A clash of ideologies Critical times ahead for Bangladesh

A clash of ideologies
Critical times ahead for Bangladesh
by H.K. Dua, who was recently in Dhaka

WITH parliamentary elections less than a year away, the political situation in Bangladesh is drifting towards an uncertain phase. No one knows in Dhaka how the events will unfold themselves during the next few months and what the final outcome will be.

Many observers of the Bangladesh scene are getting increasingly worried about the run-up to the parliamentary elections. There is an uneasy feeling among the concerned citizens that an atmosphere of confrontation is building up between the ruling alliance led by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League. Handled unwisely, it can lead to worse.

This year’s parliamentary elections are crucial for Bangladesh which has been experimenting with military rule as well as with parliamentary democracy. At stake is the question who is to govern the 35-year-old nation: BNP’s Khaleda Zia, who won the last election and is leading a four-party alliance; or the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s 14-party alliance.

Relations between the two Begums border on mutual hatred – not only because Sheikh Hasina is Mujib-ur-Rahman’s daughter; or Prime Minister Khaleda Begum is former ruler Zia-ur-Rahman’s wife. Begum Khaleda and Sheikh Hasina are leading two rival alliances that have come to mark a sharp divide in Bangladesh’s politics. When the young nation requires a consensus, a politics of confrontation characterises the relationship between the incumbent and her challengers. More than the task of building a new nation, this continuing confrontation has been consuming much of the energy of this nation of nearly 150 million people.

This year’s elections are crucial not only because these will decide the fate of Mrs Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed but also because the outcome of the polls will decide the nature of Bangladesh’s polity and state. The core issue the election will resolve is whether Bangladesh has become an Islamist state or whether it is to be governed by principles of secularism and democracy.

Pursuit of power apart, Mrs Khaleda Zia’s alliance is clearly dominated by those who would like Bangladesh to be run by the Islamists. On the other hand, the Sheikh Hasina-led alliance is fighting for a democratic and secular state. On who wins in this clash of two competing ideologies will depend the course this nation will take. Either way it will be the nation’s choice that will be crucial not only for its people but also for the subcontinent, certainly for India.

No one in Bangladesh has any doubts about the character of the Khaleda government. Her four-party BNP-led government also includes the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), both fundamentalist. Some of the components of the Khaleda government are those who opposed the Liberation in 1971 and sided with Pakistan.

Most essential levers of power – civilian or military – are in the hands of pro-Pakistan fundamentalists. Although the Jamaat-e-Islami got only 5 per cent votes in the 2001 election which catapulted Begum Khaleda Zia to power, its influence in decision-making is beyond its numerical strength. Also a chunk of the Army, particularly new recruits, is said to have been Islamic fundamentalist. The Pakistan Army has developed close links with the Bangladesh Army.

The dominance of anti-Liberation elements in the Bangladesh government explains why the Awami League-led alliance has chosen to patch up internal differences and put up a joint struggle against the ruling alliance.

The way things are shaping up the country seems to be getting politically polarised and a for-and-against atmosphere is fast developing. The tenor of the political debate has become shrill. The accusing finger has become the order of the day. Political temperatures are rising and the people have begun to feel the heat of the rival campaigns as the polls draw near.

The life of the present Parliament comes to an end on October 10 and the polls are to be completed by January 10 next. Under the constitution, after Parliament is dissolved and until the elections the country has to be placed under a caretaker, who is supposed to be an independent authority.

The current row between Begum Khaleda and Sheikh Hasina centres on how fair and impartial is going to be the arrangement for holding the polls under the caretaker. The Awami League alliance has launched an agitation against the way the Khaleda government is fiddling with constitutional provisions to ensure that both the caretaker as well as the Chief Election Commissioner and his juniors in the districts are convenient for the ruling alliance.

The Awami League wants the caretaker to be chosen by agreement with the opposition. It is also questioning the independence of the office of the Chief Election Commission and his setup. Interestingly, in Bangladesh the Chief Election Commission functions under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s office.

The CEC’s office has come under disrepute and the Awami League and its allies have alleged that electoral rolls have been rigged to disenfranchise its supporters in the constituencies and several minority voters by a simple stratagem of denying them enrolment forms. The opposition parties also want transparent ballot boxes so that any mischief can be seen through and corrected.

To press its claim for electoral reforms, the Awami League-led alliance has launched a widespread agitation against the government. Last Sunday thousands of its supporters from across the country converged on Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan to press for electoral reforms and scrapping of a system where elections can be managed to perpetuate the continuance of the present government. Before the rally, the government arrested thousands of opposition functionaries in the districts.

The Prime Minister herself has been attacking Sheikh Hasina Wajed and threatening to invoke drastic provisions of the constitution to tackle the situation.

There is no sign yet of a dialogue taking place between the government and the opposition in the near future. The current situation can lead to more tensions, perhaps a deadlock. And no one knows who is to resolve it, and how.