IS KHALEDA ZIA REALLY COMMITTED TO DEMOCRACY?
Dr. Binodkumar Singh
Political deadlock and violent conflict between Bangladesh’s two main political parties – the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have characterized national elections since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1991. Ever since then, the deep distrust between the two begums of AL and BNP stands in the way of strengthening democratic institutions, such as the Electoral Commission (EC). Consequently, the main opposition did not want to run for elections while the ruling party controls the EC and demanded the formation of a neutral caretaker government to oversee the elections.
Remarkably, when the AL government, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed came to power in 2008 with an overwhelming majority, it nullified the system of caretaker government despite opposition from rival political parties. Thus, the general elections of Jan 5, 2014, were held without any participation from BNP, the largest opposition party and its alliance partners, thereby raising serious question about the legitimacy of the electoral process of Bangladesh’s democracy.
In the ensuing political crisis centering around the first anniversary of the Jan 5 election, according to a report of Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, a forum of commuters, at least 29 people were killed and some 55,217 people sustained injuries in the nonstop blockade across the country enforced by the BNP-led 20-party alliance till Jan 21. Astonishingly, in one such major incident, five people, including a child, were burnt to death and 15 others were injured as alleged blockaders hurled a petrol bomb at Mithapukur sub-district in Rangpur District on Jan 14, 2015.
In fact, the BNP wanted to observe Jan 5 as “Democracy Killing Day” whereas the AL wanted to observe it as “Victory Day of Democracy”. As tension rose, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) banned all protests in Dhaka city and locked BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia in her office in Dhaka city on Jan 3. Having been confined to her Gulshan office in Dhaka city, Khaleda Zia on Jan 5 announced a countrywide indefinite blockade of road, rail and waterways. Further, Khaleda Zia while addressing a crowded press conference at her Gulshan office on Jan 19 said that the ongoing countrywide blockade programme would continue till the next announcement is made.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina while addressing a rally at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka on Jan 12 warned: “I want to say it clearly that we would not sit idle while the BNP, along with the war criminals, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), are resorting to killings across the country in the name of organizing a blockade programme. We will take action, whatever is needed, to protect the people’s lives and properties.” Further, Sheikh Hasina during the fifth session the parliament on Jan 20 said: “Begum Zia’s trial would be held by treating her as a ‘killer’ since her movement is not for any national issue or public welfare, rather she is trying to save war criminals and herself from the graft cases and protect her spoilt son involved in killing, money laundering and corruption.”
Similarly, terming the ongoing blockade enforced by BNP as ‘terrorism and violence’, opposition leader Raushon Ershad, initiating an unscheduled discussion in parliament on Jan 20, said: “I want to urge the prime minister to take stern action. We’ll be with you in whatever steps you’ll take to restore peace and order in the country. We want to stop this. We want peace. We’ll work together in each locality and resist this sort of violence.” In the unscheduled discussion in parliament, Members of Parliament (MPs) of both the treasury and opposition benches on Jan 22 described the violence during the BNP-led alliance’s blockade as acts of terrorism and demanded Khaleda Zia’s arrest and trial on those counts.
Remarkably, to contain the political violence, at a special meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order, Industries Minister Amir Hossain Amu, who headed the committee and chaired the meeting on Jan 21, announced a number of steps, including Taka 1 lakh reward each for helping law enforcers arrest troublemakers. The cabinet body also blasted the BNP for hiring people to carry out hit-and-run attacks.
Expressing concern over the political situation in Bangladesh, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) on Jan 16 in a statement said: “The deepening political violence in Bangladesh, resulting from the failure by the two major political parties to resolve their differences peacefully, is very disturbing.” Similarly, Chair of the delegation for Relations with the Countries of South Asia of European Parliament (EP) Jean Lambert in a press statement issued in Brussels on Jan 22 said: “Basic freedoms, including freedom of assembly, speech, and movement have to be respected by all political forces, without exception.” Earlier, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a press release on Jan 9 said that the government should immediately end use of excessive force, stop arbitrary arrests of members of opposition parties and lift restrictions on the media.
Depicting the grievous effect of blockades on the economy, Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) president Hossain Khaled, sharing the survey results at a press conference at its office on Jan 22, said the continuing political unrest had cost the economy Bangladesh Taka (BTK) 36,445 crore. He said: “The daily loss is BTK 300 crore in transport sector, 288 crore in agriculture, 250 crore in real estate and 210 crore in tourism. The wholesale and retail markets suffer losses of 150 crore while the manufacturing sector Taka 100 crore. The figure is equivalent to 2.69 percent of the GDP.”
In fact, Sheikh Hasina has been widely accused of playing fast and loose with democracy. But, at the same time, the sincerity of Khaleda Zia’s commitment to democracy is also being questioned by many analysts. Despite the almost constant political turmoil, Bangladesh’s economy continues to perform remarkably well. However, in order to break the political deadlock, domestic and international actors must support a comprehensive political dialogue between the two major parties.
At the same time, the international community must also send a strong message to the armed forces that military intervention is not welcome as two years of de facto military rule from 2007 to 2008 contributed to an escalation rather than a weakening of the conflict between the AL and the BNP. Against this backdrop, domestic and international actors should step up their efforts to build and strengthen independent, impartial state institutions at all levels in order to improve the long-term prospects for transparent and democratic governance in Bangladesh.
S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate with the Institute for Conflict Management.
FEBRUARY 02, 2015