| Caption: Army troops head out as state of emergency is declared, 11 January.
The unslain demons of Bangladesh’s politics have returned to haunt a democracy that the small Southasian state has struggled to preserve for nearly two decades. On 22 January, Bangladesh was supposed to go to the polls to elect a new government. Instead, the elections have been scrapped, the democratic political process has been derailed, and a military-backed interim government now rules the country by fiat. Had the political standoff of the first week of January persisted, there is little doubt that a bloodbath would have ensued.
Over the past three months, the streets of Dhaka have seen a kind of political violence that has become all too familiar. Police and protestors exchanged volleys of teargas shells and Molotov cocktails that left hundreds injured – all the while egged on by political masters for whom any means is justified to achieve power. Transport blockades crippled the economy, particularly hurting the urban poor, who lead a hand-to-mouth existence. The lucrative apparels industry, which contributes to the vast majority of the country’s export earnings, was reporting losses of millions of dollars. By 11 January, when a state of emergency was declared and a gentrified coup d’état by a civilian administration took place, the country’s politics were perched on the edge of disaster.
At the heart of the protests that bedevilled the elections is a crude power struggle between the two major political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which had relinquished power in late October to a caretaker government that was to oversee the polls. The former, leading a ‘grand alliance’, was set to boycott the elections, accusing the arch-rival BNP of rigging the voter list with phantom names during its five-year tenure in power. These contentions have been confirmed repeatedly, including by a recent study by the US-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which reported that the voter rolls did indeed have more than 12 million names that were either “errors or duplicates”. The AL also claimed that the BNP and its coalition partner, the religious, rightwing Jamaat-e-Islami, had planted BNP-friendly bureaucrats in both the Election Commission and the interim government that was empowered by the Constitution to conduct the elections.
In a move that may have averted an imminent crisis but perhaps doomed the eventual elections, President Iajuddin Ahmed, appointed during the BNP’s 2001-2005 tenure, assumed the role of Chief Adviser to the interim government in the last days of October (See Himal December 2006, “Trying times for the Bangladeshi democrat”). After that, Ahmed systematically prevented every attempt by his interim cabinet to ensure the neutrality of the electoral process – including resisting the removal of the controversial Chief Election Commissioner, M A Aziz, who in turn had strenuously attempted to prevent a correction of the erroneous voter rolls.
For these reasons, the political parties that made up the AL’s grand alliance had reasonable justification not only to boycott the polls, but also to form nationwide election-resistance committees, all of which took place in the face of heavy state-sponsored intimidation. Over this there can be little dispute. Unfortunately, these were not the reasons why the grand alliance ultimately withdrew its nomination papers for the January elections. The real clash between the BNP and the AL arose over the political allegiance of a former military dictator, H M Ershad, whose autocratic regime they had collaborated to topple in a mass uprising in 1990.
During the last week of December 2006, the Awami League had accepted the flawed voter list, the presidency of Iajuddin Ahmed as well as the scheming of M A Aziz. Just as the country was bracing itself for a major political face-off, the transport blockades and pitched street battles between the cadres of the AL and BNP had looked likely to end. The AL subsequently submitted its nominations to the Election Commission after a few days of intense negotiations.
Then, during the first week of January, the AL and its allies radically changed their stance. They accused the BNP of leaning on the judiciary to resume proceedings of a corruption case against H M Ershad – a member of the League’s grand alliance – that had disqualified him from participating in the polls. Ershad is accused of having helped himself to large amounts of state funds through crony contracts and theft, and a slew of corruption cases had been filed against him after he was ousted from power in 1990. The former general, who has held on to a clutch of parliamentary seats in the north, was initially courted by the BNP-Jamaat alliance, and it was presumably in exchange for his promise of loyalty that a number of corruption cases against him were dropped in the run-up to the elections. When Ershad defected to the AL’s grand alliance in early January, however, one of the pending corruption cases against him suddenly came up for trial; in accordance with rules that prevent criminals from running for public office, his election nomination was subsequently barred.
Whatever reasons the Awami League and its allies may provide for their boycott of the elections, the reality is that Ershad’s exclusion from the polls threw a spanner into their electoral calculations. The grand alliance was clearly not ready to participate in elections it stood a chance of losing.
Further indication is easily found of just how self-serving and ideologically hollow the players of Bangladesh’s political arena have become in recent years. The Awami League – traditionally backed by Dhaka’s intelligentsia for its secular roots – recently signed a pact with the minor rightwing Islamist party Khalefat-e-Majlish, agreeing to legalise fatwa, and to legislate anti-blasphemy laws during its next stint in power. Issuing a fatwa is currently a criminal offence under Bangladeshi law not only because it undermines the state’s justice system, but also because it has traditionally been used to perpetuate cruel, outdated, patriarchal practices. What rationale could justify this legal reversal by a political party whose founding fathers had dreamt of – and fought for – a secular Bangladesh? The answer is remarkably simple: the Awami League wants to cosy up to the Islamists, not only to woo the ‘Muslim’ vote bank that won the BNP the 2001 elections, but also to attract millions of dollars in funding from West Asia in exchange for espousing perceivably ‘Islamic values’.
And the BNP? During its years in power since 2001, the party has been content to pawn whatever ideals its own founding fathers had, in exchange for a stronger grip on the sceptre of power. Over the past five years, the BNP-Jamaat regime has sanctioned widespread corruption; unabashedly politicised the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the police; and tried every means possible to ensure its safe return to power through rigged elections. As the country’s law-and-order situation spiralled out of control due to the accelerating merger between political parties and crime, the BNP-Jamaat alliance tried to appease voters by creating an elite commando unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, in early 2004. The RAB has since killed over 700 ‘terrorists’ in what are widely believed to be false encounters, with an immunity that defiles every democratic ideal. It was also through the political patronage of powerful BNP leaders that radical Islamist outfits steadily grew in power and influence, orchestrating a series of suicide bombings and targeted assassinations of their critics, even as the government continually denied their existence.
National soap opera
While both political parties routinely cite the Constitution to bar each other’s moves, they are unequivocally opposed to abiding by any rule of the game that the Constitution specifies. And they are able to justify the use of every means – legal or violent – to capture power.
The level of banality to which the political process has descended is best described by the bitter hatred between the two leaders of the AL and BNP. Sheikh Hasina, who heads the former, inherited her party position from her father, Bangladesh’s founder-president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was killed along with most members of his family in a military coup in 1975. Khaleda Zia on the other hand is the widow of Major General Ziaur Rahman, whose four-year presidency ended with his assassination in a military coup in 1981. While both women have served terms as the prime minister or the leader of the opposition in Parliament over the last 15 years, they never speak to each other, and often hurl the most acrimonious of insults at one another through the media.
Sheikh Hasina believes that Ziaur Rahman was among those who plotted and killed her father on 15 August 1975, and frequently says as much in public. At the same time, Khaleda Zia has taken to celebrating her own birthday on 15 August, baulking its observance as a day of national mourning when the AL is in power, and cancelling state mourning altogether when she was prime minister.
During her stint in power from 1996-2001, Sheikh Hasina changed school textbooks to depict her father as the hero of the country’s 1971 War of Independence against Pakistan, and the one who made the ultimate proclamation of independence. She also made it mandatory for every government and quasi-government office to hang portraits of Sheikh Mujib, proclaiming him as the father of the nation and issuing bank notes depicting his image. When Khaleda Zia came to power in 2001, she had the textbooks rewritten, and they now depict her late husband as the 1971 war hero and credit him with the proclamation of independence. She also had Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s portraits removed from government offices, and replaced the bank notes with a new issue.
It is against this backdrop that the recent assumption of power by a non-political third force is being seen by Dhaka’s middle and upper classes as a ‘compulsion of national interest’. Dhaka’s influential elite believe a ‘massive clean-up’ is necessary before the political process resumes, and the interim government, led by a former World Bank economist, has already announced that it may not be able to hold elections for another six months at least. In its first week in power, the interim government made ample use of its powers to arrest without warrant. With the army prowling the streets, over 12,000 people have been arrested, and the crime godfathers are reportedly in hiding. The interim government has also taken steps to separate the judiciary from the executive branch and it now plans to launch a nationwide voter-ID-card project to resolve controversies over the voter rolls.
There is a sense of heady exhilaration among Dhaka’s educated classes – a feeling that the interim government will indeed be able to translate rhetoric into reality and stem the country’s corruption and political acrimony in one fell swoop. Unable to curb their enthusiasm, a number of editors of influential national dailies – who assume they speak as the nation’s conscience – have already stamped their endorsement of the right of a government that – well-intentioned as it may be – is undemocratic and non-political, to make decisions on the people’s behalf. For their part, the political parties are playing the waiting game, intimidated by the possibility that the interim administration may punish dissent by probing the links some of them have to organised crime and big business.
In not internalising that this interim government, too, will have its own compulsions, the Bangladeshi intelligentsia may be setting itself up for disillusionment. The Bangladeshi Constitution demands that when a state of emergency is declared, the next parliament must amend the Constitution to ratify the actions undertaken during that emergency. When the interim government eventually lifts its state of emergency to hold elections, it will face becoming extra-constitutional and its members liable for prosecution unless the Constitution is changed by the next Parliament in order to retrospectively justify its actions and to legalise its members’ tenure. Amendments to the Constitution, however, can only be made through a two-thirds majority decision in Parliament. This will require the support of both major political parties, as neither is likely to hold a two-thirds majority on its own if existing alliances hold. It was similar circumstances that led former military dictator H M Ershad to form his Jatiya Party in 1986, which swept the sham elections he held and went on to amend the Constitution and legalise his rule.
The first signs of decay are already evident in the current interim government’s actions. Detainees have started suddenly falling ‘ill’ and dying at the hands of law enforcers. Black-money magnates are eluding arrest as the joint forces run window-dressing night raids on brothels. Dhaka’s roads are wider because its makeshift kitchen markets have been bulldozed and its hawkers banished, but few of the fortunes made during the tenure of the past BNP government are being scrutinised. There are rumours that the ambitious voter-ID-card project could take over a year to complete, paving the way for a long stint in power of an non-elected government that, as the media has recently found, has no compulsion to be accountable. Sadly, it seems increasingly that the promised clean-up of the political process, crack-down on corruption and reform of the electoral mechanism are not as likely as they had seemed in the second week of January. This realisation is now percolating through society, and people are reconciling themselves to the fact that they must consider once again the age-old question of ‘what can realistically be achieved’ in their hopes for the interim government. As this happens, the question is being asked as to whether the citizens of Bangladesh are willing to see their fundamental human rights suspended in a state of emergency perpetrated by a government they did not elect.
~ Mahtab Haider is an editor with the New Age, Dhaka.