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

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. Mubashir Noor

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.

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