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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Bangladesh: Politics of fury

Elections may not put an end to the political upheaval in Dhaka


On January 5, Bangladesh will hold elections to 300 seats in Jatiyo Sangshad, its parliament. But, unlike in the past, there is no excitement in the air. With the opposition staying away from the polls, as many as 153 candidates have been elected unopposed. The ruling Awami League is sure to bag majority, as 127 of the candidates belong to the party. Fear of political violence is likely to deter voters from casting their ballots.
Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of Sujon, an NGO that advocates good governance, calls the election a farce. In December, the opposition, which consists of 18 parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), decided to boycott the polls, after its demands for a non-party caretaker government to supervise “a free, fair and credible election” were rejected by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The opposition and Hasina had been at loggerheads over the election for several months. The rift deepened on December 13, when Abdul Quader Mollah, leader of BNP's ally Jamaat-e-Islami, was executed for atrocities committed during the country's liberation struggle in 1971. Claiming that Hasina was bent on eliminating opponents, the JeI unleashed a violent campaign against the government.

The JeI's opponents say its fundamentalist ideology has no place in a secular country like Bangladesh. The country's supreme court, too, echoed the view on August 1, when it ruled that the JeI's registration as a political party was illegal. Following the verdict, the election commission banned the party from contesting the January 5 polls. Party leaders, however, have vowed to carry on their campaign, saying Mollah's trial was politically motivated.

But experts say the JeI is a spent force. According to Prof. Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah of Dhaka University, the party's struggle is meaningless, as it cannot hope to hold any public office in the near future. He also said that, unlike what Hasina had been saying, the election would be “exclusive, not inclusive”. “The silent majority will lose confidence in the polls and refrain from participating,” said Kalimullah.

Fears of violence, he insisted, were misplaced. “I do not see any reason for violence. Not on poll day, because of the deployment of military troops and para-military forces,” he said.

But, even if the government manages to avoid bloodshed during the polls, the future seems rather grim. The JeI has said if Hasina plans to push ahead with her repressive tactics, the consequences would be dreadful. Also, experts point out that attempts by the government to neutralise the JeI could result in the party becoming more radicalised.

Though the JeI remains belligerent, the BNP has been reportedly participating in secret parleys with the Awami League to put an end to the political clashes that have plagued Dhaka in recent times. Apparently, the eagerness of the BNP to solve the impasse could be one reason it deliberately ignored the ban on the JeI.

The efforts to broker a deal, however, are yet to succeed. The violence in Dhaka has left people's lives and public utilities in ruins. Nearly 500 people have been killed and thousands injured in clashes since March last year. Nearly 900 vehicles, mostly public transport buses, have been torched. State-run medical facilities are overrun by the injured, most of whom are from low-income groups who dared to venture out of their homes in search of work. With education and tourism on the verge of collapse, and intermittent blockades affecting the business climate, experts point out that the next casualty could well be the ailing economy.

First appeared in The Week magazine, January 3, 2014

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA) and Bangladesh based award winning journalist

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