Bangladesh Polls: Drama of Democracy?
By DR.ABDUL RUFF
Although political parties had feared that the elections might be delayed, Interim government has announced the Parliamentary (General) elections to be held in Bangladesh on 18 December with 13 November the deadline for nominations. Since January 2007, Bangladesh has been run by a military-backed interim government, which promised to curb corruption and hold free elections. Authorities have also said local government elections would be held on the 28 December.
The Bangladesh Election Commission has said it has recorded the identities, fingerprints and photographs of more than 80 million voters to ensure that the elections will be free and fair. The authorities claim that the new register is the most accurate in Bangladesh’s history. The government came to power a year and a half ago President Iajuddin Ahmed cancelled general elections and declared a state of emergency following months of street violence.
Awami League (AL) and BNP — yesterday expressed rather opposing feelings about the developing political scenario in the country vis-à-vis the December 18 parliamentary election.
General elections due last year were postponed after several months of street protests and political violence triggered by a standoff between two former premiers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, both of whom face trial on corruption charges involving millions of dollars which were siphoned off in the poor country. The interim government cancelled elections due to be held in January last year.
Elections to local councils in Bangladesh, the first under an army-backed interim government – would be for four city corporations and nine municipalities, were to be held on 4 August 2008. The Awami League, the party of ex-Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina Wajed — out on bail from corruption charges and in the United States — swept all four city mayoral posts and eight out of nine municipalities. Sheikh Hasina, who led the country from 1996-2001, said the polls paved the way for a return to democratic rule. The announcement was initially criticized by the main political parties, who said holding local votes before national elections were unconstitutional. The two major political groups, the Awami League and the BNP, have called for outright cancellation of the non-party local polls, claiming they can disrupt the crucial parliamentary vote. However, the Awami League said it would participate in polls for city and town councils on August 4 in a dramatic U-turn on its earlier stand to boycott all polls except the parliamentary elections and that came as a major boost for the military-backed emergency government.
The country has a long-running reputation for deep-seated corruption. The current caretaker administration, backed by the military, has pledged to eradicate corruption. Many analysts say the government is determined to destroy the political power of the two women as part of its drive for political reform.
The former prime ministers and leaders of the two main parties, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina are released now. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have dominated Bangladeshi politics for many years. Both have alternated as prime minister since 1991. They are bitter rivals and barely speak to each other. Their mutual loathing is reflected among their respective sets of supporters. As a result, political life has been marked by, at best, ceaseless bickering. Released now from jails, they were in custody, charged with extorting money when they were in power. The “battling Begums’” are being held in detention in the grounds of parliament in Dhaka. Khaleda Zia has been charged with corruption in relation to the choice of who should run two state-run container depots during her second term in office as prime minister. Earlier this year she was charged with tax evasion. Sheikh Hasina faces a new charge of taking illegal payments of some $435,000 from an electricity company. She is already under investigation for extortion and murder. Both women deny any wrongdoing.
A state of emergency was declared on 11 January 2007, caretaker government, backed heavily by the powerful military and important donor countries like the UK, is still in charge. Emergency rule was declared ostensibly to uphold law and order. When the (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) BNP’s term of office ended in October, the country was gripped by a series of violent clashes in which many people were killed. In the end President Iajuddin Ahmed bowed to pressure and declared a state of emergency and the postponement of general elections.
At first glance, the current state of Bangladesh appears to be a paradox: a country under a state of emergency, but where the general public seems quite content. But there is little outward sense of repression, and Dhaka’s social elite, usually most vocal against human rights violations, appear most pleased. The reason for this apparent sense of satisfaction is not difficult to see. The treatment meted out to politicians is not being seen as repression. People across the board see them as retribution for the corruption and abuse of power of the past fifteen years. By the time the state of emergency was declared in January, the public had also become fed up with the constant bickering and street-fighting between the two main political parties.
The caretaker government had elections would be held only once it had rid the country of corruption. Political parties have been banned from holding meetings. Trade union activities, including rallies and demonstrations are also banned. Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia face rumblings of discontent against their leadership from within their respective parties. Now the two main parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, have resumed political activities.
If anything interrupts Bangladesh’s peaceful return to democracy in 2008, however, many people believe it is likely to be the spiraling price of food. The food ministry says its stocks are half full and running out. It blames the devastating impact on November’s cyclone and floods last year, as well as record global food prices. But businessmen also blame the government. Its anti-corruption drive, some say, has at times resembled a witch-hunt and so scared away legitimate investments. Whatever the causes, the government’s reputation for competence has dropped as the prices have risen. So far, the public has largely supported the caretaker government. That could easily change if the food crisis continues.
Although it is advantageous for Awami League which has won the recent local polls, poll fortunes could shift depending on the course of the campaign. Both parties said it is imperative to lift the state of emergency to make the upcoming election credible. BNP said as a pro-election party it wants to contest in the poll, but an atmosphere conducive to holding a credible election has not yet been created as the military backed caretaker government has not yet met any of its seven demands. After separate meetings with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a capital hotel, AL said it will contest in the election and hopes that a peaceful appropriate environment will be created through withdrawal of the state of emergency.
The problem of corruption is so deep-rooted that it will not have time to clean things up before the elections promised by the end of 2008. Many still argue that as long as the two women – even if they are not themselves corrupt – continue to hold run their respective parties, a culture of corruption will remain. The new incumbent ruler would do well pay urgent attention to arrest the corruption tendencies.
It is of paramount importance that a total lifting of he emergency is an imperative for holding a free, fair and credible election. The people won’t have fundamental rights under the state of emergency, so that will be a problem for an acceptable poll. It is expected that a peaceful environment will be created through withdrawal of the state of emergency, as one adviser has already said the restrictions on fundamental rights will be withdrawn and the process will start from tomorrow. Hopefully, Bangladesh will go to polls in a free atmosphere without emergency rule.
* Article except the title posted as sent by the author