Bangladesh is reeling from its latest political crisis, and violent street protests that have paralysed the country. Opposition groups are rallying against government plans to hold a general election in January 5.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies want Sheikh Hasina Wajed to resign as prime minister to make way for a neutral caretaker government ahead of the elections.
All we are asking for, is that Sheikh Hasina if she really believes in democracy, if she really believes in the political stability, peace and tranquility in the country she should agree to it … if she really believes in the people of our country, if she has done a good performance … she should have faith in the people, that people will re-elect her-e through the freedom of choice …
Activists have detonated dozens of homemade bombs, and blocked roads, railways and waterways as part of a 48-hour-long nationwide shutdown.
At least nine people have been killed since Monday, when election was announced, but there has been political violence for months, with more than 300 deaths so far this year.
Until recently it was normal for the government in Bangladesh to make way for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee elections, but Sheikh Hasina controversially scrapped that arrangement in 2011. Instead, she has appointed a special election-time coalition, with her as its head.
Opposition groups are concerned the vote could be rigged, and want a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls, as before.
The BNP has said it will boycott the vote, prompting the election commission to consider delaying the polls.
Sheikh Hasina and her rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, are both battling to be the country’s next leader – the two leaders and their deep political rivalry, cast a long shadow over Bangladeshi politics.
They head up the two most powerful parties; Hasina the Awami League, and Zia, the BNP.
They were not always political enemies – in 1990 they actually joined forces to bring down the dictatorial rule of Hussain Muhammad Ershad, but since then, they have become bitter competitors as power has shifted between their two parties.
Now the two rivals reportedly had not talked for over a decade until last month. The chat was meant to end their stand-off but a transcript of the conversation shows that did not happen.
And adding to the tension is the issue of recent war crimes tribunals, which the BNP say targets their allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami party.
In September, Abdul Kader Mullah, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, was sentenced to death for war crimes during the 1971 war of independence of Bangladesh. The decision prompted angry protests across the country in scenes similar to those happening now.
Despite the war ending more than 40 years ago, Bangladesh remains a population divided between secular nationalism and a belief that Islam should be at the core of the state.
So, what is coming next for Bangladesh? Is the country’s democracy at risk? Can Sheikh Hasina influence the elections? And are negotiations still possible between the different parties?
To discuss this, Inside Story with presenter Shiulie Ghosh, is joined by guests: Syed Rahman Faruk, general secretary of the UK branch of the ruling Awami League; Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University, and constitutional expert; and Mahidur Rahman, chief adviser to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s UK branch.
“I don’t think you can conduct an election under this situation … if you look at the survey reports, if you look at the elections results in the local bodies elections actually BNP is more popular … and if you do not create a situation in which the potentially most popular party could not participate, that election cannot bring up any solution … and if you look at the political history of Bangladesh, in 1988 the election was boycotted by opposition parties and that government … lasted only for two years, if you look at 1996 that … election was [also] boycotted by the opposition parties that government lasted only for a few months …
– Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University
Conversation Transcript between Sheikha Hasina and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia
Hasina: I had called you around noon, you didn’t pick up.
Khaleda: This is not correct.
Hasina: I want to inform you that…
Khaleda: You have to listen to me first. You said you called me, but I didn’t get any call around the time you mentioned.
Hasina: I called your red phone.
Khaleda: My red phone has been dead for years. You run the government, you should know that. And if you have plans to call, you should have sent people to fix the phone yesterday. They should at least check if the phone is working or not.
Hasina: The red phones always work.
Khaleda: Send people over now to see whether the phone is okay.
Hasina: You were Prime Minister yourself. You know that the red phones always work.
Khaleda: They always work? But mine is not working at all.
Hasina: It is working perfectly. At least it was working when I called.
Khaleda: How can a dead phone come to life all of a sudden? Is your call so powerful that it will bring life to my dead phone?