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Uneasy in Dhaka

A bitter divide between government, opposition has corroded Bangladesh’s polity.

Written by Syed Badrul Ahsan |
Updated: January 10, 2015 12:00:19 am
sheikh-hasina BNP has consistently claimed that the election was flawed and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina holds power illegally


A year after the general election in Bangladesh, which returned the Awami League to power, there is a growing fear that the opposition’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) will take the country back to the chaos of the months leading up to the polls of January 5, 2014. The BNP, along with a section of the media, has consistently claimed that the election was flawed and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina holds power illegally.

The BNP’s assertions are based on the fact that 153 of the 300 directly elected members of the Jatiyo Sangsad, the Bangladesh parliament, were returned unopposed to the legislature. But the party is on weak ground here, given that the elections were held under the provisions of the constitution. Had the polling not taken place when it did, Bangladesh could have been pushed back into calamitous uncertainty. The last time this happened was in 2006, when the BNP, having completed its term, transferred power to a caretaker government headed by Iajuddin Ahmed, handpicked by the party. The problem was not that power had gone to a caretaker administration, a constitutional provision at the time. It was that Ahmed ignored four alternative processes for appointing the head of the caretaker government and went straight to the fifth, that of the acting president appointing himself to the job should no other candidate be found. An army-backed caretaker administration, led by a former governor of the Bangladesh Bank, replaced Ahmed’s controversial government in early January 2007, imposed a state of emergency and governed for close to two years. Elections in December 2008 saw Sheikh Hasina ride back to power for the first time after June 1996.

The Awami League dispensation did away with the caretaker government system in 2011, on the ground that there was no need for a non-elected interim administration presiding over the transition of power. The BNP cried foul and launched an agitation to restore the caretaker system. Towards the end of 2013, the party, already aligned with the Jamaat-e-Islami, extended support to that rather medieval religious outfit, the Hefazat-e-Islam, which proceeded to create mayhem in Dhaka. The government got tough, sending security forces into operations against the Islamists. The BNP and other anti-Awami League forces accused the government of murdering thousands of Hefazat-e-Islam supporters but were unable to back their claims. A triumphant government went into the business of preparing for a fresh general election in January 2014.

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The BNP got its arithmetic wrong when it calculated that Sheikh Hasina’s government would cave in to pressure. In late 2013, this was being applied through Western diplomats publicly calling for a “credible” election. But the prime minister brushed aside all pleas for a formula that would allow an interim government to supervise the election. The ruling party did ask the BNP to come to talks about the modalities through which the voting could be organised. After initially agreeing to talk, Zia backed out. After that, the government closed the door to talks and prepared for elections.

The BNP is once again in agitation mode. While the ruling party has been touting the first anniversary of its term in office as a triumph of democracy, the BNP and its allies have tried to organise demonstrations to commemorate what they consider the death of democracy. BNP activists have been on the rampage. Its senior leaders, including Zia, have been making incendiary statements that have only widened the chasm between government and opposition. Her fugitive elder son has been adding fuel to the fire with derogatory remarks on the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. No one from the BNP has officially regretted the remarks. This has fortified a belief among the country’s secular forces that the BNP, which distorted history systematically for decades, is once again taking liberties with established reality.

The Awami League has made its own share of mistakes. It did not allow Zia to emerge from her party office and address a rally. It had the office cordoned off by security forces and surrounded by truckloads of brick and sand. Government ministers offered the flimsy explanation that the security forces were there to ensure the safety of the former prime minister. One Awami League legislator even suggested that the trucks were there at the behest of the BNP itself — the office needed renovation.


And so the battle for democracy goes on in a country that, in 43 years, has paid a terrible price in its struggle for constitutional rule. Three successful coups and 18 abortive coups between August 1975 and May 1981 undermined democratic politics. Bangladesh went back to a democratic government in 1991. That has hardly helped. Mutual recriminations have created a bitter divide between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. No holds barred “democratic” politics has exacted a heavy toll on the country. The economy, education and governance have been casualties.

The writer is associate editor of ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka

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First published on: 10-01-2015 at 12:00:14 am
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