Bangladesh’s democracy is no longer threatened by a military takeover. The army is more professional than ever before, happy with rising budgets for modernization and increasing United Nations peace-keeping duties. Its top brass realize that Bangladesh is not an easy place to govern and would prefer to leave that to politicians, whom they otherwise tend to despise. The last time the army tried to call the shots was during the tenure of the neutral caretaker government that took office after Begum Khaleda Zia stepped down as prime minister in 2006. But instead of sticking to its constitutional brief of organizing a parliament election within a few months, the military-backed caretaker government imposed an emergency on January 11, 2007 and stayed on in power for two years. With backing from the military top brass, the caretaker, headed by the former Bangladesh Bank governor, Fakhruddin Ahmed, tried out the ‘Minus Two’ formula , arresting both the battling begums, Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, on charges of graft. Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, a rising star in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was also arrested and later left the country for ‘medical treatment’. Rahman is yet to return.
But as the groundswell against the ‘undemocratic’ caretaker turned into a tide, it announced the elections. Fed up with the corruption and violence during the 2001-06 BNP regime and the ‘undemocratic’ caretaker, Bangladesh gave the Awami League a huge mandate in the Dec 29, 2008 parliament polls. The military learnt its lesson. The ‘Minus Two’ formula did not work. The nation wanted the men in uniform to stay away from politics, as was evident from the huge turnout in the Dec 2008 polls. Many wrote off the Awami League landslide as the usual anti-incumbency trend that had characterized Bangladesh’s democratic transition with governments changing every five years since Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s military rule collapsed under the pressure of street protests in 1991. Others saw this as the ‘ultimate victory of the spirit of the 1971 Liberation War’. What was unmistakable was the people’s transparent and uncompromising desire for democracy .
Five years later, it is for the battling begums to realize that a lack of consensus between the two major coalitions is threatening Bangladesh’s transition to democracy. The caretaker system which had conducted the parliament elections in Bangladesh since the late 1990s stood discredited in 2006-08 because it had crossed the red line in an effort to ‘clean up politics and public life’. Latching on to a court verdict soon after that ruled the caretaker system as undemocratic and ‘inconsistent with the spirit of Bangladesh constitution’, the Awami League-led coalition introduced the 15th constitutional amendment in parliament. With its majority — the ruling coalition had more than 260 members of parliament in a 300-member Jatiya Sangsad — the amendment was carried through easily and the caretaker system for conducting parliament polls was scrapped.
The BNP and its allies, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, refused to accept the amendment and rooted for a return for a caretaker. This in spite of the fact that Khaleda Zia and her son Tarique were facing arrest and investigations during the last caretaker. When the Awami League refused to heed their call, the opposition coalition hit the streets in protest. They have been agitating for a return to the caretaker system ever since. Why, some would ask? After being wiped out in the December 2008 polls, the BNP and its allies had no real issue to harp on for making their presence felt. The scrapping of the caretaker government came in handy as the BNP-led coalition could use it to raise the issue of ‘free and fair elections’. Although the caretakers had exceeded their brief in 2006-08, they had finally vindicated themselves by organizing an election that was hailed as very free and fair. Without a caretaker, elections in Bangladesh could not be free and fair, argued the opposition. It still continues to do so and root for a restoration of the caretaker system.
Huge numbers in a parliamentary democracy breed arrogance and complacence which often leads to anti-incumbency. The 2006 Left Front landslide in West Bengal and the 1984 Congress landslide in India and the scenario five years later exemplify how sharply the mood of the electorate can swing against a ruling party the people had overwhelmingly voted to power only five years ago. “Amra 235, ora 30 (we are 235, they are 30),” the Left Front chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, remarked, and this was seen by many as reflecting an arrogance that finally brought about the fall of the world’s longest surviving elected communist government. The BNP-led coalition came to power with a decisive mandate in 2001 but lost the act through its misrule marked by corruption and violence. If the city corporation polls are a barometer of the public mood in Bangladesh, the Awami League is not riding it easy. It lost the 2010 Chittagong city polls and its long-serving mayor, A.B.M. Mohiuddin Choudhury, went out of office barely a year after the landslide in parliament. In 2013, the Awami League lost the city polls in Khulna, Barisal, Sylhet and Gazipur, the latter being its stronghold. But though the city polls indicated that the Awami League was suffering from an anti-incumbent tendency, it did take the wind out of the opposition argument that a ‘free and fair poll’ cannot be conducted by Wajed’s government.
Wajed is now making a virtue out of a necessity. Accepting a return to the caretaker system scrapped by a constitutional amendment in a parliament dominated by her party would mean a huge loss of face for her, a clear moral defeat, as she would be seen succumbing to the opposition’s street protests. But it is equally important to get the opposition, specially the BNP, to contest the polls, failing which the legitimacy of the polls would be open to question and Wajed would stand accused of trying to engineer a return to the Baksal type one-party system of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. International pressure is growing for a dialogue to break the deadlock to ensure an inclusive election.
In her October 18 address to the nation, Wajed flung the ball into her rival’s court, saying that she was keen to form an all-party interim government for the smooth conduct of the parliament polls that should be held within three months from October 25. But Wajed did not spell out details — the size of the interim body, the jurisdiction and powers it would enjoy, the number of opposition and ruling party MPs she proposes to include and, most important, who will head the interim government. While BNP leaders say there is ‘nothing new’ in the prime minister’s proposals, even the Awami League ally and former military dictator, Ershad, has said Wajed’s offer “lacked clarity”.
The real sticky point would be who will get to head the interim government. Wajed has made a strong case for the failure of the non-political and undemocratic caretaker to come up with the offer of an all-party political interim body, but the whole effort will come to nothing if she seeks to head it. Awami League ministers have already indicated Wajed wants to head the interim government. Anticipating this, Khaleda has rejected Wajed’s offer of an all-party interim government. A recent study of the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies by Frances Harrison suggests that the rivalry between the two begums and their parties runs so deep that each would prefer to “hand the country over to the army rather than see the other come to power”. A deeply polarized society, in the throes of a major confrontation between secularist pro-1971 forces and Islamist radicals following the war crimes trials and the verdicts, now runs the risks of its fledgling democracy being derailed. If there is a failure to achieve consensus on the dispensation that will conduct the polls, the Awami League may well be tempted to go for an election it can win easily if the BNP does not contest. Some in the League may want that to happen. But that will sully its image forever and bring back the Baksal spectre. The BNP is more of a platform with diverse political strands in it. Its leaders may threaten a ‘mass uprising’ to bring down the Awami League but they would depend hugely on the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hifazat-e-Islam for their street power. If democracy is undermined and the elections are tainted by lack of opposition participation, the happiest in Bangladesh would be the Islamist radical groups like the Jamaat. They have little stake in the system after being de-registered as a party and have little to lose after being badly cornered in the war crimes trials.
Their survival and resurrection depends on emerging as the street-fighters for democracy under the banner of the opposition coalition in a ‘mass uprising’ that the BNP’s Rafiqul Islam Miah has recently threatened. The call of the BNP’s former Dhaka mayor, Sadek Hossain Khoka, to ‘armed resistance’ raises worries of a civil war-type situation that may make a military intervention inevitable.