Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bangladesh: Inching Back from the Precipice

AJAI SAHNI

Bangladesh’s disorders were set to intensify exponentially, when the Awami League (AL) led ‘grand alliance’ of 14 parties announced on January 3, 2007, that it would "boycott and resist" the national elections then scheduled for January 22, 2007. The AL had been protesting the systematic subversion of the country’s bureaucracy and electoral system by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led Government over years. The AL claimed that the BNP-led regime had packed the Election Commission and various administrative posts that would be directly connected with the conduct of elections, with its own sympathisers; that it had rigged the voters’ lists, excluding large numbers of valid voters known to be unsympathetic to the BNP and its alliance partners, and packed it with fraudulent voter identities, which were expected to be cast en masse by sympathisers, while hand-picked election officers looked the other way.

Announcing the decision to ‘boycott and resist’ the elections, Sheikh Hasina, the AL President, had declared on January 3, 2007, that an atmosphere conducive to a fair election had yet to come to existence although only 19 days remained; instead of a neutral Caretaker Government, President Iajuddin Ahmed had established "a shadow government of BNP-Jamaat" sympathisers; that a flawless voters’ list safeguarding the people's right to universal franchise was yet to be prepared; and the administration still remains politicised. She added, further,

“Assuming the office of Chief Adviser to the Caretaker Government illegally, Iajuddin Ahmed wants to hold an election without a valid voter list. A free and fair election is not possible with the current voter list... it was prepared only to hold an election designed in line with the blueprint provided by BNP-Jamaat alliance. We can't give legitimacy to such an election, and for this, we have decided not to participate in a stage-managed election.”

A series of intensive agitation programmes including blockades, hartals (shut downs) and ‘besiege programmes’ were announced and initiated. These compounded the massive campaign of nationwide street demonstrations and unrest that had been ongoing since October 27, 2006, in the wake of wrangling over the candidate for Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Government, at which point the President, Iajuddin Ahmed, decided to take over the post himself in a move that was widely regarded as unconstitutional. Bloody street battles followed, and were the grounds that President Ahmed used to call out the Army on December 8, 2006. However, following the wide criticism of the move, Ahmed ordered the Armed forces to remain on 'stand by' and not to actively engage in law enforcement. This had little impact on the intensity of protests and the grand alliance’s determination to block the Elections. On January 10, Sheikh Hasina announced the further intensification of the protest campaign from January 14, including a non-stop siege of the Bangabhaban [the Presidential Palace], a four-day blockade and a two-day hartal, raising the spectre of utter collapse.

It was at this point that international players involved in the election process simply declared that credible polls were no longer a possibility. International organisations and donor agencies had long been mounting pressure on the Caretaker Government to resolve the crisis. On January 11, 2007, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that the political crisis in Bangladesh had "severely jeopardised the legitimacy" of the polls, and UN, European Union (EU) and the Commonwealth suspended their ‘election observation missions’ (EOM) in Bangladesh. The EU Deputy Chief Observer, Graham Elson, justified the decision to suspend the EOM on the grounds of "the unfortunate circumstances which are presently governing the holding of the parliamentary elections. It is not the business of observer teams to scrutinise elections whose credibility falls short of international standards." Elson specifically pointed to the lack of transparency, a "contentious" voter list and the lack of impartiality in the Administration.

Cornered, President Ahmed resigned from the post of Chief Advisor to the Caretaker Government and simultaneously declared a state of Emergency, within hours of the announcements regarding the withdrawal of the EOMs. This was the first time that the country was brought under Emergency provisions since General H.M. Ershad declared a state of Emergency on November 27, 1990, which remained in effect till December 6, 1990, the day Ershad resigned from presidency following a mass upsurge.

Crucially, President Ahmed conceded the AL allegations that there had been ‘flaws’ in the process of ‘updating’ the voters’ list and that it was ‘imperative to prepare a flawless voters list to hold a free and fair election’.

Within a day, a consensual candidate, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, former Governor of the Bangladesh Bank, was sworn in as Chief Advisor in a ceremony prominently attended by Sheikh Hasina and her grand alliance partners. The BNP President, Begum Khaleda Zia, however, was notably absent from the ceremony. A new council of ministers is shortly to be charged with creating the conditions for ‘free and fair polls’ in which all parties can participate.

These quick developments appear, at least temporarily, to have dissipated the enormous tensions that had built up over the preceding months of mass political mobilisation and demonstrations in which an estimated 45 persons lost their lives. Nevertheless, the deficit of trust between the AL grand alliance and the President, as well as a powerful section of the Administration that is seen to be sympathetic to the BNP, persists. To the extent that Ahmed was seen as a party to the BNP conspiracy to rig elections, it will take much more than a consensual change in the leadership of the Caretaker Government to restore faith. Significantly, President Ahmed remains the Supreme Commander of the Bangladesh Armed Forces, and the Army retains the mandate conferred on it on December 8, 2006. A repressive order of censorship is also in place, which bans independent news channels from broadcasting their own news and current affairs programmes, and places significant constraints on the print media. None of these circumstances can contribute to an atmosphere conducive to a peaceful and fair electoral process.

Worse, the BNP has been winded by what it will certainly see as a tremendous defeat for its strategy to recapture power. Conversely, the AL alliance will be exhilarated by the spectacle of the humiliation it has inflicted on its enemies. As the processes of electoral roll revision and the removal of entrenched officials from the echelons of the administration commence, these passions will come to a head, unless there is extraordinarily sensitive handling of each of the issues listed in the AL’s 11-point demands submitted to the Caretaker Government on October 30, 2006. But each step in this direction would be a provocation for the BNP alliance, which had been quick to dismiss the demands as ‘frivolous’.

Crucially, the present electoral process is also a battle for the survival and consolidation of the BNP’s Islamist partners, including the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote, who have, in the past, significantly benefited from the country’s polarized politics, and from all manifestations of disorder.

Unless an extraordinarily unlikely rapprochement occurs between the AL and BNP leadership – particularly between the irreconcilable Begums, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina – the present interregnum of relative peace promises to be no more than ephemeral. Once the election processes gather force again, an exacerbation of the unrelenting political frictions in Bangladesh can once again be expected to come into play. #

Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India