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Bangladesh: Fixing the Democratic Future

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 16, 2008

    The release of Sheikh Hasina on ‘parole’ for two months has generated hope for the stalled political dialogue and uncertainty over the scheduled Parliamentary elections in December 2008. The Awami League (AL) had earlier demanded the unconditional release of Hasina. But it appears that after hectic negotiations between some of the advisors of the Caretaker Government (CTG) and Hasina, a political understanding was worked out that ultimately saw her being freed. It has given hope to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) about the release of their leader as well from jail. The BNP leadership is keenly watching the political situation that has arisen out of the release of Sheikh Hasina. Both the caretaker government and the AL have adopted a wait and watch policy – two months is the waiting time. The government has put the caveat that Hasina’s release can be withdrawn anytime. And it has already arrested thousands of grass root leaders belonging to the two major political parties – the AL and the BNP – on the plea of maintaining law and order.

    AL supporters jostled along the street from the sub-jail in the National Assembly complex to Sudha Sadan to have a glimpse of their leader who had spent the last eleven months behind bars. Many believe that Hasina was jailed on ‘concocted charges’ for refusing to co-operate with the Army-backed CTG. The meeting between Hasina and senior AL leaders is instructive. Clearing doubts regarding the circumstances under which Hasina was released, the AL has said that Sheikh Hasina is leaving abroad at her own will for medical treatment and would return to the country soon. Hasina has already instructed Zillur Rahman, who is the acting President, to hold a dialogue with the government. Rahman has already talked to Chief Advisor, Fakruddin Ahmad, over phone on the holding of early elections, clearing doubts about the AL’s participation.

    This has left the BNP in a difficult position. Begum Khaleda Zia, who until now has taken the stand that she would not seek release for ‘medical treatment’ abroad, has, however, asked for the release of her son for undergoing treatment abroad. In her last court appearance, she termed the cases against her as illegal and motivated, and blasted the caretaker government for its activities. But the party is preparing to pressurise the government for the release of Begum Zia. One fear that Begum Zia could be having is the ability of the party to remain united in her absence from the country. The crisis within the BNP has remained within manageable limits after the arrest of Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan – the reformist former General Secretary of the BNP who was heading the rival faction for sometime. The acting Chairperson of this faction, Saifur Rahman, is abroad now, leaving the almost defunct faction to Major (Retd.) Hafizuddin Ahmed. Though unification between the Saifur and Khaleda factions remains a distant dream, what has aggravated the crisis within Khaleda’s faction is the tussle between Kondokar Delwar Hossain and Brig. Gen. (Retd.) ASM Hannan Shah – two senior party leaders – affecting the morale and image of the party and its preparedness to participate in the elections, if it decides to do so.

    The military’s attempt to create divisions within political parties by encouraging political reforms that would exclude the formidable control exercised by the two former Prime Ministers has failed completely. The credibility of the rival faction leaders has been damaged and they have been portrayed as puppets of the caretaker government. This is one of the reasons why the CTG has been for the past few months trying to initiate a dialogue without the interference and presence of the formidable ‘netris’. The popularity of Khaleda and Hasina remains intact, frustrating the efforts of the military-backed CTG. In spite of the corruption charges, many in the country are not convinced of the involvement of both these leaders in corruption and see their imprisonment as a larger game plan of the CTG to exclude them from the political arena. The government has realised that without the participation of AL and the BNP the election would not be credible.

    The United States and other Western countries have been highly critical of the attitude of the AL and the BNP – not to engage in a dialogue with the CTG without the release of their leaders. In fact, not to hamper the ongoing back channel negotiations with Hasina and Khaleda, the Foreign Ministry, in a strongly worded note, asked foreign countries to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. Nevertheless, some Western countries have been openly holding meetings with the political parties and the government to ensure that elections take place as scheduled and with the participation of all political parties.

    Several reform initiatives have been proposed by the caretaker government – registration of political parties, the election of Party Chiefs by councillors, maintenance of income and expenditure incurred by the party and the submission of annual audit reports to the EC, dismantling overseas branches of political parties, banning political activities in professional organisations and universities. Already, the government has separated the judiciary from the executive and has made the Election Commission an independent body. The Election Commission has also proposed that those willing to contest in the local body elections would have to relinquish party posts to qualify themselves – a constitutional requirement that so far has remained unpractised. A Truth Commission is being set up designed to help the process of national reconciliation.

    The current round of political dialogue indicates that the CTG is deliberating on the idea of a national government. Small parties like the Gano Forum and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, liberal democratic party, to name a few, have been advocating a national government that will continue the reform process and bring much needed changes in the constitution, to reallocate power between the various constitutional offices including strengthening of the Presidency. The views of these parties are not significant as they hardly have any political presence in the country; nevertheless, this idea has gained the support of the BNP. To force the military’s withdrawal to the barracks, some of the bigger parties are entertaining this idea of a national government so that a transfer of power can take place to an elected government. A national government is also seen as a mechanism to ensure that reforms and the anti-corruption drive continue.

    Technicalities like preparation of voters’ identity card and transparent ballot boxes are nearing completion. According to the Bangladesh Election Commission website, 95 per cent of voter registration is complete while the remainder is in progress. The government has reconstituted several constituencies which could influence the elections results. Minor changes have been carried out in delimiting 32 constituencies, which have been reconstituted by merging more than one constituency or portions of them. Substantial changes have been made to 20 constituencies and other changes in 42 constituencies. And in 133 constituencies, the government has either merged some of the areas or have reduced the size of some of these. These processes are important to conduct a free and fair election, though the restructuring of various political institutions that is underway to ensure a system of checks and balance to deal with democratic arbitrariness would be a time consuming process. Factors that would ensure the success of the current democratic experiment by the military-backed CTG are collective initiative of political actors and civil society with a sense of reconciliation rather than revenge and retribution. One should take note that many Bangladeshis who are critical of the CTG’s handling of political issues are equivocal in their concern at a scenario which could revert Bangladesh back to the pre-January 11, 2007 situation when this caretaker government assumed power.