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Bangladesh: Musical Chairs

Two major recent developments in Bangladesh are likely to have an impact on the upcoming elections. One is the decision of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party to enter into an understanding with its hitherto sworn enemy, the Jatiyo Party of former president H M Ershad. The other is yet another instance of explosion of public anger against the government, which however, the opposition Awami League has not been able to capitalise on.

Letter from South Asia


Musical Chairs

Two major recent developments in Bangladesh are likely to have an impact on the upcoming elections. One is the decision of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party to enter into an understanding with its hitherto sworn enemy, the Jatiyo Party of former president H M Ershad. The other is yet another instance of explosion of public anger against the government, which however, the opposition Awami League has not been able to

capitalise on.


he month of August was dominated by two dramas, both of which have some way to go before their repercussions are fully played out, and both of which could have a significant impact on Bangladesh’s political fortunes as we brace ourselves for the upheaval of the upcoming elections.

The first drama was the triumphant return of ex-president and autocrat H M Ershad to centre stage, confounding his critics and demonstrating that reports of his political demise had been greatly exaggerated. Ershad returns to the spotlight courtesy of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) joint secretary general and son of the prime minister, Tarique Rahman, who brokered the deal that Ershad will, if not add the weight of his party to the ruling alliance, enter into an understanding with the BNP so that the two parties will act in concert.

This deal has sent shock waves through Bangladesh, not least due to the prime minister’s well known hostility to Ershad (whom she holds responsible for the 1981 assassination of her husband, president Ziaur Rahman) and the fact that it was during her previous tenure that the expresident served five years in jail, to be released only when the Awami League (AL) came to power in 1996.

Ershad’s Jatiyo Party (JP) has long been an influential minor player in Bangladesh, especially in the country’s northern region, from where the ex-president hails and where he still enjoys a solid bedrock of support. However, electoral trends had tended to indicate that Ershad’s best days were behind him.

The high point for the JP was the 1991 elections immediately following Ershad’s removal from power. Despite the fact that he was very much on his way out after nine years of one-man rule and that he was behind bars at the time, Ershad still commanded enough respect (or fear) among the electorate, especially in the north, for his party to amass 12 per cent of the popular vote and fully 35 seats in the parliament, making it at the time the third largest party in the country, after the BNP and the AL.

The 1996 elections were perhaps the high point for Ershad himself, even though by this time his party’s popularity was already on the decline. Its popular vote percentage slipped to single digits and the party dropped three seats in parliament. Nevertheless, with neither the AL nor the BNP being able to amass a majority of 151 seats in the 300-seat parliament, Ershad was able to play queen-maker, and he used his leverage to free himself from prison and install his party secretary general in the AL cabinet.

However, after that it had all been downhill for the ex-president – until last month. First, his party split three ways, one faction finding its way into the fourparty alliance that now rules the country, and the other remaining in the grip of his ex-secretary general, Anwar Hossain Manju, who had sat in the AL cabinet during 1996-2001 as communications minister.

The rump of the JP led by Ershad was reduced to 14 seats in parliament and 7.5 per cent of the popular vote. But Ershad has long been the wild card in Bangladeshi politics and, as recent events have shown once again, it would be premature to count this wily campaigner out.

Speculation as to which way he would align himself in the upcoming elections had been rife ever since last summer when he was involved in a sordid soap opera that ended with his expelling (as well as divorcing and filing baseless criminal charges against) his ex-wife Bidisha from the party, apparently at the behest of the ruling coalition (Bidisha was considered one of the key JP presidium members urging Ershad to throw in his lot with the AL).

Carrot and Stick

The carrot and stick approach seems to have worked. The stick was the threat of prosecution in the 16 cases that were still pending against Ershad (at time of writing, four of the cases against him had been withdrawn and the rest are in the process of being withdrawn). The carrot is the promise of the presidency if the ruling alliance comes back to power and 50 seats for the JP to contest in the upcoming elections, which is the price that Ershad has quoted for his allegiance.

The fact that the BNP is apparently willing to go so far to bring Ershad into the fold indicates how far it has fallen from grace since 2001 when the party alone won 193 seats (216 with the rest of its alliance) and it was able to garner 47 per cent of the popular vote. It remains unclear, however, if the understanding with Ershad will improve the BNP’s fortunes in the upcoming elections.

The first reason to think this is that reaching out to the discredited ex-president smacks of desperation and suggests that the ruling alliance is seriously concerned about its sinking popularity. In the runup to the elections, the BNP has long claimed that it was in a commanding position and that it was confident of returning to power in a repeat landslide. Clearly this is no longer the party’s assessment.

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

The second reason is that the move smacks of opportunism, especially given the legendary bad blood between Ershad and the prime minister. The more that Ershad is able to squeeze out of the BNP the worse will be the backlash, and it is hard to see how the party can install him as president, his ultimate goal, without seriously diminishing its credibility.

The next point to consider is whether adding the JP will upset the dynamics of the existing coalition. This potential hurdle seems to have been overcome with Ershad’s recent announcement that the JP would contest the upcoming polls on its own, without being part of either the ruling alliance or the AL-led main opposition alliance. This makes sense. With the AL threatening to boycott the polls, it is more important for the election to include legitimate opposition parties than to expand the size of the ruling coalition. Ershad’s recent decision indicates that he is still taking orders from the BNP.

The BNP game plan now is to plough ahead and install a caretaker government of its choosing. The prime minister has made clear that opposition demands for a new head of the caretaker government and of the election commission will be ignored, and she has called on the army to ensure that the constitution is upheld (i e, that it will stand behind her hand picked caretaker government if it runs into trouble).

The BNP trusts that, unlike in 1996, the AL will not be able to mobilise successfully against such a manoeuvre and believes that if it is able to persuade the JP and other opposition parties to take part in the election, the AL will find itself isolated and the elections will retain their credibility.

Meanwhile, two of the other heavyweights of Bangladesh politics, ex-president and ex-BNP secretary general, Badrudozza Chowdhury, who split from the party to form the Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh (BDB) in 2003, and ex-foreign minister and drafter of the constitution, Kamal Hossain, who split from the AL in 1994, but whose party has been a member of the AL-led 14-party opposition alliance, have announced an informal understanding among themselves.

Kamal Hossain has taken pains to stress that his understanding with Badrudozza Chowdhury should not be construed as his party’s withdrawal from the 14-party alliance, and both veteran politicians emphasised that there is no difference between their position and that of the AL: that elections will not be possible without meaningful reform to the election and caretaker government law, including, specifically, a new chief election commissioner.

Possible Isolation of Awami League

Nevertheless, this new configuration does open the door to the possibility that the AL will find itself isolated if it goes through with its threat to boycott the upcoming polls if its conditions are not met. An election in which the JP as well as Chowdhury’s and Hossain’s parties participate, runs a decent chance of being seen as legitimate both inside the country and outside, even in the absence of the AL.

All of the main players in the Bangladesh body politic are thus now to be seen jockeying for position. Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick, with the caretaker government scheduled to take office by the middle of November. The BNP seems to be sticking to its guns, and no reform appears on the horizon. The AL has made it equally clear that it will not participate in the elections in the absence of reforms. Much, therefore, depends on how the other players line up.

Police Firing

Meanwhile, the country simmers. The second big incident in Bangladesh, which may well have repercussions for the upcoming elections, was the shooting dead by law enforcement on August 26 of six demonstrators who were protesting a coal mining project being undertaken by a large multinational in the northern town of Phulbari.

This was merely the latest such incident in Bangladesh’s long, hot summer of discontent (to mix metaphors) that suggests that the public’s tolerance for the government may have reached breaking point. The first such incident was a series of demonstrations in January by farmers in the north-western town of Kansat who had been agitating for adequate electricity supply so that they could farm their land. By the time the fracas had been resolved, 20 demonstrators had been shot dead by law enforcement personnel. Next came Shonir Akhra just outside Dhaka in April, where demonstrations for power and water were again met with deadly force. This was followed by the garment factory riots of May, and now the agitation at Phulbari, all of which ended with the death by shooting of demonstrators.

The anger among the electorate against the government is clear and has only been made worse by the government’s trigger happy response to such outpourings. So far, the AL has not been able to turn this anger against the government into a popular movement, which is what is necessary if it wishes to win the showdown with the four-party alliance that is on the cards once the caretaker government takes power.

But even if it does not translate into support for the AL, the anger against the government is very real and could fuel a third-party movement. Polls indicate that support for the BNP and its allies is below 20 per cent and that of the AL below 25 per cent. The AL’s edge is most likely not sufficient to permit it to command the streets to the extent necessary to negate the BNP’s advantage of money and muscle and election engineering, courtesy its incumbency. But the fact that fully 80 per cent of the electorate is hostile to the government and that 55 per cent is in neither the BNP nor AL camp, suggests that there would be considerable support for a third option.

If the BNP succeeds in installing a caretaker government of its choosing upon surrendering power on October 28, then it will be very tough for the AL to forestall the elections. And if the BNP succeeds in roping in the JP and one or more of the other main opposition parties to contest, then the AL boycott will become untenable. However, if there is sufficient unrest, the BNP will have no option but to accede to a neutral caretaker government that is acceptable to all. Such a caretaker government may well refuse to countenance elections without the reforms that are being demanded by the AL and, increasingly, the public at large.

The entire game, in other words, hinges on what happens in the 15 days constitutionally mandated for the formation of the caretaker government. Whoever wins the battle of the 15 days is likely to eventually emerge triumphant when the dust finally settles. But, going by the numbers, there is every chance that the ultimate victor will, for the first time since the transition to democracy in 1991, be neither the BNP nor the AL.



Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

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