Bangladesh: Elections Part I- The Setting

By Salim Haq, Dhaka, Jan.12 : Bangladesh voted to elect its 10th Parliament on January 5, 2014 in what has been termed as its bloodiest election. The run up was marred by a series of hartals or shutdowns and violence launched by the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies, notably the Jamaat and its student body the Islami Chhatir Shibir. The BNP even boycotted the elections leading to no contests in 153 out of the 300 seats.

The hartals and violence have gone through three phases. In first phase, starting from October 25, when the election schedule was announced, the hartals were designed to force the legitimate and elected government of Sheikh Hasina to step down in favour of a neutral caretaker government. There were 26 days of hartals in December 2013 alone.

When Hasina held firm against stepping down in favour of a caretaker government, the second phase was launched towards the end of December, to stall elections themselves and prevent voter turnout. During elections to 147 constituencies, at least 18 people died and more than 300 were injured. Voting was suspended in 539 polling centres in the wake of violence, according to the Election Commission.

Finally, when this too didn't work and the elections were held with a 40 percent turnout, the BNP and its allies have launched the third phase of hartals and violence to force the cancellation of these elections and hold a new one under a caretaker government. Post-elections, at least five persons have been killed and 50 others injured in violence that erupted in different parts of the country. Minorities have been especially targeted.

The central issue in the violence-marred elections has been the demand of the BNP that the elections should not be held under a Hasina-led government but under a neutral caretaker government.

The 13th constitutional amendment in 1996 had included in the Constitution the provision of a caretaker government.

In May 2011, the Supreme Court had struck down this constitutional amendment as unconstitutional and illegal.

Former chief justice ABM Khairul Haque, who was a judge of the Supreme Court when the judgement was delivered, in a recent interview, defended the cancellation of the caretaker government system. He stated "We (SC judges) were bound to cancel the 13th amendment, as the constitution and law don't allow absence of sovereignty of the country's people for a single moment," adding that the rule of people was absent during the caretaker regime.

The court had, however, observed that the 10th and 11th parliamentary elections might be held under the "illegal" caretaker government.

The Government of Sheikh Hasina, however, decided to do away with the 'illegal' provision straightaway and removed it from the statute books through another constitutional amendment in June 2011. This was perfectly legal and the Awami League government was well within its rights to do so since the observation of the Supreme Court was only a suggestion.

This being so, for the BNP to base its entire protest campaign and boycott of the polls on re-instituting a caretaker government that had been held illegal and unconstitutional, was clearly unconstitutional and nothing short of the absurd.

But for Khaleda Zia, it was more a question of ego than legalities. For her, revenge was a dish best served cold, as the saying goes. She clearly wanted to do to Hasina what the latter had done to her in 1996. Then, it was Hasina calling for a Caretaker government to hold elections and Khaleda resisting it. In the end, Hasina had won, dislodging Khaleda from office and winning the elections held under a caretaker government.

Where Khaleda miscalculated was that unlike 1996, the Constitution and law was on Hasina's side this time. Not surprisingly, therefore, Sheikh Hasina held firm.

Moreover, unlike the AL, the BNP is not a cadre-based party. Modelled more on the Pakistan Muslim Leagues, it consists of notables around whom loyalists gravitate. For agitations and cadres, the BNP is dependent on the Jamaat.

Again, Khaleda miscalculated. The agenda of the Jamaat was not the elections per se since as a party they had been debarred from contesting. Their agenda was to derail the war crimes trials that had already led to the hanging of one of their leaders and to prevent the return to power of the AL as it knew many of its other leaders who have been convicted of war crimes would be hanged.

Unleashed, to make the people desist from participating in the polls, the Jamaat-Shibir cadres acted in the only way they know, re-enacting the violence of 1971.

Not surprisingly, the run up to the elections and its aftermath was among the bloodiest that the country had seen. As the Daily Star wrote in an editorial- "We must register our contempt at the systematic manner in which violence had been applied in yesterday's polls. We note with consternation the leading role Jamaat-Shibir have taken in perpetrating violence. It would have served BNP's cause better if they had dispensed with violence and depended on the prudence of the voters to choose between voting and abstaining.

This is the first part of a three-part article on the Bangladesh elections for ANI. Parts 2 and 3 deal with the Outcome and the Future respectively and will be published shortly.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Salim Haq.

--ANI (Posted on 12-01-2014)

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