Sheikh Hasina,the current prime minister,boycotted the general election because of the BNP government’s failure to hold the election under a neutral,non-party caretaker administration. Hasina led a campaign of marches,demonstrations,strikes and hartals to force the government to accede to the opposition’s demand.

Khaleda Zia,then prime minister and current opposition leader,refused to heed the opposition’s demand and held an election in which her party won all the seats. The election results did not give the BNP the legitimacy to govern. In the face of continuous blockades and hartals,Zia eventually relented. She annulled the February election and amended the constitution to facilitate elections under a caretaker government. The election was held again in June,and the AL emerged as the largest party and formed the government.

The January 5 elections will,in all likelihood,go ahead. But they will lack credibility and the results will not provide Hasina the legitimacy to govern for another five years. The violence is likely to continue.

There is a fear that given the continuing political bickering,the military may stage a comeback,like in 2007. At stake in this election,perhaps,is the identity of the Bangladeshi state. The election can be seen as a contest between secular and conservative forces. Against the backdrop of the war crimes trials,the Jamaat is fighting for its existence. The excessive violence can be ascribed to this. Bangladesh is currently at a crossroads,and whichever party governs the country over the next five years will exercise significant influence in defining the identity of the state.

It is in this context that external powers are entering the fray. This can be gauged from Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s recent statement: “… there were obviously some differences of perception [with the US on the Bangladesh election… While the US is at some distance from Bangladesh,we are right next to it. So our understanding of the region and understanding of sentiments of the people in the region should be helpful in the positions they [Americans want to take.”

For obvious reasons related to security and terrorism,India wants to see the secular forces return to power in Dhaka. Washington has taken an odd position,while Beijing,by contrast,has taken a pragmatic view.

The writer teaches security and strategic studies and international relations at the University of Hull,UK


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