Published: Friday, March 29, 2013

COVER STORY

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Will the next parliamentary election be held on time? Perhaps, this is the biggest question that has been thrown at the ordinary people of the country. And it is difficult, impossible almost, to give a certain answer to the question right now. If anybody attempts to answer this question s/he must use some ifs and buts and mention the role of some other "non-political players." It clearly indicates that the sky is clouded with the growing possibility of the country being hit by a political Tsunami again.

A train is set on fire by Jamaat activists during a hartal in early March.  Photo: Star File

A train is set on fire by Jamaat activists during a hartal in early March. Photo: Star File

How have we landed in such an imbroglio? There is a vacuum in the legal system centring the next general election, and according to the Constitution, the 10th parliamentary election is supposed to be held anytime in between October 27 to January 24 next year. It means that we have only six full months ahead of the battle of the ballots. And after six months, the Election Commission will ring the bell by officially kicking off the process of holding the polls through which people will determine the fate of the political parties and the politicians. The five-year-long wait for the opposition parties to go to power by obtaining people’s verdict is now close to an end.

Streets of fire. Photo: Anurup Kanti Das

Streets of fire. Photo: Anurup Kanti Das

Therefore, major political parties like the ruling Awami League and BNP are supposed to start their election work, including carrying out a field survey to pick competent candidates, to find out their weaknesses, to assess people’s expectations and to conduct research to prepare an election manifesto to woo the voters.

But what does reality say? Is the country ready for the battle of the next parliamentary election? Or is the country heading towards a grave political crisis centring the election?

For the People?
Instead of taking preparations for the electoral battle, both the ruling Awami League-led alliance and BNP-led opposition parties are taking preparations to face each other in a fatal fight on the streets. The underlying reason for the fight between them is nothing but to grab power. People’s welfare is not that important, rather their lives and properties are going to be put at stake.

How are they taking the preparations to retain power or to return to it?

Begum Khaleda Zia wants to oust the government from power. Photo: Amran Hossain

Begum Khaleda Zia wants to oust the government from power. Photo: Amran Hossain

In a whimsical move, the AL-led government has abolished the caretaker government in June 2011 by amending the constitution, long before the 10th parliamentary election, unsettling the country’s political situation. The cancellation of the election time caretaker government, which was an outcome of violent street agitations by the AL and other opposition parties in 1996, has paved the way for the ruling AL to remain in office during the next parliamentary election. Not only that, the latest constitutional amendment has made it possible for present MPs to remain in office when they will seek re-election in the next polls.

It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that if a partisan government remains in office during the polls it may get some extra mileage by manipulating the polls in its favour. It has happened in the past. People’s perception is very clear about this. Therefore, the ruling AL’s political strategy to remain in office during the upcoming battle of ballots will not work. The sooner it reassesses its strategy, the better for the party.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina - in no mood for compromise. Photo: Star File

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – in no mood for compromise. Photo: Star File

However, there is no sign in the government and the ruling AL to reassess its political strategy. Rather, all signs suggest that the party is gradually engaging themselves in a fight with the BNP-led opposition alliance on the streets in the name of resisting the opposition’s ongoing movement. This strategy to counter the opposition alliance will finally benefit the latter as the situation will become even more volatile. And a volatile political situation always favours the opposition parties, not the government and the ruling party.

The government policymakers and the ruling party leaders have also been making another blunder of mixing up the issue of the trial of war criminals with other political issues. They have been using it as a shield, which is quite dangerous. Holding trial of war criminals is not the AL’s pet project. It is a demand of the people. And unfortunately, the excessive use of the shield has already done much damage to the issue. So, the government policymakers and the ruling AL leaders should immediately reassess this strategy to keep the trial free from further political controversy.

All signs of heightened political violence are there. Photo: Rashed Shumon

All signs of heightened political violence are there. Photo: Rashed Shumon

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Readying themselves for battle. Photo: Star File

The government’s strategy has made it clear to the main opposition BNP that the latter’s demand for reintroduction of the election time non-partisan caretaker government will not be accepted by the government. And if a caretaker government is not installed, the BNP’s chances to win the next parliamentary polls stand very slim. There is no other alternative to the BNP, but to launch a movement for an election time non-partisan government to return to power. Therefore, the BNP in March announced the one-point movement to topple the government as a means to meet its demand.

The one-point movement will not be automatically accepted. For this, the BNP feels it has to stage violent street agitations, something similar to what the AL did in 1996 and at the end of 2006 and in early 2007. Enforcing gentle and peaceful political agitation programmes will not yield the results desired, the party high command might think. So it needs to gear up militant street agitations to make the situation more volatile. And for the violent agitations, BNP needs Jamaat and Shibir who have unleashed mayhem in parts of the country for some days since February 28. So, the BNP has minimised its gap with Jamaat and decided to enforce all agitation programmes jointly under the banner of the 18-party alliance. The political strategy is clear. BNP needs Jamaat to wage vigorous street agitations against the AL-led government while Jamaat needs BNP’s banner to unleash terror to destabilise the situation to foil the trial of war criminals and to get Jamaat’s top leaders freed. Therefore, their goal is the same–ousting the government. And some BNP policymakers have also acknowledged that only the ouster of the government will fulfil all the parties’ demands.

Will the police be able to tackle the violence ahead? Photo: Star File

Will the police be able to tackle the violence ahead? Photo: Star File

The BNP has planned to make the April a turning point for its one-point movement to overthrow the government by enforcing more frequent hartals and road blockade. They even may announce the ‘march towards Dhaka’ programme, urging its leaders and workers to come to the capital and agitate in the city to bring the capital to a standstill. All the opposition’s programmes will be aimed at creating a situation which will make the government unable to function properly. The acute political unrest will benefit the opposition. A number of senior BNP leaders have earlier told this correspondent that they have planned to do what the present AL did in 1996 and at the end of 2006, and also early January 2007 against the then BNP-led government and the Iajuddin Ahmed-led caretaker government. On both occasions, the AL had waged violent street agitations by enforcing dozens of hartals, road blockade and siege, making the then governments unable to keep the situation under control.

Army Saves the Day?
In the third world countries where democracy is fragile, armed forces, particularly the army, play a crucial role in shaping political developments. The political forces also take into consideration the role of the army, the most organised and disciplined force in the country. When the country plunges into a political crisis, the army intervenes to save the day.

But sometimes, politicians also take the strategy to use the army for their political purpose. It is interesting to see how both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her archrival Khaleda Zia have been urging the army to play a ‘role to save the country’s democracy’.

Broken bricks, raging flames and youths with lethal weapons - a common scene in the streets these days.Photo: Star File

Broken bricks, raging flames and youths with lethal weapons – a common scene in the streets these days.Photo: Star File

Addressing the Generals Conference of Bangladesh Army at Dhaka Cantonment on February 3 this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina directed the senior army officials to resist any anti-democratic and anti-constitutional activity for the continuation of the country’s development.

“Stay alert so that no vested quarter can disrupt the country’s forward march riding over the army’s back. I hope you’ll resist any anti-democratic and anti-constitutional activity with your all-out strength,” said, Hasina, who also holds the defence portfolio.

Hasina’s remark was unprecedented. It was also surprising to many, how an elected Prime Minister could speak this way. By making such remarks didn’t she invite the army to play a role in the country’s politics? Her remarks might not have been warmly welcomed by the army which has now become more professional than before. But being a disciplined force, it was not possible for them to express their views. Some former senior army officers however have questioned the necessity of the premier’s remarks.

After more than one and a half months, Hasina’s archrival BNP chief Khaleda Zia has gone one step further. Addressing a roadside party rally at Bogra on March 24, the opposition leader said the army would not play the role of “a silent spectator while people are getting killed” and that it would “play its role in due time”.

She said members of the armed forces would not be picked for peacekeeping missions if there was unrest in Bangladesh. “But if there was no peace in Bangladesh, foreigners would then say that the army is not capable of maintaining peace in other countries.”

Fear and intimidation keep the streets during hartals. Photo: Star File

Fear and intimidation keep the streets during hartals. Photo: Star File

She further said, “The army is a part of our country and therefore it has responsibilities towards it.” Some former senior army officials and eminent citizens have expressed surprise over the BNP chief’s comment and said that the comment was “tantamount to provocation.”

History will Teach us Nothing
The comments made by Hasina and Khaleda have made it clear that both the leaders want to see some role of army in “protecting democracy”. Their remarks have also fuelled public speculation over a probable role of the army in tackling the current political unrest. Will the army play a role like the way it did in 2007? The way the political situation is developing, diminishing the prospect of any amicable solution before the upcoming parliamentary polls, it may soon reach a dead end. If it happens, where will it lead us?

Professor Nurul Islam, a leading development economist and former teacher of the Dhaka University, in his article titled “Reflections on Democracy and Development in Bangladesh,” explains why the possibility of army takeover is very slim.

Prof Nurul Islam, who is the founding director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, writes, “It is frequently suggested that risks of political intervention by the army in Bangladesh have declined due to several factors: (1) there has been a significant change in the international climate, in the aftermath of the Cold War, against the political role of the army and in favour of political freedom and democracy; (2) for a heavily aid-dependent country like Bangladesh, the likelihood of an adverse external reaction to any military takeover serves as a restraining factor; (3) years of experience have convinced the army that to solve the development problems of Bangladesh is a very heavy responsibility that is difficult to fulfil; (4) it is far better to enjoy all the comfort and financial privileges far above the civilian level without any responsibility of running the country; and (5) the participation in the recent UN peace keeping missions has given it an additional resource and a measure of prestige and status at home and abroad.”

Prof Islam’s analysis proved right in January 2007 when the army did not take over amid a grave political turmoil, rather they installed a caretaker government led by Fakhruddin Ahmed. General Moyeen U Ahmed, who was army chief during the crisis, has also echoed Prof Islam’s views. General Moyeen in his book titled: “In dream for peace: Reminisces of Age” has described the army’s thoughts during the critical times on the eve of the declaration of the state of emergency on January 11, 2007. The former general writes about some alternatives the army was considering at that time.

According to General Moyeen’s accounts, the army found three ways through a meeting with the then President and Chief Adviser to the caretaker government, Iajuddin Ahmed. One was to hold the parliamentary election [which was scheduled on January 22, 2007], although the election would inevitably be questioned as all the parties would not participate in it. In that case, the country would have to go through an unimaginable conflict. The army would be put against the people if it followed the state’s order to hold the election. There was the risk of sending back the Bangladesh army from the UN peace keeping mission for assisting a non-credible election.

Refusal to meet each other halfway has resulted in a total deadlock. Photo: Star File

Refusal to meet each other halfway has resulted in a total deadlock. Photo: Star File

The second option was declaring martial law and holding an election at a convenient time. But the army too was against the enforcement of martial law as it does not have any acceptability in the world. Besides, the country would be regressing as a consequence of martial law. The last option was to declare a state of emergency under the constitution to restore democracy by holding parliamentary elections as soon as possible subject to the improvement of the law and order situation. “Considering all aspects, [we] submitted arguments for declaration of the state of emergency,” General Moyeen writes.

And finally the then President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency on January 11, 2007. It was a solution to the political crisis that plagued the nation around seven years ago.

So, what will happen this time? Will the AL-led government go for holding a one-sided election the way the past BNP-led government did on February 15, 1996? But holding stage managed polls may spark more street violence as the BNP-led opposition alliance will in no way allow the government to do this so easily. They will deploy their army of workers to resist the polls, carrying out violent street agitations. If more street violence erupts, will the country witness a repetition of the political impasse that took place in January 2007? Upon the advice of the BNP, the Iajuddin-led caretaker government moved to hold one-sided elections, but it could not succeed in the face of violent street agitations by AL-led opposition parties. Finally the declaration of the state of emergency on January 11, 2007 had saved the country from sliding into further chaos.

Given the prevailing political situation, it can be said with certainty that if things spiral out of control, a big political crisis awaits the country.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.