Merry Go around

The politi­cian be­gums of Bangladesh could do well to end their tus­sle.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. Mubashir Noor The writer is a free­lance colum­nist and au­dio engi­neer based in Pak­istan.

Pol­i­tics in Bangladesh is not for the faint-hearted. Death is a com­mon oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard and “har­tals” (strikes) an ev­ery­day pos­si­bil­ity. As a long-stand­ing po­lit­i­cal “ma­tri­archy,” Bangladesh is unique among mod­ern democ­ra­cies. In­deed, many times in its short na­tional history, the sim­ple con­test for public votes has mor­phed into a glad­i­a­to­rial show­down. Since 1991, the two bat­tle-maid­ens: Sheikh Hasina Wa­jid of the Awami League (A.L.), and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party (B.N.P.) have du­eled end­lessly for the premier­ship.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are the two con­stants of Bangladeshi democ­racy. Bar­ring a two year mil­i­tary in­ter­lude in 2007, both have taken turns at the top for two terms each. They have deep roots in the bu­reau­cracy and ju­di­ciary, and coun­ter­bal­ance each other’s po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions. In a win­ner-takes-all elec­toral sys­tem, this ri­valry has let the econ­omy tick with­out tur­bu­lence and pre­vented self-serv­ing leg­is­la­tion from go­ing un­ques­tioned. The “bat­tling be­gums,” as they are mock­ingly known, em­brace op­po­site ide­olo­gies. Hasina is staunchly sec­u­lar and left-lean­ing, while Zia courts the coun­try’s Is­lamists to wield power.

The latest round of ri­ots started on Jan­uary 5, 2015, when the B.N.P. an­nounced a na­tional trans­porta­tion block­ade mark­ing “Mur­der of Democ­racy Day.” Ex­actly a year ago, the A.L. had swept the na­tional polls boy­cotted by the B.N.P. -led op­po­si­tion amid low voter turnout. Tarique Rah­man, the B.N.P.’s vice-chair­man and Khaleda Zia’s son, said then that the boy­cott was “not for per­sonal in­ter­est but for the sake of the coun­try's ex­is­tence." In June 2011, Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina abol­ished the care­taker sys­tem of gov­ern­ment by amend­ing the con­sti­tu­tion. The B.N.P. ac­cused her of schem­ing to keep power in a "one-party elec­tion" by forc­ing the op­po­si­tion’s hand.

To­date, 120 peo­ple have died in the en­su­ing vi­o­lence; the World Bank puts the ma­te­rial cost at $2.2 bil­lion. Most of the fa­tal­i­ties hap­pened when ri­ot­ers petrol-bombed in­no­cent by­standers and set fires to public trans­port. The B.N.P in­sists that new elec­tions be held soon un­der a care­taker gov­ern­ment. Af­ter her re­cent elec­toral walkover, how­ever, Sheikh Hasina is un­will­ing to play ball. The Ja­maat-e-Is­laami (J.I.) is also look­ing for pay­back against her. In 2013, the party was banned from con­test­ing polls for pa­tron­iz­ing ter­ror­ism and its se­nior lead­ers are now be­ing queued up for the gal­lows.

This face-off es­ca­lated on April 28 when the B.N.P. pulled out of ma­jor may­oral races, cit­ing mass rig­ging. Its spokesper­son, Moudud Ahmed, de­clared “There were rig­gings in 98 per cent of the vot­ing booths." Even the U.S chimed in, say­ing it was “dis­ap­pointed by wide­spread, first­hand, and cred­i­ble re­ports of vote-rig­ging.” Ear­lier that month, a mob had at­tacked Khaleda Zia in Dhaka and shot at her car as it sped away. The B.N.P. ac­cused Sheikh Hasina of com­plic­ity, but she fired back “Stop your drama and let the peo­ple live in peace.” Things got worse when the B.N.P. called for yet another strike on April 22 to protest the in­ci­dent.

The back-story of the “bat­tling

be­gums” is one mired in per­sonal loss and the cru­sade to right old wrongs. Their mu­tual hos­til­ity dates back to 1975, when Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man, fa­ther to both Hasina and Bangladesh, was as­sas­si­nated in a mil­i­tary coup. She has al­ways be­lieved that Khaleda Zia’s spouse, Gen. Zia-ur-Rah­man, who came to power af­ter­wards was the one re­spon­si­ble. In 1987, at a Na­tional Demo­cratic In­sti­tute din­ner in the U.S. at­tended by both women, Hasina point­edly in­tro­duced her­self as “I am Sheikh Hasina. The woman on your left, her hus­band as­sas­si­nated my fa­ther.”

Sheikh Hasina has not taken the B.N.P. -spon­sored may­hem ly­ing down. When the protests be­gan in Jan­uary, she quickly sus­pended in­ter­city trans­porta­tion, banned all public gath­er­ings, and cel­e­brated Jan­uary 5 as “Con­sti­tu­tion and Democ­racy Pro­tec­tion Day.” She also or­dered the ar­rests of key op­po­si­tion fig­ures un­der the coun­try’s anti-ter­ror­ism laws, and the B.N.P. head­quar­ters were pad­locked. Mean­while, Khaleda Zia was put un­der house ar­rest for 17 days to pre­vent in­cite­ment. Mah­fuz Anam, the Daily Star editor, con­demned Hasina’s heavy-handed ways, say­ing they made “a mock­ery of our claim to be a demo­cratic coun­try.” In Fe­bru­ary 2015, ar­rest war­rants were is­sued for Zia on cor­rup­tion charges, who de­cried them as po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

The West has thus far mum­bled muted con­dem­na­tions due to Sheikh Hasina’s master­fully played “free­dom” card. By po­si­tion­ing her­self as a bul­wark against Is­lamic ex­trem­ism, Hasina has also gained strength at home. The ur­ban, so­cial-media savvy youth that started the “Shah­bag” move­ment ap­plaud her crack­down on the Ja­maat-e-Is­laami, who they call a “ter­ror­ist group.” Bangladesh’s In­ter­na­tional Crimes Tri­bunal (ICT) has al­ready hanged its se­nior lead­ers Ab­dul Quader Mol­lah and Muham­mad Ka­maruz­za­man. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court also re­stored “sec­u­lar­ism” as a ba­sic tenet of the con­sti­tu­tion. Fur­ther­more, in May 2015, the In­dian Lok Sabha val­i­dated the 1974 Indo-Bangla deal, mean­ing Bangladesh will re­claim 10,000 acres of dis­puted ter­ri­tory on Hasina’s watch.

The sup­port­ing cast of the Hasina-Zia show has moved ac­cord­ing to its own in­ter­ests. The Bangladesh mil­i­tary, master of many a coup since the coun­try’s in­de­pen­dence, has shown no in­cli­na­tion to in­ter­vene as it did in 2007. Sheikh Hasina has clev­erly curbed its en­thu­si­asm by pro­vid­ing the army a greater role in the econ­omy and lob­by­ing for its lu­cra­tive UN peace­keep­ing role. The gen­er­als don’t want to play “bad cop” any­more ei­ther, es­pe­cially af­ter the public re­la­tions fall­out from their last stint in of­fice. They even foiled a coup at­tempt in 2012 by of­fi­cers hold­ing "ex­treme re­li­gious views."

In­dia likes Sheikh Hasina be­cause she es­pouses a sim­i­lar sec­u­lar phi­los­o­phy and is tra­di­tion­ally Delhi-- friendly. Un­like Khaleda Zia, she ap­peals to Bangladesh’s mi­nori­ties, who are mostly Hin­dus. With its own Is­lamist con­cerns, In­dia is happy see­ing Hasina tackle the Ja­maat-e-Is­laami and its satel­lite groups, thereby di­min­ish­ing their ca­pac­ity to breed across borders. Her son, and the A.L heir, Sa­jeeb Wazed is In­dia-ed­u­cated and Delhi won’t mind the po­lit­i­cal era­sure of Zia, if it leaves Bangladesh with pro-In­dia prime min­is­ters in the long term.

That said, re­cent state­ments from the B.N.P. lead­er­ship im­ply that this con­fronta­tion will not ta­per off tamely. In an April ed­i­to­rial for Al-Jazeera, Tarique Rah­man wrote: “What we need now is for our friends in the West to in­sist on a di­a­logue that can re­turn the coun­try to a truly le­git­i­mate demo­cratic gov­ern­ment and bring fresh elec­tions that have the con­fi­dence of the whole coun­try.” Even if a di­a­logue be­tween Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia is the first step, this cri­sis can only be re­solved through an in­clu­sive mid-term elec­tion man­aged by a non­par­ti­san ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the B.N.P de­mands that the con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sion for care­taker gov­ern­ments be re­in­stated, while the A.L. in­sists that the B.N.P. sever its po­lit­i­cal part­ner­ship with the Ja­maat-e-Is­laami. If bi­lat­eral talks fail, the U.S. can flex its eco­nomic mus­cle and in­cen­tivize Sheikh Hasina to bring back po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. Amer­ica is Bangladesh’s big­gest ex­port mar­ket and Pres­i­dent Obama can prom­ise more in­vest­ment should Hasina proac­tively defuse the sit­u­a­tion. That said, con­sid­er­ing the deeply en­trenched na­ture of the Hasina-Zia ri­valry, things will likely get worse be­fore they get any bet­ter.

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