Dhaka, March 7: Amid the Shahbag protests and the clashes, political tensions have palpably increased in Bangladesh with elections due later this year. The two rival political factions of the feuding begums seem equally poised and it is difficult to hazard a guess as to who will win, since historically no ruling party has won a second successive term.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia – known as the battling begums – have ruled Bangladesh alternately since 1991, and are bitter rivals.
Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which won the 2001 elections with a huge margin, fared very badly in the last 2008 polls, winning less than 10 percent of the vote.
Hasina, in numerous rallies held recently, has said that the upcoming elections would be held under her Awami League government, ignoring the opposition demand for reviving the caretaker system to oversee the parliamentary polls. Zia has insisted that her party will boycott the poll scheduled for late 2013 if the government does not reinstate an independent caretaker system.
Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections have been administered by a series of caretakers, each installed within 15 days of the dissolution of the previous parliament. It is tasked with assisting a commission to ensure that polling is held within 90 days. Hasina’s government abolished the caretaker system with an amendment to the constitution in June 2011.
Hasina is unwilling to have a caretaker regime to oversee the elections. The last time the caretaker government had tried to shake up the system and even jailed the two begums for corruption, but agreed to release them to contest the election.
“In Bangladesh, no ruling party has ever won a second time. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (of Zia) could win this time, though one can’t say for certain,” said Mujibur Hasan, a local resident.
“Hasina needs the BNP and the Jamaat (a key alliance partner) to participate in the polls. Without their participation how will the polls be called free and fair,” asked a Bangladeshi journalist who did not wish to be identified but whose political leanings appeared clear.
The Shahbag protests, calling for “justice” against those accused of war crimes in the 1971 Liberation War, in other words the Jamaat-e-Islami, are perceived to have the tacit support of the Hasina government. The Awami League had promised setting up the War Crimes Tribunal in its last election manifesto.
The protests have galvanized thousands, mostly the youth, to peacefully demand that the war crimes accused be sent to the gallows – leading to tensions with the Jamaat.
With the continuing violence, including Wednesday when some BNP men were injured during clashes with police, has led the Awami government to allege that the opposition was deliberately trying to create a civil-war like situation with elections round the corner.
Local Government Minister Syed Ashraful Islam said that there was a concerted effort to discredit the Awami League by instigating the party’s rank and file to hit the streets to fight it out. “They want to provoke us into a civil war and we must avoid that trap … but we are not weak.”
“No matter how much they provoke for a civil war, the Awami League will not let anyone break the democratic system and replace it with another 1/11-type set-up,” the minister said.
On Jan 11 2007, a military-backed caretaker administration had taken charge and stayed in office for nearly two years, way beyond its constitutional limits.
Friendly neighbour India, which has a strong stake in a peaceful and prosperous Bangladesh that is well disposed towards it, is watching the developments keenly and has assured Dhaka of its unstinted support.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, who made his first overseas visit as head of state to Bangladesh this week, said after being conferred the Liberation War Honour Award Monday: “As in 1971, so in 2013, the people of India stand beside the people of Bangladesh. We will walk with you as equal partners, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm.”
Mukherjee, referred to many times as the “first Bangalee” president of India and a “true friend of Bangladesh”, had in his convocation speech at Dhaka University sent a strong message to the country’s political parties to stick to democratic values and rule of law.
Mukherjee is known to be close to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Hasina, who came to power in 2009, has always been friendly to India, unlike Khaleda Zia.
Zia, in an apparent snub to Mukherjee, called off a meeting with him though it was fixed much in advance and she had agreed to it. She had called on Mukherjee during her India visit last October and India has been careful in extending to her all the courtesies. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid called on Zia when he visited Dhaka last month.
The Jamaat and BNP had called hartals during the three days coinciding with the Indian president’s visit. The strikes saw most shops shut in Dhaka and elsewhere and violence on the streets in many places.
The Jamaat-e-Islami is protesting the death sentence to its chief Delwar Hossain Sayedee for the 1971 war crimes, including rape and genocide. Over 70 people have been killed in clashes since the war crimes tribunal Feb 28 pronounced the sentence on Sayedee.
(Ranjana Narayan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)