Wither Bangladesh: Hope Amidst Political Wilderness?

Bangladesh is slowly progressing on the path of development and growth. However the nation's polity is frequently accused of letting down the people. This was amply evident with the political impasse in Bangladesh assuming alarming proportions during January when the Awami League announced a second boycott of the polls on 02 January with elections scheduled on 22 January 2007. Earlier the Party had agreed to participate in the election process on 22 December after a prolonged agitation which had seen over 35 people killed and many injured after October 2006.

The probability of a boycott increased when former military chief, Hussain Muhammad Ershad's pleas to participate in the election process was rejected by the election commission. Ershad's Jatiya Party is one of the principal constituents of the Awami League led alliance. Ershad has been under cloud for squandering government funds and his plea over a three year sentence of imprisonment was rejected by the Supreme Court, thus effectively barring him from seeking elections under a law which bans anyone having criminal antecedents from contesting.

The Awami League insisted that the package of reforms agreed upon by then President Iajuddin Khan as the chief advisor for the polls earlier was not implemented. One of the key reasons would be the voters list allegedly with 14 million fake names which had not been reviewed as promised by the interim government.

The protests commenced with withdrawal of 2370 of the 4146 nominations filed for elections, indicating clear grass roots support to the move by Awami League leadership. The series of bandhs and blockades undertaken by the Awami League alliance brought life to a virtual stand still after nation wide protests from 5 January which were to be followed up on subsequent days till the elections. The Interim government had no option but to deploy the Army after police failed to check the protestors which swamped the capital Dacca as well as other major cities.

Repeated rounds of protests and civic unrest however finally led to resignation of President Iajuddin on 11 January. Other key officials including the Chief Election Commissioner M A Aziz resigned or were replaced by the new Government under Fakhruddin Ahmed. Five poll officials of the Bangladesh Election Commission resigned on 31 January setting the stage for review of the electoral process. The new administration planned to revamp the poll process including drawing up a new voters list and using transparent ballot boxes. Primarily composed of apolitical persons including the interim chief, a former governor of Central Bank of Bangladesh, leading businessmen, a newspaper owner and chairman of Security Exchange Commission, the government began firmly by arresting a number of corrupt officials with alleged links with the underground and political activists including supporters of both the groupings.

The fears over an Army take over however proved baseless as Lt General Moiuddin U Khan had indicated full support to the interim government. The UN Secretary General, amidst fears of likely interference of the Army had hoped that it would stay neutral. Manoj Joshi, noted security analyst referring to unnamed Indian officials indicated that a coup was unlikely in Bangladesh as the Army had been socialized into the democratic system. Over the years it was seen as non partisan and had earned the respect of the public, given the fractious nature of Bangla polity. On the other hand the large contingents of the country in UN peace keeping provided army personnel adequate esteem as well as money which they would not like to forego. The Bangladesh Army is widely credited to have acted behind the scenes to coerce the bureaucratic political system to reform itself and ensure that elections were free and fair.

Indian moves have been very cautious as it does not want to be seen as interfering in what are purely domestic issues but is hoping for a, 'peaceful, democratic and stable' Bangladesh. However it is apparent that back room diplomacy was in play. Western states as the US, UK and Canada and the United Nations were more forceful. Margaret Beckett British Foreign Secretary reportedly showed concern over major parties banning elections and highlighted the need for creating the right atmosphere with effective participative mechanisms.

The United Nations had pulled out from the Bangladesh election process recently claiming that the technical support that it planned to provide to include consulting and publishing results was not practicable given the political impasse. Ultimately it is evident that international pressure was one of the main reasons for resignation of Iajuddin and for the Army avoiding take over of government. There would be continued necessity for the international community as well as India to support balanced measures undertaken by the interim government without appearing to be intrusive. The Bangla Army's restraint and an enlightened administration can still pull it out of the political morass. India's tacit support will go a long way in assuring the people of a fair solution to the ongoing impasse for power.


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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