Vol. XLII No. 47 November 25, 2018

Bangladesh Gears up for Elections with Opposition Leader in Jail

Gautam Das

BANGLADESH, the eighth largest populated country in the world, is going to elect its 11th Jatiya Sansad (national parliament) on December 30.  Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of the country and leader of the ruling Awami League, said in one meeting that this election will not be a cake walk for her party and its allies.

Meanwhile the chairperson of the main opposition party, Bangladesh Jatyatabadi Dal (BNP) and two-time prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia who is now in jail and her eldest son Tarek Rahaman, the acting chairperson of the party who is in exile, have resolved to participate in this election.

Dr Kamal Hossain, the architect of Bangladesh constitution of 1972 and law minister in late Sheikh Mujibar Rahman’s cabinet, and Dr Zafarullah Chowdhury, trustee of Ganaswasta Kendra Medical University and Hospital, have been playing an instrumental role in bringing the BNP and its allies together in the election this time.
It may be recalled that BNP and its main ally, Jamayat-e-Islami, an Islam fundamentalist party, boycotted the last parliament election in January 2014. It was held amidst unprecedented violence and destruction of huge government and private properties. Many people including polling personnel were killed. The turnout of voters was also very poor owing to the extreme terror conditions and the ruling Awami League (AL) and its allies were elected unopposed in as many as 153 constituencies to the 300-member parliament.

Though the BNP leadership was in a confusion over the participation in the parliamentary election and chairperson Khaleda Zia is in jail after her conviction in a charitable trust fund misappropriation case, it was Dr Kamal Hossain and some others who took the initiative in forming Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front) on October 13.

BNP is the constituent of this newly formed alliance of opposition parties. After few rounds of discussions, Dr Kamal Hossain wrote a letter to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for a talk to which she agreed readily.

On November 1, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Awami League led 14-party alliance leaders and the Jatiya Oikya Front leaders held talks for more than three hours. The Jatiya Oikya Front (NUF) leaders demanded the release of BNP president Khaleda Zia and other leaders who are in Jail, and the formation of a non-party caretaker government to oversee the election.

The NUF also demanded a level playing field and to conduct a free, fair and peaceful election. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not concede the two main demands by citing the reason that the government cannot release any convicted person.  

Another round of talks was held on November 7. Later, Dr Kamal Hossain and BNP general secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, announced their decision to participate in the forthcoming parliament election.

In the meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina and her party’s poll alliance leaders also held talks with Dr Badruddozza Chowdhury, former president of Bangladesh and co-founder of BNP with late General Zia Ur Rahaman. Dr Badruddozza is presently the president of Bikalpadhara (alternative path), a separate political party, and agreed to participate in the election.

The Left Front leaders led by the Communist Party of Bangladesh also held a separate meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Jatiya Party president general HM Ershad also met separately with the prime minister.

Initially, the Election Commission announced December 23 as the date of polling. Jatiya Okiya Front demanded deferment of the election for one month. The Election Commission deferred the election date for seven days and rescheduled the date to December 30.  

The chief election commissioner has requested all political parties to participate in the elections and help in holding them peacefully. He assured that adequate security will be provided for the peaceful conduct of elections. Apart from police and para military forces, army will also be deployed to assist the election authority, he said.

Now, both the main political formations are trying to woo small political groups into their respective camps. The last election ally of Awami League, general HM Ershad-led Jatiya Party has already started talks for sharing of seats with Awami League leaders.

Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury also indicated his intention to join with the Awami League-led alliance. Former BNP minister Nazmul Huda indicated to join in Awami League-led Front as well.

In a turn of events, the Awami League leaders met separately with Islamic Okiya Jote (Islami Unity Front). Hefazat-e-Islam, another Islamic fundamentalist organisation, who tried to capture Dhaka before the last parliamentary election, has become the new found ally of Awami League after agreeing to many of their demands including dropping of story, poem and essay of eminent writers like Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay etc from textbooks. This has raised questions about the secular nature of the Awami League.

The Left, progressive parties and intellectuals supporting the Awami League also protested about such unholy compromise with the Islamic fundamentalists. Jamayat-e-Islami party has been banned by the court for their anti-Bangladesh stand and also for helping Pakistani Army in committing genocide and other inhuman crimes during the 1971 Liberation wars. But still, it remains the main ally of BNP.

Apart from Dr Kamal Hossain, they also roped in Kader Siddique, another close Lieutenant of Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman and some other dissident Awami League leaders.

During the last five years, Sheikh Hasina government brushing aside the international and internal conspiracies, has taken forward Bangladesh in many fields. At present, people of Bangladesh no more suffer from famine and hunger. Life expectancy has raised, child mortality had declined, general health care upgraded, and poverty had also reduced substantially.

In Human Development Index, Bangladesh is ahead of its neighbouring country, India. Bangladesh has achieved self-sufficiency in food production and power generation has also improved a lot. Infrastructural development including roads, waterways, railways and air connectivity has also been gradually improving. Relationships with neighbouring countries like India, Nepal, Bhutan and Asian countries including socialist China and Vietnam are very cordial. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has taken the initiative to establish close relationship with bordering states in India including Tripura.

Neutral observers opine that though Sheikh Hasina government achieved various successes, intolerance and corruption have also increased. They also allege that the chief justice of the country Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha had to leave the country because, in a judgment, he opined that no individual person can build a nation.

Many extra judicial killings in fake encounters have taken place. In the last one year, more than hundred people have got killed in the drive against drug smuggling. Observers say that those who have been killed are merely contraband drug consumers and carriers.

Holding elections keeping the main opposition leader in the jail is also not proper, they felt. Two highly circulated dailies Prothom Alo and Daily Star editors Matiur Rahaman and Mahfuz Anam, both freedom fighters, have been slapped with many sedition and defamation cases as they hold voice of dissent.

Students of Bangladesh were in the forefront in many historic democratic struggles like Mother language movement of 1952, ouster of military dictator General Ayub Khan in 1969 and in the liberation struggle of Bangladesh in 1971. Dhaka University students took the lead in those struggles which changed the course of the country, from West Pakistan’s dominion to the emergence of free Bangladesh.

Observers pointed out that for more than two decades, no student’s council election is taking place either in Dhaka or in other mega cities like Chittagong and Rajshahi. As a result, practice of democracy among the students and youth is being hampered and the ruling party affiliated student and youth organisation is indulging in all sorts of undemocratic and even anti-social activities from the universities and other educational institutions, they alleged.

Observers have also been very critical about the treatment meted out to Dr Imran H Sarkar and his associates who steered historic Shahabag mass movement demanding capital punishment to mass murderers during the Liberation War.

Observers have also opined that for a free, fair and peaceful election, the main responsibility lies with the ruling Awami League and its government. Every effort should be made so that all political parties can participate in the elections in a congenial atmosphere.

The Awami League led 14-party alliance including Workers Party will contest jointly on the Awami League election symbol. Meanwhile, the Jatiya Party will contest as a partner, on their own election symbol. The Communist Party of Bangladesh and its allies will be contesting few seats.