Saturday, 11 January 2014

Elections in Bangladesh in 2014 - Bangladesh in Political Crisis

Parliamentary Elections in Bangladesh in 2014: BANGLADESH IN POLITICAL CRISIS

Dr. Mozammel Haque

The 10th Parliamentary Elections were held in Bangladesh on Sunday, the 5th of January 2014 amid violent, strikes, boycott by the main opposition political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by Begum Khaleda Zia, wife of former president Zia-ur-Rahman and twice prime minister of Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League ended with more than two-thirds of seats in a controversial and violence-hit general election in the unstable state which has seen arson attacks on polling stations and the elections which was shunned by international observers as flawed and derided as a farce by the opposition BNP.

Historical Background
When Bangladesh emerged in 1971 as an independent sovereign country, many people thought it would be most peaceful stable country of the world; even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the leader of the Bangladeshi nation dreamt and said to see it ‘Switzerland of the East’. The reason is simply this: the inhabitants of Bangladesh belong to a single race linguistically; a nation of Bengali language and religiously the dominant religion is Islam, the faith of 85% of the population of the country.

But what is the situation at the moment? It is one of the most politically unstable and volatile country in South Asia, if not in Asia. Bangladesh has a grim history of political violence, including the assassinations of two presidents and 19 failed coup attempts since its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Throughout the year 2013, a wave of political violence killed at least 275 people in 2013 and bloody street clashes and caustic political vendettas plunged this South Asian country even deeper into crisis.

Looking at its history, in 1974, Mujib proclaimed a state of emergency and amended the constitution to limit the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, establish an executive presidency, and institute a one-party system. Calling these changes the “Second Revolution,” Mujib assumed the presidency. All political parties were dissolved except for a single new party, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), which all members of parliament were obliged to join. In 1975, he was assassinated by mid-level army officers.

Gen. Zia-ur-Rahman was elected as president in 1978. His government removed the remaining restrictions on political parties and encouraged opposition parties to participate in the pending parliamentary elections. More than 30 parties vied in the parliamentary elections of February 1979, but Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won 207 of the 300 elected seats. In 1981, Zia was assassinated by dissident elements of the military.

Lt. Gen. H.M.Ershad assumed power in a bloodless coup in March 1982. Like his predecessors, Ershad dissolved parliament, declared martial law, suspended constitution and banned political activity. In December 1983 he assumed presidency. In 1986 full political rights, including the right to hold large public rallies, were restored. In 1987, the opposition parties united for the first time in opposition to government policies. Ershad declared a state of emergency, dissolved parliament and scheduled new parliamentary elections for March 1988. All major opposition parties refused to participate. Ershad’s party won 251 of the 300 seats. By mid-1990, opposition to Ershad’s rule had escalated. November and December 1990 were marked by general strikes, increased campus protests, public rallies, and a general disintegration of law and order. Ershad resigned in December 1990.

On February 27, 1991, an interim government oversaw what may be one of the most free and fair elections in the nation’s history. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition government with Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

The BNP, led by Khaleda Zia, has alternated in power with the Awami League since democracy was restored to Bangladesh in 1991. Five years later, the Awami League boycotted elections and forced new polls within months. Then in 2007, amid political chaos, the army stepped in. There has been only one peaceful transfer of power between the parties since the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh in 1991. Each recent poll has been marked by unrest but recent months have been especially violent.

Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujib, the leader of Awami League, has been in power since 2009.

Pre-election 2013
The BNP, Jamaat and their smaller allies have been staging protests since October 2013 to try to force Hasina to step down so that a neutral caretaker government can oversee the general election on 5 January 2014. Hasina refused to accept the arrangement, which was in place during previous national polls. The BNP decided to boycott the election when the government refused to hand over power to a neutral administration, as has been the practice since 1996. The BNP refused to field candidates for the January election, saying the vote under Hasina will be rigged, an accusation the premier rejects. Jamaat, the country's largest Islamist party which has been barred from contesting the polls, was also furious with the government after one of its leaders, Abdul Quader Mollah, was executed for crimes during the 1971 independence war.

Bangladesh opposition group has called for a four-day national blockade, the fifth since protests began in October, in a bid to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down ahead of general election. Previous blockades have targeted transport across the country, leading to an estimated $40b loss of revenue for Bangladesh after rail and road shipments were halted and industries like the garment business losing western custom.

The joint forces operations by the police, the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and paramilitary border guards arrested 118 people, mostly activists from the main opposition BNP and its key ally Jamaat-e-Islami, in five districts where police had earlier clashed with demonstrators.
Many of the senior officials of the BNP have been imprisoned and hundreds of lower-level workers detained. Begum Khaleda Zia was on virtual house arrest.

The BNP and around 20 allies are all refusing to take part after Hasina refused to agree to their calls to stand aside and let an interim caretaker government organize the contest. Bangladesh opposition group called for a four-day national blockade in a bid to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to step down ahead of a general election on January 5.

More than three-quarters of Bangladeshis are opposed to this weekend’s general election which is being boycotted by the main opposition, a poll showed Friday, the 3rd of January 2014. The Survey in the Dhaka Tribune found 77 percent of people believe Sunday’s vote without the participation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) would be “unacceptable” and only 41 percent would vote. The same poll found that 37 percent of respondents would vote for the BNP if they had the chance, slightly ahead of the ruling Awami League.

Each recent poll has been marked by unrest but recent months have been especially violent. Overall, more than 500 people have been killed and at least 20,000 injured in protests, clashes, arson and other attacks in the last year.

Election 2014 scenario
Tens of thousands of troops have been stationed in at least 59 of the country's 64 districts from Thursday until January 9. There is no exact figure on how many troops are being deployed, but local media have put the number at about 50,000. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its leader Khaleda Zia condemned the military deployment. It leads an opposition alliance of 18 parties refusing to participate in the election after Prime Minister Hasina rejected calls to stand down and let a neutral caretaker government oversee the contest. Two other left-wing parties also withdrew from the election, so too has a faction led by Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who had been an ally of Hasina's ruling Awami League.

21 people died in election-day violence; which halted voting at about 400 polling stations and police fired on hundreds of opposition activists on several times and opposition activists set fire to more than 100 polling stations. The ruling Awami League has swept to an easy victory in Bangladesh's violence-plagued national election, but the result will do little to quell political tensions in the country. The outcome of Sunday's vote was never in doubt after the opposition boycotted the contest, with 153 Awami League candidates or allies elected unopposed to the 300-seat parliament.

On Sunday, 5th of January, Hasina's ruling Awami League party had won one of the most violent elections in the country's history, marred by street fighting, low turnout and a boycott by the opposition that made the results a foregone conclusion. The political gridlock plunges Bangladesh deeper into turmoil and economic stagnation and could lead to more violence in a deeply impoverished country of 160 million.

Voter’s turnout
Sunday's vote was the most violent in Bangladesh's post-independence history, with at least 24 people being killed while hundreds of polling stations were attacked by opposition supporters. Officials in polling booths across Dhaka contacted by the Guardian gave figures suggesting that the turnout in the city had averaged about 10%.. In the last election, in 2008, turnout was 87%. The BNP said the low participation confirmed its view of the poll as a farce. "It is the ultimate sign of protest by Bangladeshi people and tells us that they are unhappy with the way elections have been held in this country," economist Hossain Zillur Rahman said.

Legitimacy of the votes
Hasina’s refusal to quit and name an independent caretaker administration, which resulted in the boycott by opposition parties, meant the election was mainly a contest among candidates from the ruling party and its allies and it undermined the legitimacy of the vote. The European Union, the United States and the British Commonwealth, a grouping of 53 mainly former British colonies. did not send observers for what they considered a flawed election. US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told a briefing in Washington, “We’re disappointed that the major political parties have not yet reached a consensus on a way to hold  free, fair, and credible elections.”  

Syeeda Warsi, a British Foreign Office minister, issued a statement on Monday, the 6th of January 2014 calling the election disappointing. "The true mark of a mature, functioning democracy is peaceful, credible elections that express the genuine will of the voters. It is therefore disappointing that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box and that turnout in most other constituencies was low," Warsi said.

The impasse also undermined the legitimacy of the poll and is fueling worries of economic gridlock and further violence in the impoverised South Asian country of 160 million. “The acrimony between two of our main leaders has brought this country to where it is now and not just crippled our economy and growth, but also our democratic system,” said Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Citizens for Good Governance, a non-governmental organization.

Bloodiest elections
At least 24 people have been killed in election-related violence, making the vote the bloodiest in country's history. Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper described the elections as the deadliest in the country's history and describing in an editorial the Awami League’s win as "a hollow victory which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively".

Either Hasina or BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia has been prime minister for all but two of the past 22 years   Bangladesh's "Battling Begums" ousted a dictator two decades ago and ushered in a new era of democracy. But now the toxic rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia is threatening to bring the country to the brink once more. The deep enmity between them and the votes threatened to plunge the country even deeper into crisis.

"There is a sense of deja vu about all this terrible, destructive animosity," said Farzana Shaikh, an expert at the Chatham House thinktank in London.
Some analysts see the problem as an intensification of the contest between factions within the country's elite that has been going since Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in a brutal civil war in 1971, while others attribute the extreme polarisation of Bangladeshi politics to the animosity between Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP, and Sheikh Hasina, who heads the Awami League.

On the other hand, The prime minister since 2009, Sheikh Hasina – the daughter of Sheik Mujib – has been accused of manipulating the electoral process to establish a one-party state, said John Pilger in his write-up in the Guardian and added, “Framing political opponents in order to silence them is a familiar game.”

But whatever the trouble and whatever the problem is, the country appears to be deeply divided and this division has now transcended politics and descended in society, aided by the media.  In such a situation, the lines between politics, election and justice are increasingly getting blurred. It is also observed that the country’s judiciary has been politicised since its inception.

Words of Wisdom
“Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are the two most prominent leaders of Bangladesh. Instead of fighting each other, they should join hands to fight the forces that are holding back their country's progress. They should also work together to restore international community’s confidence in Bangladesh’s nascent democracy,” Jeddah-based Saudi Gazette editorially advised.

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