Thursday, August 15, 2013

What's next for Islamist party after higher court barred to participate in election?

Islamist protest critics of Islam, Koran and Muhammad in London
Bangladesh's main Islamist party ponders its future after a High Court ruling that deemed its charter unconstitutional

K.R. CHOWDHURY

Now that Jamaat-e-Islami has been disqualified from contesting in future elections, analysts are asking whether Bangladesh's leading Islamist party can regroup as a political force without resorting to further violence.

On August 1st, a three-member panel of the High Court declared Jamaat's registration as a political party illegal, because some sections of its charter go against the constitution and the 1972 Representation of the People Order (RPO).

Jamaat lawyers immediately appealed to the Supreme Court to stay the verdict, but the appeal was rejected on August 5th.

The relevant Jamaat charter passages stipulate that only Allah is sovereign, and the rules of Allah are the ultimate law. The constitution of Bangladesh, on the other hand, states that the people are sovereign, and the RPO bars registration of any party that may pose a threat to communal harmony.

Jamaat – believed to command around 10% of the popular vote – registered as a political party under newly-revised Election Commission (EC) guidelines in November 2008. Two months later, a leading Sufi group filed public interest litigation seeking to scrap Jamaat's registration.

Jamaat leaders and workers took to the streets and vandalised vehicles throughout Dhaka to protest the August 1st ruling, and called for yet another general strike on August 13th and 14th.

Critics of the ban say it is important that Islamists in Bangladesh have a stake in the democratic process. Marginalising them, they argue, will foster resentment and possible radicalisation.

"Scrapping the registration through judiciary is a wrong approach," Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party's (BNP) highest policy-making committee, told Khabar South Asia. "If they are stripped of their political rights, they are almost certain to resort to the path of violence for existence."

"Violence will not help them"
Yet there are avenues open for the group to re-enter politics, without resorting to violence, experts say.

The EC has hinted Jamaat could regain registration by making its party charter consistent with the constitution and the RPO, political analyst Nazim Kamran Chowdhury told Khabar.

Jamaat members could also join up with their major political ally, BNP, and attempt to re-register under a potential future BNP administration.

"In case of its failure to restore the registration as a political party under the present election commission, they are likely to contest under the BNP's banner in the next polls.

Then they would get registration afresh after installation of a reconstituted election commission," said Chowdhury.

"Violence will not help them," he added.

Syed Abdullah Md Taher, Jamaat's central executive committee member and secretary for foreign affairs, told Khabar the cancellation of its registration as a political party was aimed at blocking the party from contesting the next national elections, expected in January 2014.

"Keeping Jamaat away from the polls will, of course, create some 'imbalance' in politics," he said, without elaborating. He, however, insisted that Jamaat 'certainly' wanted to be in the political process, and does not believe in violence.

Taher declined to comment on whether his party launched attacks on law enforcers while protesting recent war crimes court verdicts against its party leaders.

Asked if Jamaat will re-register with the election commission, he said, "we will consider it".

Syed Ashraful Islam, general secretary of the ruling Awami League, told reporters his party has no intention of banning Jamaat's political activities. The registration issue, he said, would be settled by the court and the election commission – two independent bodies free from government influence, he said.

He agreed, however, that Jamaat's party charter had some provisions contradicting the country's founding principles. "They must amend their party charter in line with the constitution for getting registration as a political party," Islam added.

First published in Khabar South Asia, August 15, 2013