Muzammel Hossain was a driver who was killed when opposition supporters torched his vehicle in Dhaka during a protest. The young man was the lone earning member of his family.
Muzammel was among scores of innocent victims, caught in the cross-fire of Bangladesh’s political unrest after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP),which has rejected the proposed general election on January 5, 2014, took to the streets in protest.
The protests are aimed at forcing the Election Commission to suspend the polls. The elections, breaking the norm followed in the last three national polls (1996, 2001, 2008), have not been preceded by the usual nonpartisan caretaker government to oversee their conduct. This, the BNP says, is the root cause of the protests.
“The government is trying to hold an unilateral election,” said BNP opposition leader Khaleda Zia. “The people will not allow the government to conduct it,” she warned.
Firm on election plan
Prime Minister, and Awami League party leader, Sheikh Hasina, now heads an interim government that has been rejected by the opposition, is firm on going ahead with the election plan to “honour” the constitution and “maintain democratic process”.
Hasina charges that the BNP was trying to frustrate the electoral process. First, they fear a “defeat” in the polls, and secondly, are desperate to protect the Jamaat-e-Islami, BNP’s main ally. The Jamaat has been banned from contesting elections by the Election Commission on the grounds that its charter conflicts with the Bangladesh constitution, an order upheld by the country’s Supreme Court.
The two major parties have diametrically opposite views.
“We wanted political consensus, but it did not happen, unfortunately”, said CEC Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed while announcing the polls on November 25. Under the constitution of Bangladesh, elections must be held by January 24, 2014.
The Sheikh Hasina-led ruling coalition nullified the caretaker government system through an amendment to the constitution in 2011, amove that was soundly criticised by the opposition. But, the government cited a verdict of the nation’s highest judiciary in declaring the caretaker system illegal and unconstitutional.
“The two major parties have diametrically opposite views,” said Akbar Ali Khan, an adviser to the former caretaker government. “For an amicable solution, they need to urgently have a dialogue to avoid further confrontation,” he said.
The violence in recent weeks has claimed at least 50 lives and left 2,000 people injured. After a meeting with the election commission, Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Benazir Ahmed said: “At all cost we are committed to protect the life and property of the public from the anarchists.” But the protest violence is growing.
Though Bangladesh has seen electoral-related violence before, the current round is alarming. For the first time, the railway, the secure mode of public transportation, has become the target of opposition attack. Protesters have ripped open fishplates and set fire to tracks and carriages, paralysing the rail system.
Media reports say at least 60 such attacks took place against the railways across the country on Nov. 26 and 27. Due to consecutive crippling hartals or shutdowns and blockades, businesses have come to a halt, prices of essentials have soared and communications have been disrupted.
Several attempts by local and international players have failed to persuade the warring groups to go for a negotiated settlement. Prime Minister Hasina in October invited her arch rival Khaleda for dinner but she refused. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry phoned both Khaleda and Hasina and asked them to discuss the issue.
Only last week, the United States had expressed “grave concern” over the prevailing Bangladesh situation . The Congressional Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Asia and the Pacific observed that the “rigid stance” of both the major political parties and the increasing violence and attacks on minorities were a major concern of the US government.
Bangladesh, which earns $20bn a year from the ready-made garment sector, next only to China, will suffer heavily if violence continues.
As the political crisis deepens, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, announced plans to visit Dhaka on Dec 6, nearly seven months after his first effort to mediate talks between the Awami League and the BNP failed.
Meanwhile, the country’s economy has also taken a hit. “Bangladesh, which earns $20bn a year from the ready-made garment sector, next only to China, will suffer heavily if violence continues,” said Atiqul Islam, chief of the Bangladesh Garmet Manufactures and Export Association (BGMEA) .
An Awami League’s ally, H. M. Ershad, appealed to the BNP to join the polls. “Without election how can we ensure a democratic transition”, he asked. But an informal ally of the BNP, Badruddouza Chowdhury, declared: “A credible election can’t be held unless it is joined by the major opposition”.
Political analysts are sharply divided. Many pointed out that the strength for mass mobilisation by the ruling coalition, in which most of the “pro-liberation” parties and groups are ideologically linked, should not be undermined. A left leader, an ally of the Awami League, argued confidently: “As the BNP is an election-oriented party, it will be difficult for them to convince their grassroots men from joining the polls when electioneering starts”.
Amir Hossain Amu, a minister in the interim government, said: “Credibility of an election depends on the percentage of voters polling, not which party boycotts.”
Nevertheless, civil society leaders including editors of leading national dailies, say the credibility of the election may be questioned if a large party refuses to participate.