It has been a month of high drama in Bangladeshi politics – things have been melodramatic, in fact, even for election season. The storm that has been gathering over many months of tension – political and civil – over issues as disparate as the workings of the Election Commission, electricity and workers’ wages, finally arrived at the end of October. Right on schedule, many observers noted. As a modern democracy no more than 15 years old, dogged by a cynical, egocentric, bipartisan political mechanism shared almost exclusively between the two main political camps, change of power was never going to be a smooth deal. On one side of the divide sits the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which held a two-thirds majority as part of a four-party alliance in the immediate past Parliament. This was partly courtesy of the catalytic Islamic vote-bank effect of its allies – the mainstay Jamaat-e-Islami and the splintered Islami Oikya Jote. On the other side of the gulf stands the Awami League (AL), the main opposition in the last house, which presently leads a 14-party combine camp of left-leaning political groups, including the recent addition of the Liberal Democratic Party, a breakaway of the BNP’s disgruntled old-school core. Through months of political somersaults, backstabbing and finger-pointing, political soothsayers have been prophesising anything and everything under the sun: no elections, rigged elections, violent elections, military rule! By late November, just weeks from the ‘constitutional provision’ (a term frequently used and blatantly abused in political talk these days) for elections in mid-January, the country seemed to be stuck in a labyrinth deeper than anyone had anticipated. Meanwhile, with more than 30 deaths from political violence and repeated shutdowns of economic activity, everyday life for Bangladesh’s citizens had been put on hold. While October’s street violence and November’s political drama played out as the lay-up to the elections, they were set into motion almost a year ago. It was on 12 February, in the dying days of last winter, when AL leader Sheikh Hasina tabled 34 reform proposals after months of boycotting the House. These included reconstituting the Election Commission and revising the voter roll. More broadly, however, the proposals raised questions about the form, representation and motives of the constitutionally stipulated caretaker government that was to be set up after the late October power handover. The AL latched onto the controversial choice of Justice M A Aziz as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) as the critical issue, although this was more due to the need for a political effigy than from any actual political foresight. The present political and constitutional situation was arrived at by the domino effect of those proposals of the AL. Nearly ten months later – after rounds of letter-swapping and further rounds of frantic political talks at the parties’ secretary-general level throughout October over a revamped 31-point AL reform proposal – just days ahead of the scheduled handover, coming up with the right question about how to structure the caretaker government was still the issue. As the last days of the BNP government drew near, no party was ready to get serious about the negotiations, fearing blame for failure in the high-tension atmosphere. Fatalism was in the air. Anticipatory calm Talks collapsed just before Eid. On 26 October, 102 high-profile members of the BNP – including 12 members of Parliament, former state ministers and influential political leaders – led by renegade Oli Ahmed, a former army man and close aide to the late General Ziaur Rahman, defected to form a new party. The Liberal Democratic Party was formed by merging this group with an already existing BNP splinter party, the Bikalpadhara, led by former President A Q M Badruddoza Chowdhury. The first widespread political violence feared during election politicking started minutes after the announcement of the new party, and BNP activists burned houses and businesses of those who defected. As outgoing Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia delivered the last lines of her farewell speech on the evening of 27 October, street agitations had already broken out across the country between activists of the opposing parties. During the following two days, with the power handover on a tightrope, dozens died in street violence, and a nationwide transport blockade halted the economy. Meanwhile, a high-stakes political game was being played behind the scenes. While the AL-led 14-party alliance demanded the withdrawal of CEC Aziz and K M Hasan, the candidate to head the caretaker government, the BNP’s political acumen showed signs of anticipatory calm. Amidst the brouhaha, President Iajuddin Ahmed, who had been widely considered a political appointee of the BNP, emerged as a mediator between the parties. Without much hype, the Hasan problem vanished on 28 October when he stepped aside. As the president’s talks with both parties continued, and a farcical search was undertaken for “a politically acceptable man and yet maintaining constitutional sanctity”, President Ahmed proposed his own name for the position of chief of the interim government. On 29 October, the job was done. With surprising maturity, or perhaps due to the prospect of military intervention in the case of anarchy, the AL and its allies “conditionally accepted” the president’s action, quelling fears of another eruption of political violence. The AL’s condition – that President Ahmed had to “prove neutrality” within three days – was put off by another week, but had little effect on the president’s actions. At the time of writing, the AL was pushing an 11-point ultimatum, with the removal of M A Aziz as the most definitive demand. The threat: a non-stop blockade. In the course of the next two days, ten advisors, chosen from lists provided by the two main political parties, were sworn in and given multiple portfolios. Not helping to quell the brooding suspicion with regard to his intentions, President Ahmed kept a range of sensitive ministries tied to the election process under his own purview. More worryingly, weeks after the interim government was put in place, the country was still awaiting an overhaul of the administration. On track? Bangladesh suffered blockades throughout November, enforced by the AL and with later support from the new Liberal Democratic Party. Aziz’s removal became a near national obsession, with such comical announcements as the country’s largest body of grocers’ deciding to stop providing supplies in protest of the CEC. Meanwhile, for the first time since the political impasse began, the representatives of the European Commission and the United States clarified their own positions. Just days before Aziz’s inevitable ‘departure’, both the EC and the US made clear that he had to go. Then, in a late night address to the nation on 22 November, Aziz’s decision to go on a 90-day ‘leave’ was announced – much to the discontent of the AL and its allies, and an apparent crack within the panel of ten advisers on the president’s final decision. While his exit may silence some of the political activism, the political gridlock and the dark clouds over the 2007 elections will remain. Pre-poll politicking has remained in full swing even through these turbulent times, and as winter’s discontent broods into the coming year, elections might just turn out to be a means to an end. While political parties continue partisan games with little thought for stability, the bigger question is whether the AL will participate in the polls at all – or, if they do, who will accept the results. With an economy clocking above 5.5 percent annual growth for several years now, Bangladesh is still on track – even though the current political instability will surely curtail the projected growth of above 6 percent for the current fiscal year. While many observers note with some spite that the country has become a ‘corrupt democracy’, smoothing the pains of growth and furnishing a functioning democracy for a populace of 150 million is no easy calculus. While the current political crisis brews, looming in the background is an ever-deepening mistrust by the populace of both the political process and players. Over the years, radical Islamists have gained ground given the lack of long-term vision among any of the major political camps. As they have slowly increased their ability to draw votes, the past five years have seen a significant rise in their political, economic and social clout. This process has been expedited by the fact that two Islamic parties have shared power in government for the past five years. Their role in and impact on the future, particularly on the still unsure elections, will be observed with some trepidation. Be it the provision for a caretaker government or the reservation of seats for women in Parliament, Bangladesh is a country still experimenting with its democracy in all possible manners. What will most likely save the day is the widely held notion that Bangladesh’s electorate is a resilient lot, and hopefully will not loose their sense of belonging. The onus lies on the country’s mainstream political establishment to get the political process back on track. Otherwise, the path they tread could lead to that place that signifies the death of any democracy, mature or infant: indifference.