The escalating violence in Bangladesh is disturbing. Reports speak of at least one demonstrator killed when a police van ran him over in Dhaka on Monday, and riot police firing rubber bullets and tear gas to break up thousands of stone-throwing protestors demanding electoral reform. The 14-party political alliance launched the indefinite strike that has crippled public transportation across the country in order to seek the resignation of election officials. The Awami League-led opposition group has been agitating for a neutral caretaker government to replace former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s four-party coalition and for changes in administration. For a brief while, it did look as if the controversy would end when President Iajuddin Ahmed took upon himself the role of chief advisor to the caretaker government. But the move seems to have worsened the situation and thrown the country into even more turmoil.
The opposition allegation of a government conspiracy to thwart the prospect of free and fair elections seems credible. Of course, it was the Khaleda government’s prerogative to find an alternative before handing over power to the caretaker government. But then that should have been done in accordance with the Bangladesh Constitution, which has elaborate provisions for deciding on the chief advisor to the caretaker government. The ruling coalition, though, sidestepped this procedure to install the President. For this was evidently the very last option in the Constitution — and should have been followed only after exhausting all the other alternatives.
At this point, it’s doubtful if Sheikh Hasina’s alliance and other political parties would accept President Ahmed’s invitation to hold talks for ending the stand-off. The only way for the caretaker government to regain public confidence is to work out a solution to the problem of political reform through democratic means. Reconstituting the Election Commission is a good first step. It will ensure fair polls, and prevent excessive political violence. The alternative could be more political uncertainty, which in turn would feed extremist forces, leading to more chaos.