Bangladesh's political meltdown

Timothy Sowula
24 November 2006

The political crisis that has enveloped and nearly paralysed Bangladesh as the scheduled elections of January 2007 approach is startling in its scale. Even more shocking, however, is the fact that it was also predictable, yet the main political actors were unable, indeed unwilling, to stop it. So swift has been Bangladesh's descent into chaos that it might appear almost premeditated.

The crisis began in October, when the streets of the capital, Dhaka, witnessed some of Bangladesh's worst political violence since liberation from Pakistani rule in 1971. The Bangladeshi human-rights organisation Odhikar estimates that up to fifty people were killed and over 2,000 injured, mostly in pitched battles between supporters of the rival political blocs: the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, which heads a four-party coalition government, led by Begum Khaleda Zia), and the opposition Awami League (AWL, led by Sheikh Hasina, and the dominant component of a fourteen-party alliance).

The trigger for this wave of violence was the troubled formation of the caretaker government which (according to the constitution) has to be formed ninety days before an election to allow the electoral commission to organise national polls free of political pressures. The January 2007 deadline meant that Khaleda Zia was obliged to stand aside in favour of a neutral figure who could command the respect of all sides.

The problems begin with the fact that the different sides in Bangladesh could not agree who that should be. Bangladeshi politics is welded together by family cliques, political personalities and big egos. In Bangladesh, power is everything, including wealth. It is not something to be lost. In such circumstances, the political system is so corroded by mistrust that it is hard for the very idea of "neutrality" to gain any traction.

Also on Bangladesh and its politics on openDemocracy:

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy"
(26 June 2006)

Delwar Hussein, "Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam"
(7 July 2006)

An absent centre

The politicisation of the constitutional arena helps explain why the identity of the caretaker government's leader became the focal-point of Bangladesh's political passions.

In May 2004, an amended to the constitution carried through by the BNP had the effect of ensuring that chief justice KM Hasan (who would otherwise have been ineligible) could become chief advisor to the next caretaker government. The Awami League maintained that Hasan was a BNP stooge, incapable of organising free and fair elections. It refused to support the choice, and threatened mass civil disturbances if he was indeed proposed.

The BNP refused to back down, claiming merely to be following constitutional law. KM Hasan remained its preferred candidate for nearly two and half years, until - hours before the swearing-in ceremony, on the evening of Saturday 28 October- chief justice Hasan became "ill" and unable to take the oath.

The riots were already erupting across the country. The rival parties engaged in frantic argument over who (after Hasan) was constitutionally next in line to run the caretaker government - and who was politically acceptable. The mediator between the two factions was Bangladesh's president, Iajuddin Ahmed - himself a BNP-led appointment. By Sunday 29 October, Ahmed himself took the oath in a hastily arranged ceremony to assume the position of chief advisor. In so doing, the four constitutional options laid out in Article 58C of the constitution were bypassed.

The AWL supporters on the streets were hardly assuaged, but the party's leadership was also concerned that the protests might spin out of control: by this stage, traders were running out of supplies, businesses losing money, and the police and army losing patience. The AWL called on their supporters to suspend their actions, and handed the president an eleven-point charter of actions he must undertake to "prove" his neutrality. They gave Iajuddin Ahmed an ultimatum of 3 November, later extending it to 12 November.

The most important of the demands involved personnel and voter lists. The AL wanted new figures appointed to the electoral commission (EC), and the replacement of its chief commissioner MA Aziz, as well as renewed scrutiny and redrawing of the electoral rolls. In the circumstances, both were unrealistic: the reorganisation of the EC would require compromises and agreements that current Bangladeshi politics seemed to make impossible, and the redrawing of voter lists would be a huge administrative task in the time available. As the 12 November deadline arrived with no sign of agreement, Awami League supporters began an "indefinite" blockade of Dhaka and launched strikes across the country.

MA Aziz, accused by the AWL (and some commentators) of being corrupt, partisan and incapable of acting in a neutral capacity, was adamant that he wouldn't resign. The BNP invoked constitutional propriety to seek the AWL's support for the electoral commission's discharging of its responsibilities. The AWL responded by saying it was fighting for the freedom of the Bangladeshi people - and that an election organised by the current EC would not be worth their contesting.

As with KM Hasan, so with AM Aziz: in the late evening of 22 November, President Iajuddin announced that Aziz had agreed to take an extended (and face-saving) leave for three months. He was swiftly replaced by justice Mahfuzur Rahman. The next day, the AWL called off its blockade. Sheikh Hasina told a press conference that the AWL and its supporters would continue with other protests to press for the remaining demands of the eleven-point charter.

Timothy Sowula has worked at Human Rights Watch and Platform London. He now works in Sylhet, Bangladesh as a programme officer for an indigenous community-rights organisation

Also by Timothy Sowula in openDemocracy:

"The Helsinki process and the death of communism"
(1 August 2005)

"The Niger delta: how to lift the oil curse?"
(19 October 2006)

An uncertain prospect

This convulsive - and unfinished - cycle of events confirms what many commentators have long argued: that a culture of political manipulation has invaded the Bangladeshi body politic. Every public institution - from the judiciary and police to ordinary school teachers - has been loaded with political appointees. As a result, the country appears at or near the bottom of Transparency International's corruption index. (One by-product is that Bangladeshis suffer from chronic, daily power-shortages nationwide; the new Liberal Democratic Party - formed by a group of BNP members unhappy with its political direction - has issued a report estimating that around £480 million has been looted from the power sector during the BNP's reign.)

The "neutral" caretaker government is now in place, but the battleground - for both leading party blocs - remains the street as much as the corridors of power. The permanent threat of violence in the first arena, and the absence of legitimacy in the second, makes this a perilous time in Bangladeshi politics.

In launching a blockade to force MA Aziz out of office, the AL took an immense gamble in a country that was as a result placed under severe pressure. The closure of the main port, Chittagong, entailed the loss by the garment industry - Bangladesh's biggest export sector - of an estimated £16 million a day. Millions of Bangladeshis live as small traders, or in hand-to-mouth labouring jobs: they cannot afford the cessation of normal economic activities.

The economic dangers are real enough; the rising influence of violent Islamism is also causing concern in the political arena. In the last eighteen months, two AWL rallies have been attacked with hand-grenades (Sheikh Hasina narrowly survived one, in August 2005). Two religious parties in the ruling coalition - Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikka Jote - have denied any links with extremists, but the AWL alleges that the BNP are protecting fundamentalists in return for crucial political support.

A further corrosive effect of the crisis is that Bangladeshis are losing trust in their political institutions. A survey by the Dhaka-based Power and Participation Research Centre reports that 36.4% of citizens have "low trust" in the country's political parties, while nearly 60% are pessimistic about the possibility of improving politics. Civil society in Bangladesh is intelligent and vocal, but represents too small a minority to influence either the elite or the millions of poor, largely uneducated, citizens.

At the apex of power, President Iajuddin is now head of the (caretaker) government as well as of the state and the armed forces. He may have no intention of retaining the recent power he acquired unconstitutionally, but he now faces the problem of how to dispose of it - and in doing so preserving Bangladesh's battered democracy.

The prospects for a genuine election, free from manipulation and the taint of corruption, are uncertain. With a concentration of power in the president, no parliamentary government, and party blocs and professional politicians in a state of cold war, political legitimacy is elusive. Bangladesh is in limbo. The people are its caretakers now.

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