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A new alliance and old rivals

Print edition : Sep 29, 2001 T+T-

In the October 1 general elections in Bangladesh, the Awami League faces a tough challenge from the BNP-Jamaat alliance and an allegedly partisan caretaker government.

THE October 1 general elections in Bangladesh are crucial for the nation's 120 million people and the relatively young democracy, coming as they do against the backdrop of serious political instability.

The elections are going to be a highly sensitive exercise, held under the supervision of Justice Latifur Rahman, the former Chief Justice of the country, who took over in July as Chief Adviser in the caretaker government. A powerful section of the country's politicians has already branded him "partisan"and levelled allegations that he has gone beyond his constitutional mandate.

Even those who have closely watched the hectic electioneering by the two main players, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), do not have a clear idea about who will form the next government. The Awami League had led the country's war of independence against Pakistan 30 years ago. It returned to power in 1996 after 21 years in the wilderness and successfully completed its five-year term. The BNP, on the other hand, has formed a strong alliance with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which had collaborated with the Pakistani army in the genocide during the 1971 war.

The election campaign has been one of the most intensive ones Bangladesh has witnessed, with both Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister in the Awami League government, which stepped down in July, and Begum Khaleda Zia, the BNP chief who heads a four-party alliance, holding at least 10 massive public meetings a day, besides addressing crowds en route as their motorcades covered several hundred kilometres. In some places both the women drew huge crowds. Political commentators and poll analysts are understandably cautious about coming to a conclusion. Also, the enthusiasm and political heat generated by the campaigning had claimed the lives of nearly 100 political activists so far.

Sheikh Hasina seeks vote for her party by highlighting the achievements of her government, while Begum Khaleda Zia denounces the Awami League's tenure as one of "misrule, terrorism and subservient foreign policy". The electoral symbol of the BNP is 'a sheaf of paddy' and that of the Awami League is 'boat'. The Jamaat-e-Islam, despite being part of the BNP alliance, is contesting on its own symbol, the 'scale'. The Jatiya Party (symbol 'plough'), led by former Army chief-turned President Gen. H.M. Ershad, is among the 95 political parties in the fray.

More than seven crore voters - up from 5.5 crores in 1996 - will elect representatives to 300 seats from among nearly 2,000 contestants, many of them belonging to the same political platform. Rebels are likely to spoil the prospects of both the main contenders in some constituencies. Interestingly, the numbers of male and female voters are almost equal - signifying a rapid growth in the female population.

The Awami League ruled the country for a little more than eight years in two separate phases. The BNP, founded by military ruler-turned President Gen. Ziaur Rahman after the 1975 assassination of the country's liberation-war architect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has ruled for about nine years, also in two phases. Ershad, whose Jatiya Party is now split into three factions, ruled the country for more than eight years. The remaining years saw direct military rule, a legacy that Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, inherited from Pakistan.

Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of Mujibur Rahman, hopes to return to power "with a greater majority than in 1996" despite the serious challenge thrown from the BNP-led combine of rightists and fundamentalists, with alleged Taliban connections. Hasina's optimism stems from her government's successes in making the country surplus in foodgrains from being in a chronic deficit of 40 lakh tonnes a year, achieving gross domestic product (GDP) of 6.5 per cent and effectively implementing poverty alleviation and women's empowerment schemes. Making parliamentary committees effective and effecting transparency in governance are the other claims of the Awami League government.

As far as foreign relations are concerned, Hasina's government alarmed the orthodox Islamists, who believe in communalism and "anti-Indianism" by taking bold steps such as signing the 30-year-long Ganga Water Treaty with India, restoring direct road and rail communications with India, and signing a landmark peace treaty with tribal rebels to end two decades of ethnic bloodshed in the Chittagong Hill Tracts(CHT).

But all these actions are branded as going against Bangladesh's interests by Khaleda and her fundamentalist allies. The BNP has not included any anti-India agenda in its manifesto this time, but that has not prevented it or its allies from targeting India, branding the Awami League India's "stooge", understandably with an eye on the Muslim majority vote.

The minorities, who form more than 10 per cent of the total electorate, feel a sense of insecurity following newspaper reports that in many places they were warned against going to the polling centres. The caretaker government has, however, assured them security and urged them to cast their votes freely.

Although the claims of 'achievements' by the Hasina administration are not altogether exaggerated, its critics allege that it has also to its credit a very bad law and order record, alleged persecution of political opponents, mismanagement, and corruption in some levels. But Hasina's rivals have failed to generate any anti-incumbency wave, which they would probably need to ensure a victory. However, it may not be an easy win for the Awami League, say its sympathisers, because Hasina may have "underestimated" her rivals, who have a "well-designed plan".

Hasina's political enemies have for the first time formed a strong alliance by consolidating all their power bases both at home and abroad, say political commentators. These preparations are essentially aimed at strengthening the concept of an 'Islamic Bangladesh' or a negation of the secular nationhood that the Awami League and other left-leaning parties preach, say informed sympathisers. It may also include a design to "protect" the convicted plotters who overthrew the first Awami League regime of Mujibur Rehman three and half years after Bangladesh was born in December 1971.

Most of the convicted killers of Mujibur Rehman are at large; only a few are in jail. The condemned ex-Army officers, who were tried under normal law nearly two decades after the assassination, have appealed in the Supreme Court against the death penalty.

THE results of the 1991 and 1996 general elections - the two fairest elections held in the country's history - show that the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami polled around 42 per cent of the votes (BNP 33.61 and Jamaat 8.61 in the 1996 elections), while the Awami League won 37.44 per cent. This may have prompted Khaleda Zia to form an alliance with the Jamaat ignoring protests from within her own party and outside against aligning with a party that had opposed the nation's independence.

In 1996 the Awami League won 146 of the 300 directly elected seats while the BNP (116 seats) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (three) together got 119 seats. The 30 seats reserved for women will not be there in the coming parliament, the eighth, because the constitutional sanction for them has ended and a fresh constitutional provision could not be introduced mainly because of the long absence of the BNP and its allies from Parliament.

Although Ershad has been condemned by the court and cannot contest elections, his faction of the Jatiya Party may become a balancing factor if the 'secularists' and the 'Islamists' fail to win an absolute majority. Ershad, who has formed an alliance with the Pir of Charmonai, an orthodox sectarian leader, has lost his personal charisma, but his faction still has a chance to win some seats, mainly from his home district of Rangpur.

Ershad's undivided Jatiya Party won 11.92 per cent and 16.40 per cent of votes in 1991 and 1996 respectively. Ershad says he will determine the fate of the next government. Eleven of the Left parties have formed an alliance and fielded candidates in more than 100 seats. While they have little chance of winning they can cut into the votes of the Awami League. The Left parties are opposed to the BNP-Jamaat axis but have no love for the Awami League.

Although the concept of a non-party caretaker government was born out of Hasina's own initiatives, she now feels that a conspiracy is being hatched to "snatch the Awami League's popular mandate". She alleges that Justice Latifur Rahman's administration and Chief Election Commissioner M.A. Sayed are acting "at the dictates" of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami; however, she is confident that the people will resist their 'evil plan'. At her public meetings she says the people will not allow "the killers of 1971 and 1975" to come to power. Hasina has also threatened "serious actions" if her party's popular mandate is reversed under a "blueprint".

Even if the allegations against the caretaker government are not fully true and justified, the fact remains that Justice Latifur Rahman is presiding over a highly controversial administration, willingly or unwillingly. The large-scale transfers of officials after branding them supporters of the Hasina government, the review of the "political cases" filed by the Hasina government, and certain uncalled-for national and international postings have made Justice Latifur Rahman's interim administration more controversial than those of his predecessors Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and Justice Habibur Rahman in 1991 and 1996.

Commentators in the mainstream Bangla newspapers have termed these actions a "civilian coup", while the Awami League has accused the administration of becoming its political opponent, which it cannot do under the Constitution. Secular Bengali thinkers have pronounced that the interim government is implementing a blueprint to prevent the "pro-liberation forces" from coming to power. They have cited a dozen specific instances where the interim administration took "highly partisan actions'' and replaced alleged Awami sympathisers with "either BNP or Jamaat activists".

"The interim government has, ironically, proved to be soft towards the 'war criminals' and tough towards the 'freedom fighters', considering them as its enemies," the country's mainstream cultural and freedom fighters' organisations alleged at a series of demonstrations in Dhaka and elsewhere.

Justice Latifur Rahman's administration is thus facing the acid test for its neutrality. For reasons best known to it, the interim administration has transferred or removed hundreds of key government officials, mostly those who have pro-liberation backgrounds, and replaced them with BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami activists or their sympathisers, or with those who played anti-Bangladesh roles in 1971.

"We are shocked and alarmed," said Syed Hasan Imam, who leads an organisation that is demanding the trial of the 1971 war criminals, and Ahad Chowdhury, who commands the Central Command Council of the Muktijoddha Sangsad, the vast body of freedom fighters. Ramendu Mazumdar, president of the Sammilita Sangskritik Jote, a combined body of the country's cultural organisations, echoed the same sentiment.

The major Bangla dailies, which are generally purveyors of "secular pro-liberation politics", have even charged Justice Rahman's administration with implementing "a well-orchestrated blueprint". Incidentally, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is said to be active on the pre-election scene.

But Justice Rahman and his key adviser Abdul Muyeed Chowdhury, a former bureaucrat who is said to be behind all the highly controversial postings and transfers, defended their actions and said: "Each and every action was done to restore the government's neutral image."

The caretaker administration, which is accountable to the President, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, differed with him in deploying the Army in aid of the civil administration. While Begum Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat-e-Islami wanted the Army deployed three weeks ahead of the elections, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, preferred it to be done a week before voting. The Chief Adviser and the CEC, M.A. Sayed, wanted the deployment in line with the demand made by Khaleda Zia and her allies.

The October 1 elections, to many analysts, are going to be a direct war between secular democrats, including moderate Islamists, and the rightists and the religious fundamentalists. Whatever may be its outcome, the next elected government is likely to consider ways of making the caretaker government accountable, probably through a constitutional provision, so that its actions can be subjected to review.