Elections due to take place in Bangladesh on January 22 were cancelled abruptly on January 11. The country’s caretaker government, headed by president Iajuddin Ahmed, resigned at the same time and a new caretaker government, headed by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, governor of the State Bank, was sworn in. He will head a ten-member advisory council which will try to bring the country back to some kind of stability after ten weeks of turmoil that have resulted in 45 deaths, hundreds of injuries and much loss of revenue as business and transport were disrupted and ports shut down. The mayhem was instigated by the Awami League after the Bangladeshi parliament was dissolved on October 28, 2006, to prepare for the impending elections.
Iajuddin Ahmed’s resignation came three days after he met army chief Lieutenant-General Moinuddin Khan, and they agreed to declare a state of emergency. At the swearing-in ceremony for the new caretaker, while Awami League chief Hasina Wajed was present, outgoing prime minister and leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Khaleda Zia was pointedly absent. She was angry with Iajuddin Ahmed for not consulting her about his decision to resign, and about the selection of the new caretaker. Muhammad Yunus, head of the Grameen Bank and last year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for helping the poor, declined the offer, tactfully avoiding stepping into Bangladesh’s political minefield.
The Awami League’s demands, forced through by means of disruptive street protests, included postponement of elections, appointment of a neutral caretaker government, dismissal of election officials accused of being pro-BNP, preparation of new electoral rolls and voter identity cards to enable a “free and fair” election. The new caretaker government seems to have accepted most of these demands: it has dismissed numerous officials, including major-general Rezakul Haider Chowdhury, director-general of National Security Intelligence, and A N H Akhter Hossain, secretary at the power ministry. Instead of being reassigned to another post, general Chowdhury was retired from the army without giving any reason, although he was seen as being close to the BNP. Anumber of top army commanders, including the head of the President’s Guard Regiment, brigadier Abu Mohammad, and commander of the 46th Brigade, brigadier Mahfuzur Rahman, were also replaced in what seems to be intended to look like an overhaul of the civil and military administration.
Although the Awami League is congratulating itself on having forced the postponement of the elections, it is now demanding that they be held within three months. M A Matin, an advisor to the caretaker government, has dismissed these demands, saying that it is not possible before six months because of the number of tasks involved, not least the preparation of new electoral lists and voter identity cards. This is likely to pit the Awami League against the new caretaker government. The BNP, unhappy with the manner in which Iajuddin Ahmed caved in to the Awami League’s demands, is now calling for his removal as president. This may result in months of political uncertainty and perhaps the military taking over because the civilians appear incapable of running the country.
What should have been a routine affair (holding elections under a caretaker government) has been turned into a major political crisis: this shows a lack of maturity on the part of the two leading political figures, Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, who have both served as prime ministers in the past. The distrust between the two is so deep that neither is prepared to allow the other to be in power to hold elections. Under the 13th amendment, passed by parliament in March 1996, a caretaker government, headed by the immediate past chief justice of the Supreme Court, must assume power to oversee elections after the dissolution of parliament. On October 28, when the caretaker government was to be sworn in, Hasina Wajed objected to the appointment of K M Hasan, the former Chief Justice, as caretaker head. She accused him of being pro-BNP. Thereafter, President Iajuddin Ahmed himself assumed the post and appointed M M Aziz as the Chief Election Commissioner. Weeks of Awami League agitations followed for Aziz’s removal; on November 22 Aziz went on three months’ leave. The Awami League suspended its agitation and agreed to take part in the elections, before deciding to increase the pressure by making new demands. On January 2 it announced another boycott and launched a series of countrywide strikes that took an increasingly violent turn.
A new set of demands followed: Iajuddin Ahmad must relinquish the post of head of the caretaker government, postpone the election date (in contravention of the constitution) and update electoral rolls because these are stuffed, according to the Awami League, with “bogus voters”. They also allege that both the police and the bureaucracy are biased in favour of the BNP. Faced with mounting pressure, with little or no support from the military, and further undermined by the UN and other international observers, who announced their withdrawal, Iajuddin caved in and handed over power to Fakhruddin Ahmed as caretaker head. It is not certain whether this will end the political turmoil. The BNP is unhappy about this turn of events, feeling that the president has caved in to political blackmail. It may now be the BNP’s turn to resort to street agitation.
There is mounting concern that if the political uncertainty continues, it may lead to military takeover in the tradition of armies in most third world countries. Should this happen, it would not be the first military takeover; between 1975 and 1990 Bangladeshsuffered several bouts of military rule. The current political impasse may spur the men in uniform to take over yet again and send both women into the political wilderness. It is not merely political uncertainty; the turmoil has severely affected the country’s fragile economy, where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line earning less than $1 per day. The country’s exports have also been disrupted because ports and transport, the first weapon in the hands of political parties, have been brought to a standstill. The military will not allow such a situation to continue indefinitely.
There is bitter rivalry between the two women, each of whom claims to be heir to the mantle of Bangladesh’s freedom movement. Their rivalry goes beyond politics, although Hasina Wajed is clearly pro-India while Khaleda Zia is more nationalistic. Their differences are deeply personal: neither can stand the other and they will not even sit in the same room, much less talk to each other. After a similar impasse five years ago, former US president Jimmy Carter succeeded in persuading the two women to agree in August 2001 to a set of rules for elections. Both Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed agreed to respect the election results and join parliament whether they win or lose, forswear the use of violent strikes as a political tool, and if successful in forming a government to allow for a more meaningful role for the opposition in parliament. The caretaker government successfully held parliamentary elections on October 1, 2001. Khaleda Zia won a clear majority in what most observers said was a free and fair election; in violation of the agreement, Hasina Wajed refused to accept the results and launched a series of boycotts of parliament. It is the end of the last parliament’s term that Hasina Wajed sees as an opportunity to change the political landscape by agitation politics. So far she has got her way, but if she pushes her luck too far she risks losing everything to the military.
The Awami League leads a coalition of 19 political parties; the BNP, which had a majority in the outgoing parliament, leads an alliance of four. Hasina Wajed is the daughter of Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, commonly known as the father of Bangladeshi independence, while Khaleda Zia is the widow of general Ziaur Rahman. Both Mujib and Zia were murdered by their troops: Mujib on August 15, 1975, together with most of his family except Hasina, who was visiting India at the time; Zia, who led the country from 1976 to 1981, was assassinated by disgruntled troops in May 1981 in Chittagong. If Mujib led the movement for independence, it was Zia, then an army major, who announced Bangladesh’s independence in a radio broadcast in March 1971 after Mujib’s arrest and the Pakistan army’s crackdown on Bengali separatism.
After Mujib’s assassination there were several months of political uncertainty until general Ziaur Rahman appeared on the scene. Following his assassination in May 1981, his vice president, Abdul Sattar, was sworn in as president but he could not keep the army at bay. In March 1982 another army chief, General Husain Muhammad Ershad, seized power, vowing to end corruption and get the political system back on track. He established his own political party, the Jotiya Party, and in 1987 resigned his post as army chief to contest elections. In a rare show of unity, the BNP and Awami League joined forces to challenge him, launching a campaign to force him from power. Ershad resigned in February 1991 and fresh elections were held; Khaleda Zia’s BNP won easily. In an ironic twist, Ershad, who had vowed to clean up corruption, was until recently in jail on charges of corruption. The political alliance between Khaleda and Hasina was short-lived and intended only to remove Ershad. With Khaleda Zia’s victory, the Awami League returned to agitation politics. When the latter won the elections in 1996, it was the BNP’s turn to boycott parliament. This has been the pattern of Bangladeshi political life ever since.
The country is once again at a critical crossroad. If the past is any guide, the chances of stability returning any time soon are slim. The two party leaders will have only themselves to blame if the political landscape is marred by further violence and the military steps in to seize political power and control.