Dangerous drift

Bangladesh is facing troubled and chaotic times before its impending general elections.

The elections have been scheduled for January  5, as announced by the Election Commission, but the pre-poll scenario is uncertain with the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khaleda Zia, and its allies threatening to boycott them. The opposition demand is that the elections should be held under a neutral care-taker government but prime minister Sheikh Hasina, who leads the ruling Awami League, has rejected the demand. There are parties allied with the Awami League also. Hasina has formed an interim government but without representation from the opposition. While only a few weeks are left for the scheduled elections, it is not clear how the present deadlock can be resolved. According to the Constitution, elections have to be held before January 24.

The prime minister’s position is that there is no constitutional need for a caretaker government. The provision for such a government,  which had existed since mid-1990s, was abolished in 2011 but the opposition had boycotted the vote in parliament for that. Sheikh Hasina has a point when she says that the caretaker government experiment was not good. A military-backed technocrats’ government which was formed in 2006 to hold elections in three months actually delayed them by two years. But the opposition suspects that the all-party government will rig the elections in favour of the ruling alliance. The Awami League government’s popularity is considered to have fallen recently.

The country has also seen crippling strikes for days together, sponsored by the opposition, on the issue of elections and the punishments meted out by war crimes tribunals to those who supported the Pakistani army during the 1971 independence struggle. There has been extensive violence and hundreds of people have lost their lives. The Jamaat-e-Islami which represents the Islamic fundamentalist section of society has been banned. Since both sides are sticking to their positions it is difficult to see how elections can be held on schedule.

An election boycotted by the opposition will have no credibility and legitimacy. It will only hurt the cause of democracy which has only recently gained strength in Bangladesh. The inability of politicians to resolve the problem will strengthen religious extremists and other anti-democracy forces. Continuing and unrelenting political confrontation will hurt the country in other ways too. Both the ruling and opposition parties should realise this.

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