The political situation in Bangladesh has become so volatile that anything a reporter writes runs the risk of being out of date by the time it gets to print. The country is currently in the midst of a political standoff, the likes of which even this most unpredictable and explosive of countries has never before seen. In the run-up to the January elections, one would have to be a bolder man than this writer to predict how everything will turn out in the coming weeks. For the past 15 years, Bangladesh has had a more or less functional democracy. Despite crippling political infighting, the country has muddled through to post impressive gains, both economically and socially. Governance has remained extremely poor, and democratic institutions such as the Parliament have remained largely dysfunctional. Nevertheless, the country has been moving in the right direction, with changes of government following more or less acceptable elections in 1991, 1996 and 2001. The 1991 elections were held in the aftermath of the overthrow of H M Ershad’s military autocracy, which came after a half-decade-long struggle for the reinstitution of democracy. This also marked the last time that the two main political parties, the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the opposition Awami League, cooperated on anything. 1991 brought the BNP to power, and the two subsequent general elections have delivered two changes of governments. First the AL took over in 1996, and then the BNP swept back to power as the head of a four-party alliance in 2001. Suddenly, this system of governance, which had sustained from 1991 to 2001, appears to have fallen apart. To understand why this situation has come about, one needs to go look at the country’s system of caretaker governments, which was devised in 1991 to oversee the elections that were held after Ershad stepped down (see Himal August 2006, “The crippled caretaker”). This worked very well, and the 11 eminent citizens chosen by the president (ex-Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, who had been installed as president by the consensus of the political parties) to form the initial caretaker administration presided over what are generally seen as the most credible elections Bangladesh had ever seen. In 1996, the combined opposition parties refused to contest elections under the BNP government, due to a well-founded apprehension that the BNP would use its incumbency to rig the polls. This apprehension was based in large part on that party’s shenanigans in by-elections prior to the February 1996 general election, and was spectacularly borne out when the results of this election (boycotted by all major political parties except the BNP) were published. Following countrywide agitations, the BNP government was forced to step down and hand the reins of power to the second caretaker government, which presided over elections in June 1996 that saw the AL come to power with a slender majority in coalition with the Jatiya Party. In 2001, the BNP returned to power at the head of a four-party alliance that secured a thumping two-thirds majority in Parliament. All goes haywire Currently headed into the fourth general election since the restoration of democracy (not counting the bogus February 1996 polls), it would seem that the country’s democratic institutions should have been in better shape than ever before. But this was not the case. The first electoral controversy was one that had been simmering for several years, and it came to a boil on 28 October, when the outgoing four-party alliance government had been mandated to hand over power to the incoming caretaker administration. The disagreement centres on who is to be the ‘Chief Adviser’, the head of the caretaker administration. This issue had not caused controversy in the past, with the Constitution clearly stipulating that the first choice for Chief Adviser should be the last retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the debate in October came to a head due to the fact that, during its tenure in office, the BNP had amended the Constitution to raise the retirement age of judges from 65 to 67 – thus ensuring that in 2006 the last retired Chief Justice would be K M Hasan, a one-time BNP office-bearer. The opposition had long ago announced that it would not agree to Hasan becoming Chief Adviser, and endless dialogue between the opposition and the government yielded no compromise. On 28 October, the AL took its argument to the streets. There, they were met with equal ferocity by the police and cadres of the four-party alliance. The vicious fighting that engulfed the country ended up leaving two dozen dead and thousands injured. Justice Hasan issued a hurried statement, declining the honour of becoming the Chief Adviser. The story then only got complicated. Choosing not to follow the constitutionally mandated steps for appointment of the Chief Adviser, President Iajuddin Ahmed then proceeded to appoint himself to the position – an option the Constitution does indeed offer, but only as a last resort. For the opposition, this was not much of an improvement over Hasan, and, as matters have turned out, may end up looking much worse. President Ahmed had been elected by the BNP-dominated Parliament, and is well known to be a long-time BNP man. Nonetheless, the opposition halted its street-agitation programme, most likely due to apprehension that the armed forces would be called out to quell what was turning into an uncontrollable situation. They reluctantly issued a statement offering tepid conditional acceptance of the president as Chief Adviser. Since he became Chief Adviser on 29 October, nothing the president has done has encouraged the belief that he is a neutral figure – as would befit the head of an administration that is vested solely with presiding over the conduct of free and fair elections. As opposed to the last caretaker chief – who transferred key officials from his first day in office, and imposed his authority with an iron first – the current Chief Adviser has done very little in the way of shuffling administrative and police personnel, which everyone would agree would be necessary to ensure credible elections. What is truly unprecedented is the Chief Adviser’s split with the rest of the 11-person ‘Council of Advisers’, as the caretaker government is referred to. A significant gulf has grown between him and more than half of the council – who are said to be ready to tender their resignations, something that has never happened in the history of the chief advisorship. The main complaint is that decisions collectively made by the Council are subsequently unilaterally countermanded by the Chief Adviser, in clear contravention of the Constitution. Perhaps what will be seen as the final straw came on 12 November, when the caretaker government put the armed forces on standby to lend support to the civil administration. This decision was made unilaterally by the Chief Adviser, without informing the rest of the Council. Stubborn partisan That is not all. The next crisis centred on the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the Election Commission, which had also been thoroughly politicised by the BNP government and staffed with its hand-picked people. The CEC, Justice M A Aziz, has alienated most members of the polity, with the exception of his boosters in the four-party alliance. He ignored judgments by both the High Court and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court when he went about creating a bogus voter roll, which was prepared by politically partisan enumerators and allegedly contains well over one million fake voters. The 14-party alliance led by the AL has insisted that no credible election can be held under Aziz’s supervision, a sentiment that has widespread sympathy beyond the realm of party politics. Indeed, about the only people who want Hasan to remain in his post once again are the four-party alliance hardliners – and, it seems, the president/Chief Adviser himself. The opposition has imposed periodic blockade programmes, apparently in the hope of shaming the CEC into relinquishing his position. This pressure, together with the near consensus in the country on the need for the CEC to go, finally persuaded Aziz to step aside on 22 November – though whether this will have the desired effect of allowing reconstitution of a credible Election Commission remains to be seen. Removal of the CEC without further steps to reconstitute and reform the Election Commission will solve little. In this finely balanced situation, there is very real possibility that the army will be forced to step in and break the deadlock. In fact, the military has already been asked to do so, both by the BNP’s four-party alliance government and the current caretaker government, but it has thus far resisted the call, showing great forbearance and maturity. At the same time, the army brass has indicated that if forced to enter the filed because of political chaos, it will not activate its ranks as the cat’s paw of either the president and his BNP backers, or of the AL-led 14-party alliance. Rather, the army will be its own master.