Bangladesh will have a Parliament and a government at the end of the 10th parliament polls — but absolutely no respite from violence and political turmoil.
The Opposition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which not only boycotted the polls but made violent efforts to stop them, has announced a three-day strike to press for cancellation of these polls.
This strike runs alongside the relentless transport blockade that started early December when it became clear Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would go ahead with the polls — and on her terms — despite agreeing to negotiate with the BNP after the United Nations intervened and sent its envoy Oscar Fernandez-Taranco to Dhaka for the second time in a year.
BNP leader Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury told the BBC recently that the political conflict in Bangladesh was “nothing short of a war, in which collateral damage was only to be expected".
So the former diplomat could not be bothered about innocents dying in petrol bomb attacks or rail track sabotage when he wrote them off as “collateral damage".
On the eve of the January 5 polls, another BNP leader, Osman Faruk, threatened Bangladesh with a ‘civil war’ if the polls were held. The ferocity of the violence in the week of the polls, including the day it was held, would leave nobody in doubt that the BNP and especially its Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami would not hesitate to take the country towards ‘civil war’ if they don’t have their way.
On the face of it, the BNP-Jamaat alliance has left the country counting coffins because they would not accept polls unless held under a non-political caretaker dispensation. Since 1996, the caretakers have conducted polls in Bangladesh, ever since the Awami League pushed for them and forced Khaleda Zia’s BNP to step down after holding farcical elections in 1996, in which barely 7% of the electorate voted.
The United States, however, found nothing wrong with that election and, in fact, it sent 48 observers to monitor it. Now in a role-reversal, Sheikh Hasina is accused of holding a ‘one-sided farcical election’ under a multi-party government headed by her that the BNP and its allies refused to join.
The US found the polls ‘not credible enough’ to send observers to monitor them as did the European Union and Commonwealth countries. With the Opposition staying away, 153 of the 300 seats returned winners without a contest and an Awami League sweep was predictable.
The intense violence also impacted on the turnout — much better than 1996 but by no means reflective of an inclusive poll like in December 2008. With their victory assured, even most Awami League supporters except the die-hard decided to stay away from polling amid the cold weather and the violence.
It was the fanatic cadre of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student affiliate Islami Chatra Shibir which mostly launched the brutal attacks on the polling booths and public transport to keep voters away. Scores of them were shot down by the police but in their strongholds like Nilphamari, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Chittagong and Jessore, they kept attacking the security forces.
The Jamaat has nothing to lose. It cannot contest polls because it has been de-registered and almost its entire senior leadership is headed for the gallows in the war crimes trials.
For the Islamist party that supported Pakistan’s brutal military effort to stifle the Bengali aspirations for freedom, there is no future unless it can oust the Awami League from power, get the war crimes trials stopped by a fraternal government headed by the BNP and terrorise the pro-liberation forces that reared their heads at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square into submission.
The Jamaat is caught in a bind of history — it cannot dump its senior leaders who are tainted by their misdeeds in 1971, so it appears locked in a perpetual conflict with forces who cherish Bangladesh’s independence and its emergence as a secular democracy.
The BNP emerged as a party of and from the cantonment and thrives on the Jamaat’s support to combat the Awami League. Its considerable financial resources, its fanatical, motivated cadre, its small but crucial votebank — all this makes the Jamaat an ally the BNP cannot wish it away, despite its Pakistani association.
The BNP thrives on the usual anti-incumbency that afflicts the Awami League because of Sheikh Hasina’s failure to curb corruption, nepotism, inner-party factionalism and performance.
The party is held together by the possibility of a return to power that would ensure the spoils of office every five years. So it was crucial for Khaleda Zia to win this election and she was not willing to take a chance.
Though her partymen have won five city corporation polls during the last four years of the Awami League, Khaleda Zia remained less than convinced of a victory in the parliament polls if they were not held under a non-political caretaker.
It has also provided an issue that helped the BNP mobilise its supporters and allies in a relentless movement that would pay dividends at the hustings whenever they agreed to join it. The relentless violence and the administrative paralysis caused by the strikes and blockades would leave the Awami League demoralised.
Having scrapped the caretaker provision through a constitutional amendment, it was impossible for Sheikh Hasina to bring it back. Conceding something like that would demoralise her party and a defeat would be conceded even before the polls. The military-backed caretaker overstepped its brief in 2006-08.
Instead of holding the polls in three months, it hung on to power for two years trying to ‘cleanse’ Bangladesh’s politics. So when the court ruled that the caretaker system was incompatible with Bangladesh’s constitution, Hasina lost no time in using her huge majority to scrap it.
Now it appears to be a point of no return for both camps. The pro-liberation forces, including the Awami League, believe all their gains over the last five years including the war crimes trials would be lost with a change of regime.
The BNP-Jamaat camp feels unless the Awami League government is brought down, Bangladesh will become a one-party secular State where political Islam will have no role to play.
So, the violent Opposition agitation will continue and the Awami League, challenged for legitimacy after its victory in a one-sided election, will only get harsher in trying to curb it. The citizenry is caught in a crossfire that will adversely impact the economy and much else it has achieved by 40 years of hard work.
Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist and author
The views expressed by the author are personal