My journalist friend Shehab grows silent when I ask him what is likely to happen in the coming general elections in Bangladesh. As someone who has been working in the profession for more than a decade for different Bangladeshi newspapers and television channels, the tension on his face betrays a general sense of uncertainty prevailing in the country in the run up to the nation’s most crucial poll.
Imranul Haq, a young IT professional, avoids talking about politics altogether. When pressed he just mumbles, “I am just preparing for the worst.”
The cynicism among people across the board is a byproduct of simmering tensions between the nation’s two mainstream political parties, the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), over the issue of whether the general elections should be conducted under a caretaker government or not.
Both the parties are adamant in their respective stance. The ruling AL government says the elections should be held according to the constitution—that is, without forming a caretaker government. The Opposition BNP is not willing to budge from its position that it will boycott the election if the polls are not held under a neutral regime.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says that the constitution does not have a provision for a caretaker government and therefore does not provide a provision for the creation of an interim arrangement for elections.
The Independent writes that Hasina recently “rejected outright the opposition’s demand for restoration of the caretaker government system and asserted that her government would not budge an inch from the Constitutional provision in holding the next general election.”
In 2011 the parliament abolished the system of appointing a caretaker government at the time of elections after the country’s Supreme Court passed an order on the matter. The system of creating an interim government started in the mid-1990s when then opposition leader Hasina forced the BNP-led government headed by Khaleda Zia to hold an election under a caretaker government.
The AL later became a victim of the caretaker government in 2007-2008 when the interim government tasked to hold elections not only delayed the poll for almost two years, but also tried to undermine the authorities from the two main political groupings. The military-backed caretaker government devised a strategy called the “minus two formula” in which two leaders—Zia and Hasina—would be exiled from the country and the elections would be held under a new leadership with no corruption charges against its members.
With this experience behind it, the AL is wary of installing a caretaker regime. However, the BNP is determined to boycott the elections if its demand is not met by next month when the parliament meets for the last time before the elections.
Last Monday Zia urged the government to pass “a bill on a non-party neutral government” in the next session of parliament. Otherwise, she warned the BNP will boycott the elections. Hasina finishes her five-year term on October 25, after which the constitution stipulates that an election must be held within 90 days.
Speaking to The Diplomat, Surajit Sengupta, a senior AL leader and a minister in the present government, said, “Nowhere in the world does an elected government cede power to a caretaker government at the time of elections. The constitution does not mandate that.”
The veteran leader added, “The BNP cannot dictate terms to us. They don’t have a choice but to fight in elections. We depend on the people to participate in the democratic exercise.”
A senior journalist and news editor from a popular broadcaster, Channel 71, Sayed Ishtiaq Reza, takes another view. Sayed told The Diplomat, “The AL will have to show some flexibility and start a dialogue with the main Opposition party if Dhaka has to see a normal democratic transition. The present deadlock has created a complex situation and people are really confused.”
He added, “If by next month’s parliament session the government does not open an engagement with the BNP there will be a standoff and everything will be decided on the street. If the BNP boycotts the elections then a government elected in such a one-sided poll would be unpopular and the country would descend into chaos.”
Visualizing a situation where the elections are not held on time, Reza surmised, “It gives an opportunity for some third force to intervene and subvert democracy. Former President General Ershad has said today that the elections would not be held. This does not portend well for democracy.”
Reza further explained that “At a bankers’ meeting a couple of days ago it was decided that there would be a cap on lending amid the looming political uncertainty in the country.”
Political observers believe that by not talking with the BNP the ruling party risks losing its popularity, which is already dwindling due to the perception of large scale corruption in the country.
However, it is debatable whether the BNP offers the best alternative to the people of this riverine nation. The Opposition brings with it fundamentalism with its ties to hardline Islamic groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, with which it shares an electoral alliance.
As it stands, the nascent democracy in India’s neighbor is on trial again. One can understand Shehab’s silence and Haq’s anxiety in the present scenario. But political uncertainty need not sap the energy of a youthful country working hard to create a niche and name for itself in the region.