Cri­sis of the Bat­tling Begums

Bangladesh is caught be­tween two fe­male politi­cians who have con­signed the coun­try to un­cer­tainty and vi­o­lence to sat­isfy their own whims.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Munir Ishrat Rah­mani

The vic­tory of the Awami League is seen as hol­low not only by the op­po­si­tion par­ties but also by most neu­tral ob­servers.

When a coun­try’s gen­eral elec­tions are con­tested by only 11 of the 41 reg­is­tered po­lit­i­cal par­ties, and 153 out of 300 seats of the Na­tional As­sem­bly are won un­op­posed by the rul­ing party, the ex­er­cise can only be called far­ci­cal.

Elec­tions were held in Bangladesh on Jan­uary 5 and the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina won 232 seats. But the vic­tory was seen as hol­low not only by the op­po­si­tion par­ties but also by most neu­tral ob­servers. For the last 22 years, the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Na­tional Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia, had taken turns to rule the coun­try ex­cept for a short pe­riod when the mil­i­tary ran the show.

Be­fore elec­tions, the lead­ers of the two par­ties failed to reach an agree­ment about the for­ma­tion of a neu­tral care­taker govern­ment to en­sure fair and free elec­tions. The leader of the op­po­si­tion, Khaleda Zia de­manded that Sheikh Hasina re­lin­quish power and let a neu­tral care­taker govern­ment con­duct the elec­tions to en­sure un­bi­ased su­per­vi­sion.

Sheikh Hasina, how­ever, did not ac­cept the de­mand. This re­sulted in a tense po­lit­i­cal cli­mate and vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tions ahead of what were termed the blood­i­est elec­tions in the his­tory of Bangladesh. Ul­ti­mately, Hasina won ma­jor­ity seats.

Ever since the elec­tion sched­ule was an­nounced in Oc­to­ber 2013, the op­po­si­tion con­tin­ued to protest against the de­ci­sion of hold­ing elec­tions un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the in­cum­bent govern­ment and termed it a con­spir­acy to en­sure the Awami League’s vic­tory. Its calls for shut­downs and block­ades crip­pled the day-to-day life in the coun­try. Busi­ness ac­tiv­ity came to a halt, trans­port dis­ap­peared from the roads, trains were at­tacked

with petrol bombs and mas­sive ral­lies were or­ga­nized.

Pro­test­ers re­peat­edly clashed with the po­lice in all ma­jor cities. Around 150 people were killed and thou­sands were in­jured. Count­less ve­hi­cles were torched and dozens of polling booths were burnt dur­ing the pe­riod from Oc­to­ber 2013 to Jan­uary 2014. The coun­try had not ex­pe­ri­enced such vi­o­lence since its cre­ation in 1971. The se­ries of har­tals and block­ades crip­pled the econ­omy. The Awami League govern­ment did try to deal with the sit­u­a­tion with an iron hand and made mas­sive ar­rests, in­clud­ing those of the lead­ers and ac­tivists of the op­po­si­tion par­ties.

Khaleda Zia was put un­der house ar­rest with a heavy posse of lawen­forcers guard­ing her res­i­dence. These ex­cesses were crit­i­cized by the Hu­man Rights Watch and other in­ter­na­tional ob­servers but the AL govern­ment did not budge. Af­ter tak­ing these mea­sures, the Awami League was sure that it would form the next govern­ment. It did not bother about other is­sues such as the pos­si­bil­ity of a low turnout.

The fact that the Awami League pub­lished its elec­tion man­i­festo only a week be­fore the elec­tion day was an in­di­ca­tion of its ap­proach to­wards its man­date. The man­i­festo did not project any ma­jor is­sues faced by the coun­try. The BNP also failed to fo­cus on vi­tal is­sues in its cam­paign and only tried to ex­ploit the fail­ings of the Awami League govern­ment. It crit­i­cized the govern­ment’s for­eign pol­icy, es­pe­cially its over-de­pen­dence on In­dia and termed it as a com­pro­mise to the sovereignty of Bangladesh.

The BNP’s en­tire cam­paign re­volved around the for­ma­tion of a care­taker govern­ment to over­see elec­tions. Zia had dis­tanced her­self from the Ja­maat-e-Is­lami’s protests against the war crimes tri­als and the ex­e­cu­tion of its leader af­ter feel­ing the pulse of the masses and for fear of los­ing vot­ers. Still, the banned Ja­maat’s sym­pa­thiz­ers sup­ported her.

On the other hand, the Awami League timed the tri­als and ex­e­cu­tion of a JI leader per­fectly so as to gain the sup­port of the Bangladeshi youth, AL loy­al­ists and na­tion­al­ist el­e­ments. It politi­cized the tri­als and crit­i­cized the op­po­si­tion for hav­ing proPak­istani and pro-Saudi feel­ings and also blamed it for fan­ning re­li­gious mil­i­tancy. By ban­ning Ja­maat-e-Is­lami ear­lier, the govern­ment had ef­fec­tively re­duced the strength of the op­po­si­tion and dented its cam­paign against Sheikh Hasina to some ex­tent.

The un­demo­cratic moves by the Bangladeshi govern­ment and the sub­se­quent boy­cott of elec­tions by the op­po­si­tion af­fected the cred­i­bil­ity of the polling process to such an ex­tent that the United States, the Euro­pean Union and the Com­mon­wealth re­fused to send their ob­servers to Bangladesh. They pres­sur­ized Hasina to ne­go­ti­ate with the op­po­si­tion par­ties to par­tic­i­pate in elec­tions and also forced the BNP chief to with­draw the call of boy­cott and end the ag­i­ta­tion.

But that would have meant for­ma­tion of a care­taker govern­ment – a de­mand un­ac­cept­able to Sheikh Hasina. So while she did in­vite Khaleda Zia and her al­lies for ne­go­ti­a­tions, she also re­it­er­ated her ear­lier stance of hold­ing the elec­tions un­der the Awami League govern­ment. Khaleda Zia re­fused to ne­go­ti­ate with­out an as­sur­ance of the ac­cep­tance of her party’s de­mand.

The im­passe was a fore­gone con­clu­sion. The two “Bat­tling Begums” were hardly ex­pected to place the na­tional in­ter­est above their per­sonal agen­das and egos. The boy­cott of elec­tions by the BNP con­tin­ued and elec­tions were held on Jan­uary 5, 2014 as planned by Sheikh Hasina de­spite ex­treme ten­sion on the eve of the polls. The elec­tions were a con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment that had to be ful­filled but the en­tire ex­er­cise could not be called demo­cratic.

With no in­de­pen­dent ob­servers to over­see the polling and with most of the op­po­si­tion lead­ers de­tained, al­le­ga­tions of mas­sive rig­ging in voting did not sur­prise any­one. The boy­cott was very ef­fec­tive and the ap­peal of Khaleda Zia to vot­ers to stay away from polling got the de­sired re­sponse. The turnout was only about 22 per­cent against 87 per­cent in the 2008 elec­tions.

With only 11 out of 41 po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the field, the Awami League was bound to sweep the polls and sweep it did. How­ever, the man­date it got was du­bi­ous. The pat­tern of voting was in­ter­est­ing – it was very slug­gish in the ear­lier part of the day but gath­ered pace to­wards the evening, which sug­gested pos­si­ble rig­ging. De­spite ex­ten­sive se­cu­rity ar­range­ments in al­most all cities and towns, 26 people were killed on the elec­tion day.

As ex­pected, the re­sult was not ac­cepted by the op­po­si­tion and also by in­de­pen­dent ob­servers. Vi­o­lent protests con­tin­ued un­abated and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity termed the polling process highly flawed. The United States even called for a re-run with­out any de­lay. It re­fused to ac­cept the stand of Sheikh Hasina that the boy­cott by the op­po­si­tion par­ties had not af­fected the elec­tion re­sult and its le­git­i­macy was not un­der­mined. The Euro­pean Union and the Com­mon­wealth also sup­ported the U.S. call for re-elec­tion.

Sheikh Hasina ini­tially re­sisted the pres­sure and stuck to her guns but the mount­ing pres­sure made her soften her stance. She in­di­cated a will­ing­ness to have re-elec­tion, pro­vided the op­po­si­tion par­ties ended their vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tion. But she did not budge from her stand of not form­ing a neu­tral care­taker govern­ment to su­per­vise the process. She again in­vited the op­po­si­tion lead­ers to ne­go­ti­ate and asked Khaleda Zia to sever BNP’s ties with the Ja­maat-e-Is­lami and other Is­lamist par­ties to break the dead­lock.

Khaleda Zia re­sponded through a press con­fer­ence in which she an­nounced her fu­ture pro­gram to seek a so­lu­tion to the cri­sis. It was only af­ter this an­nounce­ment that she was al­lowed to leave her house on Jan­uary 11.

Rel­a­tively less hos­tile, her stance in­di­cated a de­sire to rec­on­cile. She said in her ad­dress, “There is no al­ter­na­tive to hold­ing a free, fair and par­tic­i­pa­tory elec­tion for restor­ing peace, sta­bil­ity and nor­malcy in the coun­try.” She again urged the govern­ment to hold di­a­logue to this end, re­lease the lead­ers and work­ers ar­rested be­fore or dur­ing the elec­tion pe­riod and lift the ban on “peace­ful po­lit­i­cal pro­grams”.

How­ever, this rec­on­cil­ia­tory at­mos­phere was short-lived as Sheikh Hasina chose to take oath as the prime min­is­ter for a third term in­stead of opt­ing for an elec­tion re-run. But it seems dif­fi­cult for the new govern­ment to con­tinue for long be­cause Hasina may not be able to with­stand the pres­sure by lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional forces. Khaleda Zia has al­ready an­nounced re­sump­tion of block­ade of roads, rail and wa­ter­ways. Ir­re­spec­tive of the fu­ture se­quence of events, the next cou­ple of weeks prom­ise some in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ments on Bangladesh’s po­lit­i­cal front.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.