The Battle Continues
In their hunger for power, both the battling begums of Bangladesh – Hasina Wazed and Khaleda Zia – continue to peck and bite at each other. Since Hasina and her AL party is in power, they have a distinct advantage but it seems Khaleda Zia and her BNP will
The long-standing political deadlock that followed the 2014 national vote has often threatened to derail democracy in Bangladesh. In what is effectively a bipolar political system, its two main actors — the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party ( BNP) — continue to trade barbs over the legitimacy of that election, one the BNP and its allies boycotted for fear of mass rigging. A heavy-handed crackdown on opponents launched by the AL government recently has only inflamed tensions. Towering above the charged rhetoric, however, are Bangladesh’s “battling begums” — AL’s incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and opposition lynchpin Khaleda Zia of the BNP, herself a former premier — whose personal animus is the driving force behind political instability in the country.
It is against this backdrop that President Abdul Hamid in midDecember began attempts to seek common ground among all stakeholders on revamping the Election Commission of Bangladesh. This is currently a hot-button issue as the country gears up for new national polls in late 2018. More significantly, some commentators believe the presidential invitation for multiparty consultations is an olive branch of sorts held out to the BNP. Since the united opposition led by Zia has routinely questioned the impartiality of the current election commission, panning it as a political instrument of Hasina’s government to retain power.
Officially at least, Hamid’s initiative that began with a communique from the office of the president at Bangabhaban on December 13, was
spurred by the impending retirement of Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad in February. The mandate of the current election commission will expire with his exit. A total of 23 parties representing the majority of Bangladesh’s political persuasions and ethno-racial denominations were invited to the talks. That said, the million dollar question was how Zia would respond to this offer since Hasina is desperate to have the BNP compete in 2018 to banish all accusations of dictatorship currently levied against her.
The initial vibe from the BNP camp after Zia and 10 senior party leaders met Hamid at Bangabhaban on December 18 was auspicious. One BNP leader quoted by local media termed the meeting “successful.” The delegation presented to Hamid a list of key demands for the BNP to unequivocally stand behind the president’s initiative. Salient among them was all “search committee” members tasked with selecting new commissioners be nonpartisan, acceptable to all parties and at least two must be former Supreme Court judges. Afterwards, both the president and BNP appeared optimistic about the future. Party Secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir later told reporters, “The president is sincere about the proposal,” and hoped an umbrella approach to overhauling the commission would “help end the political stalemate.”
Hasina, meanwhile, gave no sign of adopting a more conciliatory tone as she celebrated her party candidate trouncing the BNP twice in as many elections for the mayorship of Narayanganj. On December 23, she thanked the voters of the city corporation for giving “a befitting reply” to opposition allegations that free and fair polls were impossible under AL rule. The BNP had earlier expressed its satisfaction with the polling arrangements, although it cast doubts on the result. Hasina subtly changed tack after discussing election commission reforms with the president on January 11, promising her full cooperation.
Her televised speech the next day marking the third anniversary of AL’s electoral win in 2014 substituted provocation for pleas of political unity. After spending a fair while itemizing the various achievements of her government, Hasina referenced the president’s initiative and hoped “all the political parties will have confidence in it” and “take part in the next election as per the constitution.” The BNP nevertheless was not impressed by another piecemeal attempt at ameliorating the tense political climate. Fakhrul Islam slammed Hasina’s speech for its selfserving copy, claiming many details of national development were “wrong, false and baseless.” Moreover, that her speech offered no hint of political compromise was deeply disappointing, he added.
There is also a question mark over how much leeway the president really has in enacting election commission reforms. Since besides asking the majority leader in parliament to form a new government or appointing the chief justice, Hamid’s powers as head of state are largely ceremonial even as proponents of the initiative contend his office represents the “weight of the flag.” Thus Hasina is likely pulling the strings behind the scenes and the extent of concessions available to the BNP rests on her whims. In this regard, she has great leverage since the Bangladeshi constitution, barring an open-ended reference in Article 118(1), is largely mum on the mechanism of setting up election commissions. Moreover, no government to-date has tackled such lawmaking, possibly to keep creating partisan commissions that can tilt national polls the ruling party’s way.
The second looming question is why the BNP out of the blue agreed to play ball with Hasina over the reforms? Since clearly there is no love lost between her and Zia as they breathe fire the other’s way on a regular basis. Political pragmatism may have shaped this unforeseen development. For with every successive election in Bangladesh, the toll of defeat for the loser grows exponentially. Besides conceding privileges, power and business deals, opposition leaders can lose their very freedoms as Hasina demonstrated this term by jailing a string of BNP officeholders and drowning them in criminal litigation. Mirza Fakhrul himself faces over 70 cases filed and pending for prosecution. In such a toxic environment, Zia’s acquiescence may signal BNP’s last gasp attempt at achieving parity in the 2018 national poll.
Although the Hasina-Zia rivalry stretches back decades as both have taken turns ruling Bangladesh for over 23 years, their present impasse and its inertia can be traced to relatively recent events. In 2014, the BNP boycotted national polls that allowed AL to retain power relatively unopposed. A violent wave of opposition-backed protests and blockades soon followed that resulted in hundreds losing their lives. Zia had then refused to participate in polls without a neutral caretaker government since she feared the AL could easily manipulate their outcome. Caretaker setups had traditionally overseen elections in Bangladesh since 1991 until 2010, when Hasina used her twothirds majority in parliament to shelve the system. The BNP marks January 5, the day Hasina won reelection in 2014, as “Democracy Killing Day.”
That jihadist-inspired terrorism has erupted in historically secular Bangladesh in recent years is also blamed partly on Hasina’s relentless hounding of leaders from the BNP and its steadfast ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami. She insists the two opposition spearheads are hand in glove with terrorist outfits like Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and even the Islamic State, but some prominent international observers disagree. William B. Milam, a former US ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan, labels the uptick in militancy “less a terrorism issue than a governance issue,” holding the AL’s “onslaught against its political opponents” responsible for having “unleashed extremists in Bangladesh.”
Can new hopes of cooperation between Hasina and Zia transcend their deep-rooted distrust of each other? Ironically, given their fractious personal history, the cold logic of realpolitik may contour future events. Both have reasons, albeit divergent, to want the president’s election commission reform plan to succeed. For now, that is a great place to start. The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist.