Two years ago around this time, Bangladesh was in a political turmoil. The battle between the two Begums, Khaleda Zia and Shiekh Hasina was being played out in the streets of Dacca and Chittagong. Tension mounted as street side protests increasingly turned violent and Emergency was pronounced in January 2007, with a Caretaker Administration promising to reform the polity.
The path of return to electoral democracy in Bangladesh has now been laid with date for elections to the Parliament confirmed on 18 December. The state of emergency is to be relaxed and upazila polls have been postponed to December 24 and 28. The new code of conduct for parliamentary polls took effect on September 18. Electioneering is set to commence on November 27. However the code of conduct has not been enforced as all political parties have yet to register themselves.
This process was set into motion with the release of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson, Khaleda Zia, in the beginning of September on bail which followed the move of the Awami League President, Sheikh Hasina for treatment outside the country. This facilitated dialogue with all political parties which were completed by the Election Commission holding a third round with 16 political parties. A consensus on party registration by October 15 was reached during these talks.
Transformation of the banned Islamist outfit Harkatul Jihad Al Islami (HuJi) Bangladesh into a political outfit Islamic Democratic Party (IDP) was a surprising development. Two HuJi founders - Mufti Abdus Salam and Rahmatullah alias Shaikh Farid are president and secretary of the IDP. While the HUJI has been under considerable pressure over the years to give up its armed agenda in Bangladesh, there were no indications of this change of colours. Kazi Azizul Huq, an adviser of the newborn organisation, claimed to The Daily Star, The intelligence agencies gathered that we have no relations to any terrorist networks. The government however set some conditions. Those include ones that say the party must run as per the country's constitution, and not resort to violence to implement Shariah law." It is likely to present an ultra right option to the electorate which is even more right wing and religious oriented than the Jamaat. The government may have propped the same for opposing the Jamaat, but indications are not clear so far.
A move is also on to have the two prima donnas of Bangladesh politics, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, discuss all issues in one forum with the Caretaker Administration. Rafique-ul Huq, counsel for both Hasina and Khaleda is said to have initiated this move to organise a meeting between the two leaders at a neutral venue. However given long standing rivalry including accusations of physical attacks by supporters, this may not fructify. BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia is reportedly willing to join the talks unconditionally but preliminary indications reveal that the Awami League has asked for an apology for the misrule of Khaleda regime, including the August 21 grenade attack, before the meeting.
It is feared that the primary aim of imposing emergency and corrective measures such as anti corruption commission and others have not resulted in making a difference to the politics of confrontation in Bangladesh. The Caretaker Administration is said to have failed in its mission of cleaning up politics. With the same leaders and parties likely to come to power in the future, the impact of Emergency in restructuring polity of Bangladesh remains uncertain. "There is apprehension whether the parties will undergo qualitative changes as desired by the people. It is now a challenge for the government to dispel fears that the country may revert to the situation that had existed before January 11, 2007," said Hossain Zillur one of the key advisors in the Caretaker Administration.
Moreover with listed outlaws and criminal gangs having regrouped in several south western districts including terror-infested Meherpur, Chuadanga, Jhenidah and Kushtia there are also concerns about law and order during the elections. The next issue is that of political violence and debate which had reached a very low point just before the Emergency in December 2006. Sadly at present there do not appear to be many qualitative indicators of improvement in the politics in the past few months. Meanwhile the banned Islamist outfit Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh threatened to re-launch serial bombings if the government did not release the arrested Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders and activists in 48 hours. The threat by the JMB is real and it has the capability to launch multiple bomb attacks across the country with a large number of well knit cells and cadres.
The process of alliance building by the political parties has commenced in right earnest. Hopefully this will lead to a smooth and trouble free elections followed by transfer of power from the Caretaker Administration to the winning alliance. However for this to happen the major requirements would be as follows:
Reduction in confrontation between the BNP and the Awami League in terms of volatile and vitriolic politics and attacks on each others cadres and physical violence.
Positive Linkages between students and political parties.
Reduction of influence of the political parties on the bureaucracy and particularly the staff related to the Election Commission.
Reduction of influence of criminal elements, the mastans and also terrorist groups operating in the country.
But the immediate solution lies in balancing the two Begums of Bangladesh who continue to hold the imagination of the masses despite being mired in controversies, corruption charges and uncooperative practices so far.