Flexing political muscle, facing societal deadlock
On March 12, the Bangladesh Nationalists Party (BNP) enlarged the electoral coalition from 4 to 18. Other than its traditional Islamist partners, like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islamic Unity Front (fractured into three), no other party has the political strength to mobilise as many activists to organise anti-government protests.
Most of the mega 18-party alliance members are a “one-leader” party and among them, seven new partners are not even registered with the Election Commission. Obviously, the question regarding their political activism and ability to muster strength during an anti-government rally, will arise. The alliance partners often keep their activities limited to forming human chains and holding indoor discussion meetings. Despite limitations, they wish to stand together.
However, the main opposition needs to acquire more strength to exert pressure on the government to hold the upcoming general election under a neutral caretaker system. The government scrapped the articles and clauses from the constitution after the high court revoked the system last May.
BNP, which opposed the caretaker system in 1996, somersaulted soon after the system was deleted from the constitution and informed its supporters that it will boycott the election schedule next year, out of fear of rigged elections. Simultaneously, it also boycotted the by-elections and mayoral polls, wherever electronic voting machines (EVMs) had been deployed.
The 18 party mega alliance is hopeful that they will be able to gain a political edge on their demand for a caretaker system to hold a credible general election and also reject the notion of evoting. However, political observers do not predict any such achievement. Firstly, the high court verdict is against the caretaker government, which it deems illegal and unconstitutional. Second is the notion of e-voting, which the opposition predicts will be manipulated. The electronic wizards of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology explained that the gadget is full-proof from hacking or manipulation. The opposition has however ignored the explanations of the e-wizards.
In 20 years of a democratisation process, which began after 15 years of military dictatorship, the democratic culture is conspicuously absent. In fact it has not taken root since the independence of Bangladesh, some forty years ago, according to Professor Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, a political scientist with Dhaka University.
He argues that regardless of who
was in the opposition, both parties have deliberately boycotted the parliament, making the legislative process inconsequential. Nevertheless, the absentee lawmakers do not forget to receive doles from the national exchequer, VVIP protocols, red passports, duty-free exotic vehicles and many other facilities at the expense of the public’s money.
The recent stand-off between the government and opposition provoked the business community to raise their voice after weeks of countrywide shut-down and street riots which led to a deterioration in the investment climate. The opposition fought street battles with thousands of riot police in bulletproof vests, armed with shot-guns, teargas grenades and with the support of armoured vehicles and water cannons.
Earlier on April 17, BNP’s former lawmaker Elias Ali went missing along with his chauffer. Tahsina Rushdi Luna, wife of Ali claimed plainclothes security agents had picked him up at midnight and his car was found abandoned in a posh area of capital Dhaka. She said that the abductors did not seek ransom, nor anybody contacted her to release the beleaguered leader on certain conditions. But she reaffirmed that she will agree to any conditions for her husband’s freedom.
Opposition leader Khaleda Zia, however pointed her finger towards elite anti-crime force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which she created in 2004 when she was prime minister. The government repeatedly scoffed at the allegations and claimed that the law enforcing agencies had launched a massive manhunt.
The opposition immediately clamped a countrywide shutdown on April 22. From road transportation to national school exams, from banking to access to health care, everything lies at a standstill. Frustrated with the developments, independent newspaper Daily Star, in an editorial urged the government to reconcile and requested the opposition to restrain from political rancour on the issue of the missing leader.
Instead of reconciliation, the government’s crackdown on opposition leaders was widely criticised as scores of central leaders of the BNP and their adopted partners escaped the police dragnet. On the other hand, the High Court refused to hear the bail petitions of the hiding leaders as none have appeared in person at the court, due to fear of being picked up from the court premise.
Earlier, the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership found itself in a precarious situation. Most of its central leaders were in prison, facing charges of crimes against humanity during the bloody war of independence in 1971. They were accused for forming the dreaded Al Badr, a death squad for abduction and extra-judicial killings of professionals including teachers, physicians, engineers, sportsmen, journalists and litterateur. Thousands of members of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, Islamic Chattra Shibir (Islami Student Front) were detained. It seems unlikely now that the Jamaat-e-Islami would be able to contribute in the present street protests. Saleem Samad is a journalist, elected Ashoka Fellow for Journalism and recipient of the Hellman-Hammet Award.