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Bangladesh Prepares for the Next Elections

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 14, 2006

    Anxiety and uncertainty are perceptible even as Bangladesh prepares itself for the next elections scheduled for January 2007. As the incumbent BNP government prepares to transfer power to a caretaker government by the end of October 2006, there is a sense of visible unease about Bangladesh's political future, as many issues pertaining to these elections remain unresolved. It appears that a few issues need an amicable settlement before the ruling party hands over power to the caretaker government. The most controversial among these are the voters list, the role of the Election Commission, the next head of the caretaker government and electoral reforms. Unless addressed, these issues could lead to a re-enactment of the 1996 political situation in which the Awami League refused to participate in the elections.

    It is important here to detail some vital issues that are likely to impinge upon the outcome of the forthcoming elections. A proactive Chief Election Commissioner, who gave scant regard to judicial guidelines regarding the preparation of electoral rolls, produced a voluminous new list in May 2006 in which the names of some genuine voters were found missing. The Opposition accused the government of enumerating only its supporters and excluding genuine voters, and rejected the voters list. The Supreme Court finally intervened to declare the list as null and void and instructed the EC to prepare a new list as per the earlier guidelines. It was alleged that the controversial voters list excluded members of the minority communities, as it was feared that they would help the electoral prospects of the Awami League. Interestingly, the voters list prepared by the Election Commission in August 2006 has put the number of eligible voters at a staggering 9.30 crores though the 2001 census data prepared by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics shows 8.02 crores as the number of eligible voters. It is important to mention here that the voters list prepared in 2000 listed a total of 7.48 crores as eligible voters.

    The role of the Election Commission in this entire affair has been controversial. The Opposition has been demanding the appointment of a new Chief Election Commissioner since they fear that the elections would not be held in a free and fair manner under the current commissioner, retired Justice M. A. Aziz who is a controversial person and a political appointee. To make matters worse, the ruling party has proposed one of its sympathizers, retired Chief Justice K. M. Hasan, as the head of the caretaker government. Hasan was earlier the BNP's international affairs secretary, and this has given rise to concerns about his neutrality in the forthcoming elections. It is important to note here that the last retired Chief Justice takes over as the Head of the Caretaker government. The BNP government's intentions to install Hasan as the next head of the caretaker government became clear when the retirement age of the Supreme Court Chief Justice was increased.

    The ruling party has rejected the Opposition's demands for reforms to the caretaker government system. At the same time the future of political reforms is in limbo as the Awami League and its allies have refused to participate in any discussions on electoral reforms as long as the Jamaat is part of the committee that has been constituted to discuss the issue. As the government hardly has any time even to contemplate reforms, it wants to pass on the responsibility to the next caretaker government, which does not have the mandate to introduce such changes. Since the neutrality of the caretaker government itself is questionable, it is doubtful whether the reforms will come through before the elections. The Opposition is also critical of the idea of placing the army under the control of the President, who is also the Supreme Commander of the Army. Instead, it wants the defence portfolio to rest with the caretaker government, since its function is only advisory and confined to the conduct of elections. It is therefore less likely to use the armed forces. The Opposition has also raised the demand that the President should act strictly on the advice of the caretaker government.

    Interestingly, in spite of the political impasse, both political parties are gearing for the next elections. If the BNP is obstinate on its political stance in not conceding any of the Opposition's demands, the Awami League is similarly showing no signs of political accommodation. Both parties are gauging the public mood with regard to their respective political positions. They are organizing meetings and public rallies to apprise people on various issues. The civil society in Bangladesh, which has voiced its opinion on the issues of corruption, violence, religious militancy, etc, has now banded together and is organizing meetings and discussion to make people aware of various issues so that they make a rational political decision. This has come under severe criticism from the government, as the ruling party feels that this is giving impetus to the anti-incumbency factors that would adversely affect its political future.

    As the Awami League, which is heading a 14 party alliance, has forged a joint front for the next elections, the BNP does not feel confident of contesting the elections without expanding its support base. It has used both carrots and sticks to win over General Ershad to boost its support base in North Bengal. It has exonerated him of various corruption charges to facilitate the alliance. The BNP is also racked by a tussle between the young Turks and the old guards, which has at times led to embarrassing outburst in public. Though the Prime Minister's intervention has saved the party from internal crisis, senior leaders feel sidelined by Tariq Rehman, Senior General Secretary of the BNP who also happens to be the son of Begum Khalida Zia.

    Some other issues that are likely to be important in the next elections are the growing religious extremism, spiralling price rise of essential commodities, the BNP's approach to various bomb blasts, political killings, and attacks on media and journalists. There has not been any progress in the investigation into political killings, the various bomb blasts and the attack on the British High Commissioner in Sylhet, as well as the arms haul in Chittagong. Though the government arrested the prime accused in the August 17, 2005 bomb blasts, it has not shown much seriousness in investigating the main organisers and funders behind the co-ordinated bomb blasts that took place in 63 out of the total 64 districts. In spite of a ban, some of these militant organizations are active and function openly. For example, the banned Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami recently held a meeting in the capital's Baitul Mukarram mosque under the banner of Sachetan Islami Janata (Conscious Islamic People) with the knowledge of the government. This raises serious doubts about the government's sincerity in dealing with the issue of religious militancy.

    Bangladesh's struggle to strengthen its democratic institutions continues. The judiciary has been demanding separation from the executive for the past few years. The electoral machinery has been politicised. The ruling party has appointed several officers in key positions who can influence the electoral process. This practice of large-scale institutional engineering to influence the elections in favour of the ruling party is not a new phenomenon in Bangladeshi politics. For example, newspaper reports indicate that recent appointments to 700 posts are related to election activities, including the appointment of 300 Upazilla election officers. Appointments are made in such a fashion that if one officer is removed there is every chance that the succeeding officer would most likely be sympathetic to the incumbent government.

    Though Bangladesh has witnessed the largest voter turn out among the practicing democracies of South Asia in all its Parliamentary elections, it is the poorest in terms of governance. It is the most violent society and political violence has been an endemic feature. The frequent hartals that paralyse the country, the personal political antagonism between the two main leaders, the use of paramilitary forces and extra judicial killing to bring in a semblance of orderliness, and the attack on Ahmadiyas and minorities have left its imprint on the polity and the economy. The activities of the government have come under severe criticism by international agencies and donors. But the government is in no mood to listen. Unless a level playing field is created and steps taken to ensure free and fair elections, Bangladesh will head towards greater uncertainty instead of a smooth democratic transition.