Face Off

The Be­gums of Bangladesh con­tinue to be at log­ger­heads with each other one year af­ter the con­tro­ver­sial 2014 elec­tion, re­fus­ing to cede con­ces­sions to the other even in the in­ter­est of peace and se­cu­rity of the coun­try.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Ta­hera Sa­jid

The Be­gums of Bangladesh have noth­ing in com­mon with each other ex­cept their fam­ily name, Rah­man. As cur­rent lead­ers of the two main po­lit­i­cal dy­nas­ties, both Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have taken turns at of­fice for most of the coun­try’s ex­is­tence, keep­ing the other on a tight rein and oc­ca­sion­ally even throw­ing the coun­try into tur­moil in pur­suit of their per­sonal agen­das. To un­der­stand the rea­sons of the cur­rent strife, a lit­tle back­ground would be help­ful.

Cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina is the daugh­ter of the founder of Awami League (AL), Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man. She has headed the AL since 1981 and her party has been in power since 2009. Two-time Prime Min­is­ter and cur­rent op­po­si­tion leader, Khaleda Zia, has led the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party (BNP) since 1983, and she is the widow of Gen­eral Zia-ur-Rah­man. Both women have had sev­eral stints in power over the years, fraught with in­sta­bil­ity due to their bit­ter ri­valry. In 2007, the mil­i­tary jailed them on charges of cor­rup­tion and made some con­certed ef­forts to open up the po­lit­i­cal arena to other play­ers but did not suc­ceed in weak­en­ing their hold.

Both par­ties have very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal agen­das for con­sump­tion of the public. The AL seeks a plat­form on the ba­sis of the Ben­gali lan­guage and cul­ture; the BNP re­lies on uni­fy­ing its vote bank on na­tion­al­ist Bangladeshi sen­ti­ment with al­liances with the re­li­gious par­ties, chiefly, Ja­maat-e-Is­lami (JeI). Me­dia re­ports of­ten cite the lead­ers’ au­to­cratic style of gov­er­nance

and pur­suit of pol­i­tics of re­venge as they trade turns in of­fice, fan­ning civil un­rest to desta­bi­lize the other’s gov­ern­ment, jail­ing op­po­si­tion lead­ers by lodg­ing false cases against them, and ren­der­ing in­sti­tu­tions like ju­di­ciary and se­cu­rity weak and in­ef­fec­tive with nepo­tism. Ow­ing greatly to their mis­guided poli­cies, Bangladesh cur­rently stands at a rank­ing of 145/177 coun­tries in Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tions In­dex of 2014.

Both, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia at­tribute the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cri­sis to each other’s stub­born­ness and lack of po­lit­i­cal fore­sight. The ini­tial stir­rings of the present con­flict likely hap­pened in 2009 when the AL sought to make an amend­ment in the con­sti­tu­tion to undo the care-taker sys­tem in­tro­duced in 1996. Un­der this sys­tem, a neu­tral, im­par­tial in­terim gov­ern­ment over­sees elec­tions to en­sure their cred­i­bil­ity. Given their his­tory, and dis­trust of each other to hold free and fair elec­tions, the care­taker sys­tem has pro­vided a work­able so­lu­tion. As the amend­ment passed in 2011, the BNP launched mas­sive coun­try­wide protests which re­sulted in loss to life and prop­erty in stag­ger­ing num­bers, but the AL gov­ern­ment re­fused to change its stance. Ad­di­tion­ally, the rul­ing AL be­gan war crime tri­als of the lead­ers of re­li­gious par­ties aligned with BNP in 2010, which the New York-based Hu­man Rights Watch termed legal­lyflawed and the BNP in­sisted were po­lit­i­cally-mo­ti­vated per­se­cu­tion of its al­lies.

Con­cerned by the grow­ing in­sta­bil­ity, for­eign diplo­mats, in­clud­ing UN of­fi­cials, and some na­tional level lead­ers tried me­di­a­tion ef­forts be­tween the two, al­beit un­suc­cess­fully. Both the US and the EU re­fused to send their elec­tion ob­servers to the con­tro­ver­sial elec­tion and the BNP an­nounced a boy­cott. Com­pared to al­most 80% voter turnout at the 2009 elec­tion, only 40% vote was cast in the Jan­uary’14 elec­tion (Bangladesh Elec­tion Com­mis­sion) ow­ing to the boy­cott and elec­tionday vi­o­lence, with only 147/300 seats to be con­tested. The rul­ing AL won 105 of those 147 seats, while fill­ing 127/153 seats un­con­tested; win­ning a stag­ger­ing to­tal of 232/300 seats in all (Har­vard In­ter­na­tional Re­view). Not only was the elec­tion deemed ‘il­le­gal’ by the BNP, most of whose lead­er­ship was in jail or un­der house ar­rest at the time, but the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity also showed strong reser­va­tions about the whole process.

The US State Depart­ment is­sued a state­ment on Jan­uary 6, stat­ing that “…the United States is dis­ap­pointed by the re­cent Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in Bangladesh. With more than half of the seats un­con­tested and most of the re­main­der of­fer­ing only to­ken op­po­si­tion, the re­sults of the just-con­cluded elec­tions do not ap­pear to cred­i­bly ex­press the will of the Bangladeshi peo­ple…” , and en­cour­aged “...im­me­di­ate dia­logue to find a way to hold as soon as pos­si­ble elec­tions that are free, fair, peace­ful and cred­i­ble, re­flect­ing the will of the Bangladeshi peo­ple.”

The Euro­pean Par­lia­ment also adopted a Res­o­lu­tion on Jan­uary 14, 2014 to record its con­cern: “2013 has re­port­edly been the most vi­o­lent year in post-in­de­pen­dence Bangladesh’s his­tory, and the pre-elec­tion and elec­tion phases in par­tic­u­lar have been marked by wide­spread vi­o­lence, with block­ades, strikes and voter in­tim­i­da­tion or­ches­trated mainly by the op­po­si­tion and with over 300 peo­ple killed since the be­gin­ning of 2013, in­clud­ing at least 18 on elec­tion day, with Bangladesh’s frag­ile econ­omy be­ing par­a­lyzed as a re­sult.”

The year that fol­lowed was filled with sim­i­lar pe­ri­ods of po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence, and the first an­niver­sary of the 2014 elec­tion brought re­newed calls for a na­tion­wide tran­sit strike and anti-gov­ern­ment ral­lies by the BNP, re­it­er­at­ing de­mands for ‘ snap polls’ un­der a care­taker gov­ern­ment. The AL’s ban on public demon­stra­tions did not de­ter BNP from suc­cess­fully en­forc­ing shut­downs on work­ing days, in­cur­ring huge losses to the econ­omy. The AL is un­com­fort­able with BNP’s mas­sive street power and fund­ing that is al­legedly at­trib­uted to its close al­liance with the JeI. Wary of the per­ceived at­tached rad­i­cal el­e­ment, Sheikh Hasina has made the sev­er­ing of ties with JeI and other re­li­gious par­ties a pre-req­ui­site for talks with Khaleda Zia, a de­mand the BNP has re­fused. Nei­ther side ap­pears to want to show any flex­i­bil­ity to­wards the other.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has re­peat­edly called on all par­ties to work to­gether to dif­fuse the ten­sion. On Jan­uary 16, Rav­ina Sham­dasani, a spokesper­son for the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights (OHCHR), urged re­straint: “We urge all po­lit­i­cal par­ties to show re­straint and to bring an im­me­di­ate end to the vi­o­lence. We also call on the au­thor­i­ties to en­sure the prompt, im­par­tial and ef­fec­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion of all killings com­mit­ted – ir­re­spec­tive of whether they were com­mit­ted by State or non-State ac­tors.” The Euro­pean par­lia­ment del­e­ga­tion also paid a four-day visit to Bangladesh last month, led by Cris­tian Dan Preda, vice chair­per­son of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment’s sub­com­mit­tee on Hu­man Rights, was quoted say­ing: “We’re here be­cause we’re very con­cerned about hu­man rights sit­u­a­tion”.

Although the plight of the com­mon man through this tur­moil should be enough to guide the ac­tions of their lead­ers, per­haps a look at fi­nan­cial considerations would help the Be­gums get their pri­or­i­ties in or­der. An un­sta­ble coun­try is not an at­trac­tive op­tion for for­eign in­vest­ment, not to men­tion how one un­sta­ble coun­try has the po­ten­tial to desta­bi­lize the whole re­gion – es­pe­cially one al­ready as volatile as South Asia.

In con­clu­sion, this po­lit­i­cal strife in Bangladesh re­quires a con­certed ef­fort on the part of both lead­ers to show an earnest de­sire for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and bring­ing peace and se­cu­rity in the coun­try. Ris­ing above per­sonal vendet­tas would be a cru­cial first step to­wards any im­prove­ment, be­fore com­pro­mise and strate­gic depth can be­come the main strengths of their po­lit­i­cal strat­egy. A com­pre­hen­sive po­lit­i­cal dia­logue aimed at re­solv­ing all is­sues of dis­con­tent, in­clud­ing the care­taker sys­tem, war crimes tri­bunals and fresh elec­tions is of ut­most ur­gency. Only then can any fu­ture gov­ern­ment fo­cus on build­ing and strength­en­ing in­de­pen­dent state in­sti­tu­tions to im­prove long-term prospects of trans­par­ent and demo­cratic gov­er­nance in Bangladesh. The writer is based in Mas­sachusetts, USA. Her writ­ings and vol­un­teer work fo­cus ex­ten­sively on so­cio-eco­nomic is­sues, in­ter­faith dia­logue and USMus­lim re­la­tions post 9/11.

This po­lit­i­cal strife in Bangladesh re­quires a con­certed ef­fort on the part of both lead­ers.

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