A coalition of opposition parties in Bangladesh have explicitly rejected the ruling Awami League’s call for parliamentary elections. In response to the declaration of the poll date of Jan. 5 by chief election commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, opposition groups led by the Bangladesh National Party called for a 48-hour blockade of roads, railways and waterways beginning Tuesday. Protest demonstrations have already erupted in the capital city of Dhaka and elsewhere.
Reuters reported that at least 100 cars were set on fire and anti-government activists attacked a police station in the northeastern Habiganj district. A member of the BNP’s student wing was reportedly killed in a bomb blast in the town of Comilla. In addition, at least 30 people have died and hundreds have been wounded in poll-related violence over the past two weeks, while at least one BNP official has been arrested.
Opposition leaders are demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League resign and form an impartial caretaker government to oversee the election. Hasina rejected that demand – although she recently formed a multi-party coalition administration (composed mostly of her allies) as a caretaker, and even offered her chief rival, the BNP leader and former Premier Khaleda Zia, any job she wanted in that government. But Zia refused that post as a token gesture, thereby creating a stalemate that threatens to lead to serious bloodshed -- as before almost every other prior election in the country. (BNP and Awami have essentially alternated ruling Bangladesh for the past 25 years).
The BNP is also unmoved by Ahmad’s assurances that his agency would guarantee a peaceful, transparent and fair electoral process. "I've asked all political parties to uphold the will of the people, maintain peace and compromise,” Ahmad stated. "Army troops will be deployed to assist the law enforcement agencies so people can vote freely.” Reuters reported that the Border Guard, a paramilitary force, is already camped out in Dhaka to prevent further acts of disorder as the disputed election quickly approaches.
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, a BNP spokesman and acting secretary general, condemned the election as a “farce” and demanded it be delayed until Zia and Hasina can arrive at an agreement to form a neutral caretaker interim government without Hasina’s influence and presence. “We reject the election schedule. We ask the election commission to suspend the date until a political consensus on election-time government is reached. We won't take part in any farce in the name of elections,” Alamgir told reporters. The BNP fears that Awami will rig the elections in its favor, using the caretaker arrangement as a kind of springboard to retaining power. (Reuters reported that BNP leads Awami in opinion polls by as much as 11 percentage points, citing the Australian-based pollster AC Nielsen and U.S.-based consultancy Democracy International).
Ahmad of the electoral commission, an independent statutory body, said the election cannot be delayed beyond the early January date. "We repeatedly urged the major parties to reach a consensus to fulfil the nation's expectations. We still hope they will not ignore the expectations," he said, according to Outlook India.
The Indian High Commissioner Pankaj Saran declared his hopes for a peaceful election in Bangladesh and the preservation if its democratic institutions. "As a neighbor and well-wisher, we hope that in the coming weeks and in the run-up to the election, the democratic institutions and process will be strengthened," Saran told reporters after he made a courtesy call on Abul Hasan Mahamood Ali, the new foreign minister of the interim Bangladeshi government. Similarly, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, urged Awami and BNP to reach an agreement on the caretaker arrangement, as have U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon. "The process of the election schedule makes the dialogue more urgent between the two political camps," Mozena said.
2013 has been an unusually turbulent year for overpopulated, impoverished Bangladesh – not only did the country witness the spectacular trials, prosecution and convictions of several Islamists on charges of war crimes related to the independence of the county from Pakistan in 1971, but also lived through the collapse of a number of buildings housing underpaid textile and garment workers, which led to hundreds of deaths and demands for reforms from both the Dhaka government and Western retailers who exploit cheap Bangladeshi labor.
Ali Riaz, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, believes Bangladesh is facing an extremely crucial election and perhaps a turning point. In testimony before the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Riaz warned, “The human cost of the violence is rising rapidly. With time about to run out, there is very little prospect of any compromise. That means that an inclusive and timely election in Bangladesh looks increasingly unlikely.”
But Bangladesh, despite its poverty and seemingly endless political chaos, is increasingly important to the world economy. Indeed, as the World Bank has cited, Bangladesh is one of only 18 developing nations that has delivered an annual growth rate that has never fallen below 2 percent. Over the past decade, despite the debilitating effects of a global economic slowdown, Bangladesh has actually averaged above 6 percent annual GDP growth. Meanwhile, the country’s poverty rate has been cut by more than half from an estimated 70 percent in 1971 to 31.5 percent in 2010 (quite extraordinary given the country’s rapid population growth and the headwinds of poor governance and political instability).
As such, Riaz holds on to some optimism. “The present political crisis in Bangladesh can be turned into an opportunity to build a stable, democratic, prosperous country,” he told the committee. “It is time for the Bangladeshi political leaders to take the right decisions – to hold an inclusive election, agree on post-election … behavior, rein in extremism, commit to address the issues of war crimes judiciously and commit to regional peace.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.