Bangladesh: Democracy Stumbles
Opposition lawmakers protest
Image Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

Bangladesh: Democracy Stumbles


The announcement of the schedule for elections to the tenth Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) on November 25 has stoked an already volatile political situation in Bangladesh. The ready reaction of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led opposition alliance to the chief election commissioner’s televised speech to the nation, during which he announced that the general elections will be held on January 5, 2014, came in the form of what was initially a 48-hour countrywide blockade of road, rail and water ways, subsequently extended to 71 hours, beginning from November 26. The blockade ended on November 30, but the BNP commenced another 72 hour countrywide blockade the next day, which was ultimately extended until the evening of December 5. The alliance has called for yet another blockade to begin on Saturday, December 7.

In the meantime, there has been widespread violence and vandalism: vehicles are torched, public and private property destroyed. The death toll as reported on December 4 had reached 40 and scores more have been wounded. Many of the casualties were caused by an explosion of crude bombs and arson attacks on public transport. According to Samanta Lal Sen, the coordinator of the burn and plastic surgery unit at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, the premier public hospital in the country, several of the victims of political violence, admitted with severe burn injuries in the last one month, had died and quite a few are in a critical condition.

The BNP-led alliance has been engaged in street agitation for months now in its demand that Sheikh Hasina resign as prime minister, given that her Awami League government completed its term on October 25. The opposition alliance claims that polls conducted under the government will not be free, fair or transparent. While the two sides continue their finger-pointing over the ongoing political impasse and social disorder, arising out of the failure of the ruling and opposition political alliances to reach a consensus on election-time government, there have reportedly been informal contacts between the feuding camps, supposedly geared towards a dialogue. Still, publicly at least, the two camps have thus far produced only contradictory statements about what the media has dubbed as “clandestine” meetings between the general secretaries of the Awami League and the BNP.

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A History of Acrimony

Mutual mistrust, acrimony and recrimination between the two major political parties have come to mark Bangladeshi national politics, especially since the ouster of HM Ershad’s military regime in 1990 and the subsequent restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991. In any case, intense political unrest has marked almost every election cycle in Bangladesh since the country won independence in 1971. For instance, during the 2001 elections, which the BNP won, approximately 400 people were reportedly killed and more than 17,000 injured, primarily in street clashes between members and supporters of competing political camps. The next election cycle in 2007 also resulted in several deaths and injuries, leading to an extra-constitutional takeover by a military-backed interim government. The elections to the ninth Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) were eventually held in December 2008, with a 14-party alliance led by the Awami League scoring an electoral landslide victory.

The seeds of the political unrest and uncertainty over the forthcoming general elections were planted in June 2012, when the Awami League-dominated parliament pushed through the Fifteenth Amendment to the constitution, scrapping the provision that parliamentary elections must be held under a non-partisan caretaker government, headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Ironically, in 1996, the Awami League and its opposition allies forced the then BNP-led government, through prolonged street agitation, to incorporate that particular provision in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment. Subsequently, two parliamentary elections, in 1996 and 2001, were held under caretaker governments.

After being elected in 2001, the BNP-led government increased the retirement age for the Supreme Court chief justice, apparently to have a person perceived loyal to it as the head of the caretaker government for the next elections scheduled for 2007. Then the main opposition party, the Awami League refused to accept the former chief justice in question as the chief adviser to the caretaker government and took to the streets. Amidst the consequent political stalemate, marked by sustained violence across the country, scope was created for the military-backed interim government to take over and rule for two years unconstitutionally, after declaring a state of emergency.

Elections or no elections, violence has become a major feature of Bangladesh politics. Numerous political leaders and activists have been killed by rivals or by their own party colleagues. Data from different human rights organizations suggests that the total number of deaths resulting from political violence in 2013 is substantially higher than in recent years, according to a report published in New Age on November 7. Ain O Salish Kendra reported that political violence had claimed the lives of 289 people in the first nine months of the current year while the figure was 84 for the whole of 2012. According to a monthly report by rights organization Odhikar, at least 27 people were killed and 3,433 injured in political violence in October alone.

This political violence may very well have had its origins in the early days of independent Bangladesh. The Awami League, which had presided over the political struggle for the country’s liberation and come to embody the people’s democratic aspirations, proved autocratic in power. In 1975, its head and then president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman introduced BAKSAL, which banned all opposition parties and compelled the country to adopt a one-party system. President Ziaur Rahman, the military general-turned-politician and founder of the BNP, restored the multiparty system in the late 1970s.

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