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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Bangladesh: Hope Revived


On January 5, 2014, Bangladesh conducted its 10th General Elections. With a comprehensive boycott by the Opposition, as well as by some of Sheikh Hasina Wajed's allies, prominently including General H.M. Ershad's Jatiya Party (Ershad), 153 of a total of 300 seats in the Jatiyo Shangshad (National Parliament) were decided unopposed. Results for 136 of the remaining 147 seats for which elections were held, had been declared at the time of writing. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League (AL) had won 102 seats; followed by the Jatiya Party, 13; Independents, 13; Workers Party (WP), 4; Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), 2; and others, 2.

Of the unopposed seats, AL candidate were declared unopposed winners in 127 seats; followed by the Jatiya Party, with 20 seats; JSD, with 3 seats; WP with 1 and Jatiya Party-Manju (JP-M) with 1 seat.

Only 11 of the 41 registered parties in Bangladesh participated in the elections. Despite this, according to Bangladesh Election Commission, the voter turnout was 45 to 46 per cent.

The elections were strongly opposed by the BNP-led 18 party alliance, and the run-up to the polls, as well as the election itself, were marred by street violence. At least 18 people were killed on polling day. 151 people have been killed in street violence since the announcement of the elections on November 27, 2013, in protests that combined opposition to the elections and to the War Crimes Trials, which had already sent one senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) to the gallows .

A complex and high risk politics played out in the months preceding the elections, with parties increasingly polarized on virtually all issues. Eventually, however, the cards appear to have fallen substantially in favour of Sheikh Hasina's AL and its allies. The Opposition had been substantially mislead into believing that the 'international community' particularly led by the US, would not allow Bangladesh to go into an election that was widely boycotted. While there were some indications of a greater willingness in Washington to accommodate the BNP-JeI combine it if came to power in Bangladesh, and consequently, of a narrower band of tolerance for the Sheikh Hasina led alliance, any measure of external support for the Opposition quickly dissipated as the elections came closer, particularly in view of the rising crescendo of violence engineered by BNP-JeI cadres, as well as a result of the visibly increasing popular support to the War Crimes Trial (WCT) process. It is significant that Abdul Qader Mollah, the notorious 'butcher of Mirpur' was hanged on December 12, 2013, barely three weeks before the election date, provoking both wild celebration, on the one hand, and violent protests, on the other.

While questions have been raised regarding the legitimacy of the present elections, it is significant that they have been held within transparent legal and constitutional parameters. Further, even before the elections, Sheikh Hasina had told the Opposition, including Begum Khaleda Zia, chief of the BNP, that while the current election to the 10th Jatiyo Sangshad were already a closed issue, early elections to the 11th Parliament were open to negotiations. Indeed, the present situation in Bangladesh is far from unprecedented and Sheikh Hasina has only reversed roles this time around. In the February 1996 elections for the 6th National Parliament, with a comprehensive Opposition Boycott on the grounds that the Government had rigged Parliamentary by-elections in March 1994, Begum Khaleda's BNP had won all 300 seats, with just 21 per cent of votes polled. Significantly, at least 16 persons had been killed on election day, February 15, 1996. Elections to the 7th Parliament were quickly forced just months later, in June 1996, and the AL secured 146 of 300 seats, with a voter turnout of 75.6 per cent, the highest in Bangladesh to date. The BNP secured just 116 seats.

The Opposition in Bangladesh is now caught in a cleft stick. Sheikh Hasina will evidently continue to strongly support theWCT in her new tenure. Six top leaders of the JeI and BNP are currently on death row, pending appeals, and the appeals process is likely to be exhausted within months, and in some cases, possibly more than that. Significantly, the ICT awarded the death sentence to Mollah on February 5, 2013; it took some ten months for him to exhaust the appeal process, before he was hanged on December 12, 2013. Bacchu Razakar was sentenced (in absentia) on January 21, 2013; Delawar Hussain Sayyedee on February 28, 2013, Muhammad Kamruzzaman on May 9, 2013; Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, on July 17, 2013; Salahuddin Quader on October 1, 2013; and both Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman Khan alias Nayeb Ali and Chowdhury Mueenuddin on November 3, 2013. While Razakar is currently believed to be in Pakistan, and unlikely to be brought to justice, Sayyedee and Kamruzzaman could be sent to the gallows at any time. The only hope the BNP-JeI has of rescuing these leaders from execution is to accelerate the process for a new election, with a limited, if not slim, possibility of capturing power. Escalating street violence over the past year has evidently failed to weaken the AL regime's will to bring the perpetrators of the 1971 atrocities to justice. But if the Opposition comes to the negotiating table to hammer out terms for a new Election, the WCT process will continue to its logical conclusion - with lethal consequences for those on the death row. Moreover, Mollah's execution certainly found significant resonance among the people of Bangladesh, and was opposed (violently) only by a narrow spectrum of JeI-BNP cadres. Further executions of those guilty of the 1971 atrocities can be expected to widen the support base of the AL. Further, the JeI has already been declared an illegal formation, and is barred from participation in the Elections, and consequently unlikely to find a formal place on the negotiating table.

The present boycott of the 10th General Elections was purportedly the consequence of the passage of the 15thth Constitutional Amendment Bill on June 30, 2012, which overturned the 16-year-old requirement that general elections be overseen by a non-partisan Caretaker Government - a provision that was introduced into the Constitution in the wake of the February 1996 Elections, and that facilitated a political agreement to hold the June 1996 Elections.

While Sheikh Hasina has made it clear that she is open to negotiations for a new Election, the levels of existing, and now escalating, acrimony between the 'two Begums' make any early resolution unlikely. A pre-Election attempt to restore contact between the leaders of the AL and BNP only deepened bitterness and further polarized their rhetorical positions with the disagreement over the issue of formation of an Interim Government to conduct the January 5, 2014, elections resulting in a complete breakdown. Recent reports suggest that Khaleda Zia is under house arrest in Dhaka. Further, Sheikh Hasina has threatened to indict her for her role in the rising violence of the past months, declaring, on January 1, 2014, “We believe in justice. The Opposition leader would be charged with giving orders for killing and burning people to death in the name of (her) movement. Inshallah [God willing], her trial would be held on Bangladesh soil to this end, and we'll hold this trial.”

Indeed, the onslaught that the AL Government, in alliance with 14 other likeminded parties, had launched against Islamist radicals and their BNP supporters after coming to power in January 6, 2009, can only be expected to intensify in the coming months.

The BNP-led 18 parties’ Opposition alliance, including various Islamist extremist forces, has unleashed and sustained a relentless torrent of street violence through 2013. Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), which came into forefront in mid-2013, during the course of the Long March on April 6, 2013, has also joined this violent formation. According to partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the country has recorded 379 fatalities, including 228 civilians, 133 Islamist cadres and 18 Security Force (SF) personnel, through 2013, in violence unleashed by the these Islamist radical groups. In comparison, fatalities in such violence stood at just three (one civilian and two terrorists) in 2012, and six in 2010. No such fatalities were recorded in 2009 and 2011.

SF personnel arrested at least 4,201 extremists belonging to various Islamist groups through 2013, as against 1,832 such arrests in 2012; 578 in 2011; and 958 in 2010. The 2013 arrests included 4,041 JeI-Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) cadres, 69 HeI cadres, 54 Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) cadres, 27 Hizb-ut-Towhid (HT) cadres, four Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) cadres, three cadres each of Ansarul Bangla Team (ABT) and Jama'at-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

Moreover, in its opposition to the War Crimes Trials, the opposition alliance called for hartals (general shutdown strikes) through the year, resulting in 91 days of disruption, according to partial SATP data.  The Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated the economic loss at about USD 200 million a day during the strikes. In an earlier statement, on June 20 2013, Bangladesh Railway Minister M. Mujibul Haque told the Parliament that Bangladesh Railway alone incurred a loss of BDT 240 million (approximately USD 3 million) as a result of hartals enforced by BNP-JeI since February, 2013.

The combined Opposition, however, was shocked when thousands of people demanding death sentences for War Crimes spontaneously gathered at Shapla Chattar, Shahbagh in Dhaka City. The resulting 'Shahbagh movement' with its Six Points, acquired immense support from Ganajagaran Manch (People's Resurgence Platform) and Muktijuddho Projonmo Oikya Forum, a platform of 13 organisations comprising freedom fighters’ children and their generation.

Despite the uncertainties of the situation in Bangladesh and the boycott of elections by the Opposition, the tactical advantage has clearly shifted in favour of Sheikh Hasina. The only instrumentality that the combined Opposition has in the situation prevailing after the elections is street violence, and this they have already deployed to the limits of their capacity, with little impact on the actions or intentions of the Government. Further escalation of this violence, though likely, is only going to provoke a further alienation among the people, undermining the prospects of the BNP alliance in any early General Election that may be negotiated. In the meanwhile, the WCT process will grind on, exposing the role of JeI and BNP leaders in the atrocities of 1971, and further delegitimizing these political formations in the eyes of the people, and of substantial sections of the international community.

First appeared in South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 27, January 6, 2014

Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Associate Institute for Conflict Management and S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate Institute for Conflict Management

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