Electoral warfare

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

Bangladesh is heading for general elections, but whether this round will be free and fair remains to be seen.

HAROON HABIB in Dhaka

ON October 10, Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia's coalition government in Bangladesh completed a full five-year term. In 2001, the Sheikh Hasina government had achieved this feat for the first time in the history of the country before and after Independence.

The Khaleda government will be in office until October 27, when Parliament will be dissolved and a non-party caretaker government will assume office to hold general elections within the next 90 days. But observers wonder if the elections will be free, fair and credible at all. The second tenure of Khaleda Zia presented the most controversial government in the 35 years of the country's history.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami-Jatiya Party combine won a landslide victory in the 2001 elections, which came in the wake of 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Significantly, the Bangladeshi mullahs in the Jamaat, who had been vocal against the `American kafirs', remained mysteriously silent once they became a part of the government. For the Jamaat, which draws sustenance from the Wahabi doctrine of Saudi Arabia and the patronisation of Pakistan, it was virtually a dream come true.

The fifth anniversary celebrations have been marred by the threat of a political crisis with the main Opposition parties coming together to protest against the coalition's move to hold elections without electoral reforms. Khaleda Zia has, however, expressed conviction that her alliance would win a two-thirds majority again. She claimed that her government had brought about "remarkable progress" in various sectors. The purchasing power and consequently the lifestyle of the people had improved and poverty had gone down by a record 1.8 per cent annually, she said.

However, the "successes" of the government have been shadowed by price rise, an acute power crisis, corruption and unprecedented police repression of the Opposition parties. Khaleda's latest tenure has also been marked by an alarming rise of Islamist militancy; politicisation of the police, civil and military administrations; extra-judicial killings of `Left operatives' and `miscreants'; gross violation of human rights, repression of religious minorities; and assassination of top Opposition leaders. There was a bid on the life of Sheikh Hasina. In about 50 cases of bomb and grenade attacks, including an attempt on the life of British High Commissioner Anwar Chowdhury, the government failed to conduct even credible enquiries.

Hawa Bhaban, the BNP office, has reportedly become `the centre of all corrupt practices', causing a major dent on the government's image. It is widely felt that Tarique Rahman, the eldest son of the Prime Minister and the senior joint secretary-general of the BNP, has made Hawa Bhaban an `alternative power centre'. The Young Turks close to him are considered the most influential figures in both the government and the party; they have allegedly elbowed senior leaders and influenced issues of governance, including the appointment of officials, development work, major purchases, policy formulations, and the use of the police, commented a host of national dailies on the coalition's fifth anniversary.

The government claims to have kept the macro economy stable. But such `good indicators' were not reflected in the common people's lives owing to unbridled corruption, high inflation and increased cost of living. Under the coalition government, Bangladesh topped Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for four consecutive years. As per the nation's leading economists, nearly 75 per cent of the foreign assistance of nearly $37 billion the country has received since Independence has been misappropriated or misused.

Skyrocketing prices and power shortages made the people take to the streets to hold violent protests. The government failed to complete even a single new power plant, although millions of dollars was spent on power generation.

Islamist militancy is another major factor that has dented the government's credibility. As per global statistics, Bangladesh tops in terms of the growth rate of attacks; in terms of fatalities, it is second only to West Asia.

Four years ago, the Khaleda government termed reports of Bangladesh becoming a `cocoon of terror' as `inimical propaganda', instead of taking corrective steps. After a long period of denial, the government resorted to a crackdown (Frontline, April 7). Law enforcers, especially the elite strike force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), arrested over 900 foot-soldiers of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), including seven members of the Majlish-e-Sura, the highest policy-making body of the terror group. Seven top militant leaders were awarded the death sentence but their execution is being delayed.

Mysteriously, the patrons and funding sources of the militant groups remained untouched. The `godfathers' of the militants include even Ministers and lawmakers.

There is widespread fear that some coalition leaders, including Jamaat members, may try to set the militants on the Opposition leadership in the run-up to the elections. The Opposition alliance argues that the arrested terrorists are being kept under protective custody so that they can be utilised in the elections. Such fears may not be groundless.

Coincidentally, nearly 75 per cent of all casualties in terror attacks in the country have been on the Opposition side. This suggests that terrorism in Bangladesh is `targeted killing' under the pretext of Islamic fundamentalism.

Interestingly, while the local and even Western media were blaming a section of the BNP and the Jamaat for aiding the militancy, senior Bush administration officials certified that the Jamaat had no links with terror groups.

Confrontational politics marked the past five years. The National Parliament became almost ineffective in the wake of the Opposition's boycott and the coalition's autocratic style of functioning. The government preferred to face the Opposition using police might.

Nonetheless, on October 5, representatives of the BNP and the Opposition led by the Awami League finally sat down to settle contentious issues relating to reforming the caretaker government and the Election Commission. The crucial demands of the Opposition include appointing `acceptable' persons as Chief Adviser and Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in consultation with all political parties.

The 14-party Opposition alliance alleges that former Chief Justice K.M. Hassan, who is to head the caretaker government, and Justice M.A. Aziz, the incumbent CEC, are "biased" towards the ruling coalition; in fact Justice Hassan was once the international affairs secretary of the BNP and still maintains links with the party. The government's abrupt decision to raise the retirement age of Judges by two years had made Hassan eligible to head the caretaker government.

After several rounds of talks, the two main parties reportedly reached "very close" to a consensus on some major aspects of the elections. But the ultimate outcome is still unpredictable, say observers. They do not rule out the holding of desperate one-sided polls, like the February 1996 round, which was boycotted by the Opposition. Khaleda Zia had to resign within two months of assuming power following massive agitations then.

A delegation from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) led by Senator Thomas A. Daschle, which visited Bangladesh in early September, virtually echoed the concern of the Opposition, the media and civil society. The NDI team said it was dissatisfied with the prevailing atmosphere, which, it said, was not conducive to credible elections.

The NDI was also sceptical about the credentials of the new CEC and also the recent updating of the voters' list. It felt that the motive of the government was suspect as the E.C. and the caretaker government were fashioned in such a way that they served its partisan cause. Echoing the general concern, the team pointed out that the figure of 9.3-crore voters registered in the voters' list was inconsistent with the Census data.

A six-member European Union (E.U.) Election Observation Exploratory Mission, which came on a 10-day visit to the country in September, also expressed doubts about the credibility of the electoral process.

The results of a recent survey released by an ex-member of the BNP think-tank, Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, predicted a debacle for the BNP-Jamaat-Jatiya Party (of former President H.M. Ershad) combine. It said the public was raring to punish the coalition for its misgovernance. Choudhury has predicted about 80 seats for the ruling combine (provided the J.P. remains in the combine this time round) and 220 for the Awami League-led coalition in the 300-seat Parliament.

Since Choudhury's analysis had come true in the 2001 elections, there is cause for worry for the ruling camp. Open revolts by the BNP's founding secretary-general Prof. Badrudouzza Chowdhury, who was the President of the republic before he was ousted by Khaleda, and Col. Oli Ahmed, a former Minister and liberation war hero, may affect the ruling coalition's prospects further.

The Opposition alliance has threatened massive agitations against the caretaker government if Khaleda Zia disregards its demands. It has called upon people all over the country to throng the capital if and when Justice Hassan assumes office.

"Get ready to realise our demands," Sheikh Hasina urged her supporters, explaining: "We want a neutral and non-partisan caretaker government, not an administration to carry out the coalition's blueprint ... If our demands are not met, you [the people] be ready and come to Dhaka from villages, upazilas and districts with oars, rowing poles and whatever you have when I call you."

The Opposition, which had alleged that the 2001 elections were rigged, also demanded transparent ballot boxes, a genuine voter list, and cancellation of the appointment of election officers who had won the posts on political merit - 300 of them are from the BNP-Jamaat cadre. It also demanded that the Ministry of Defence remain under the caretaker government, and not with the BNP president during the interim period. It also wanted the role of the law-enforcers to be non-partisan during the elections, unlike in 2001.

Khaleda Zia is already on an election tour. Addressing army personnel in their cantonments, she asserted that "threats to the country are not always from outside but also from within" and that the redefined role of the armed forces was "protecting peace at home and abroad, restoration of democracy and helping civil administration in crisis time".

Her remarks were described as "highly offensive" by the media and the Opposition, and were interpreted as "inviting the national army into internal politics", and that too on a partisan line.

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