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'Presidential reference can save Bangladesh polls'

india Updated: Jan 06, 2007 11:09 IST
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Only a presidential reference to the Supreme Court can help ensure fullest political participation and save the credibility of Bangladesh's general elections due on January 22, says a former Indian envoy to Dhaka.

Article 106 of Bangladesh's Constitution provides for such a reference.

President Iajuddin Ahmed can invoke it to postpone the polls, update the "flawed" voters' list and create conditions conducive to free and fair polls that the same statute stipulates for him as the chief advisor.

"The 90-day time limit to conduct the elections is not a holy cow," the diplomat told the agency, preferring not to be named.

"All is not lost yet. Even at this late stage, with polling still 17 days away, I do hope good sense will prevail over partisan considerations," he said.

The diplomat's comments came as Bangladesh's main opposition Awami League and its 13 alliance partners threatened to boycott the general elections.

According to him, the presidential reference is the only way out since a postponement of elections would require a constitutional amendment, for which the Jatiya Sangsad (National Assembly) is not in existence now.

The constitutional path alone could save the process from being marred by violence, controversy and political deadlock.

Prospects of violence in the run-up and even after the elections worry a cross-section of Bangladesh watchers in India at the turn of events.

The neighbourhood concern stems from targeting of religious minorities as had happened during, and long after, the last elections in 2001.

Commentator Hiranmay Karlekar, Sreeradha Datta, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), and strategic expert Maloy Krishna Dhar, all keen Bangladesh watchers, were unanimous in expressing fear about violence, especially after the poll boycott by the "grand alliance" led by the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina.

Reports of deployment of the armed forces have only enhanced these fears. "It will be violence by the government," Datta warned.

The process now underway in Bangladesh is headed towards becoming "a non-election," whose credibility would be questioned, since the "grand alliance" clearly represents a wider phalanx of the political opinion than its rival four-party alliance, the experts said.

They were also unanimous in their view that the "grand alliance" was left with no choice in view of a lack of transparency in the election process and a voters' list "packed" with spurious voters, keeping out 1.2 million religious minorities and tribals.

"The money power has played its role," said Dhar. Karlekar pointed to the role of "Saudi money" and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

Painting a grim post-poll scenario, Karlekar said Begum Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party would run the government while Jamaat-e-Islami, which shared power in 2001-06, would stay out to "implement the Al-Qaeda agenda in South Asia of having an Islamic Caliphate in South Asia".

Dhar said Hasina was "defeated by permanent bureaucracy" that conducts the polls. Even the higher echelons in the government, appointed by Zia and not touched by the caretaker government, have officers with known sympathies for Jamaat and banned radical groups.

Datta said Islamist forces had "come to stay" in Bangladesh. "India should recognize this reality," she said.

Dhar said Indian public opinion should differentiate between radical Islamist groups and the Sufi saints, the latter being integral to Bangladeshi culture.

No political set-up could function without invoking the blessings of the three Pirs - of Monjair Char, Maijhbhandar and Sylhet. They don't approve radical Islam.

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