Dhaka, Bangladesh - After a month of strikes and sometimes deadly street protests, Bangladesh's government is staring at an irreconcilable political deadlock.
The opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), says it will not "return from the streets" until the government restores the country's caretaker system for holding national parliamentary elections due at the end of 2013. The Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) government, determined not to concede, is not backing down.
"The ruling and the opposition coalition are boxing each other into a corner," says Gholam Sarwar Khan, a Bangladeshi sociologist. "The deadlock will affect everything from business to social order."
One senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, warned the current political situation could have serious consequences. "Unless the political deadlock is broken, we could see a serious breakdown of law and order problems, and a lot of violence," he said.
Somewhat ironically, this unrest comes at a time when Bangladesh's economy is picking up steam, and the country's achievements in women empowerment, public health and rural poverty alleviation have earned praise.
"We don’t have a choice but to go agitate on the streets. Without the caretaker system, there can be no free and fair polls."
- Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia
Bangladesh returned to electoral democracy after the fall of military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad in 1991. Since then, the BAL and the BNP have been in power every alternate term through polls conducted by a non-partisan interim Caretaker Government (CTG).
But in 2006, when the BNP government handed over charge to the CTG, it did not hold elections for more than two years.
Analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury explained that the CTG "came under the influence of Bangladesh's powerful military and started a so-called campaign to cleanse its politics. Top BNP and BAL leaders were imprisoned on corruption charges. The caretakers clearly exceeded their brief that was limited to holding the elections."
After the BAL came back to power with a landslide victory in the December 2008 polls, the country's Supreme Court declared the caretaker system "illegal", though it said the system could be retained for the next two parliamentary polls.
The BAL accepted the court's verdict, and scrapped the system by passing the 15th constitutional amendment in parliament in June last year by a margin of 291 votes to 1. BNP members abstained.
In response, BNP chairperson and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia reiterated what she has said since last year, blaming the BAL for "trying to cling to power by fraud" and for taking the country towards one-party rule.
"By scrapping the caretaker system, the government has closed down all possibilities for negotiation. We don’t have a choice but to go agitate on the streets. Without the caretaker system, there can be no free and fair polls," Zia said at a press conference last week, as her party supporters hit the streets to enforce strikes and road blockades across the country. Hundreds of them were locked up in jails, charged with vandalism, violence and arson.
On the roads again
The BNP-led opposition alliance is not only determined to continue the agitation, but also to boycott the elections unless the caretaker system is restored to supervise them.
"The government has trampled the values of democracy and the people's right to exercise their franchise freely," says BNP spokesperson Tariqul Islam. "So we have no choice but to fight for democracy."
However, the BAL is determined not to bring back the caretaker system. "If the world's biggest democracy, India, can have elections under existing elected governments and still have peaceful transfer of power, why can't it happen in Bangladesh?" asked Taj-ul Islam, a minister in the BAL government.
War crimes victims seek justice in Bangladesh
The BAL claims that the BNP and its Islamist allies, like the Jamaat-e-Islami, are actually trying to disrupt the war crimes trial, in which several of its leaders stand implicated for mass murder, rape and other crimes committed during the 1971 civil war that led to Bangladesh's independence. .
Nine top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, including its former and present chief, are facing trial before two tribunals set up to try the alleged war criminals. Bangladesh says three million of its people were killed during the 1971 civil war, and that nearly half a million Bengali women were dishonoured.
"The Jamaat-e-Islami opposed our independence and wholeheartedly supported the Pakistan army. Some BNP leaders also collaborated with the Pakistanis," says Taj-ul Islam. "The war crimes trial has exposed them and made them desperate."
In response, the BNP has been distancing itself from the Jamaat-e-Islami, its partner in the 2001-2006 coalition government, by not opposing the war crimes trials and making a demand for fair trials.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says her government will not tolerate violence and disruptions.
"They [the BNP] are taking the country towards a civil war. The people will not forgive them," says Hasina's cabinet colleague Syed Ashraful Islam. "They should join the parliament and contest elections peacefully."
But with the BNP and other opposition parties not inclined to do that unless the caretaker system is restored, the country seems headed for a political deadlock that could undermine the legitimacy of its democracy.
Leaders have also rebuffed business leaders who offered to mediate between the government and the opposition. The commercial sector is desperate because the disruptions caused by the strikes and street violence threaten production, exports and potential investments from abroad.
"This is bad for business, and bad for our economy," said the chairman of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industries, Kazi Akramuddin Ahmed. "Our political leaders must find a way out of this crisis."
The chaos could also drive away foreign investors just when they are looking to put their money in Bangladesh's booming textile factories, power plants and other infrastructure projects.
Bangladesh's currency, the taka, has appreciated by five percent against the US dollar in 2012, and the country's export income has risen by 40 percent over the last fiscal year. There are several other bullish signs for the economy: remittances from Bangladeshis working abroad are likely to cross the $14bn mark, the Japanese are keen to fund an underground railway network in Dhaka, and the World Bank has promised to fund a huge bridge over the daunting Padma River, provided some corruption issues are addressed.
"This is not when you want all this trouble," says Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith. "Those causing the dislocations are enemies of the country and its development."