Friday, October 11, 2013

Beyond Oct 25: Is the country sliding towards an apocalypse?

October 12, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

Our legislators whom we respectfully refer to as Honourable Members of Parliament have perfected a system where they have rendered the opposition redundant once elections are fought and the winner forms the government. Thus we have a multi-party democracy till the elections.  Once the elections are held, the opposition, partly because of its mindset not to accept defeat and partly because of the arrogance of the winner, stays away from the parliament thus turning our system in reality into a parliamentary democracy without a functional opposition. This time, the AL seems determined to doing away with the “farce” of having any opposition in our parliamentary system for which it has amended the Constitution (15th Amendment) to introduce a “one party democracy” in the country.

As Bangladesh braces for that eventuality, there is widespread concern and apprehension that the AL’s attempt to change the system would not be easy. There is consensus among the people, outside the inner circle of the ruling party, that the only way to save Bangladesh sliding towards the apocalypse is to hold national elections participated by all political parties.  Bangladesh today is staring into the barrel of the gun because of the way the two mainstream parties have played politics over the last two decades ironically, after they had come together and had overthrown the military dictatorship of Hussein Muhammad Ershad with overwhelming popular support to establish democracy in the country. Even more ironic is the fact that the former dictator is now lecturing his former adversaries about democracy and people are listening!

Menacing war of words

At the time of filing this article, the Prime Minister has reiterated her determination to hold elections her way fully aware that under it, the opposition BNP would not participate. The Leader of the Opposition has said that there is no way that she would allow the Prime Minister to hold elections her way. She warned that when the Prime Minister ends her legal tenure of the government as the elected Prime Minister and becomes the Interim Prime Minister on October 26th, her party with its allies would take to the streets to force her to hold “inclusive” national elections under a neutral non-party government. Begum Khaleda Zia has called for resistance committees at the grassroots level to stop the AL led government from holding one-party elections in the country.

As logic would have it, there is no way that both could be right. As to who is right has been debated both publicly and privately. The conclusion is there for all to see. The people have spoken that elections must be held with the participation of all parties with a level playing ground. The people have also spoken that it is the responsibility of the government to discuss with the opposition for finding a way out for holding the “inclusive” elections. They have further spoken that the elections must be within the Constitution that they feel can be done by the ruling party as effortlessly as it amended the Constitution to ensure that the elections would be held under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina because of its ¾ majority in parliament. The people support the BNP’s demand for election under a non-party government because it is the same demand that the AL had made in 1996 and had forced the BNP led government to accept.

The AL led government, however, is showing little interest to talk with the opposition to come to an understanding although the way the Prime Minister is addressing public meetings and identifying the BNP as the opposition gives a faint hope that it is “inclusive” national elections she may have in mind. Nevertheless, no one really can predict what would happen to the country if the AL led government crossed the Red Line drawn by the BNP. When the country gets to that point, one thing would however be certain that Sheikh Hasina stood against pressure from international powers that in the past no Bangladesh leader had even dared to think let alone do. She has done so also when the majority of the country’s people want her to talk with the opposition to find a way out of the dangers towards which she is leading the country. 

Hobson’s choice
Therefore, people are scratching their heads to find out the reasons that are encouraging her to follow such a destructive course. Some are also suggesting that the ruling party has left itself with no alternative but to try and return to power at any cost. Therefore they say that the AL will hold the elections with its allies and hope that the BNP would eventually come to participate under Hasina’s Interim Government because it is impatient to do so. If the BNP stays away, the AL would then argue that the elections have been fair and the BNP should take the blame for not participating. 

Others argue that the ruling party would not do anything before October 25th to make the BNP happy. It will give a date for the elections following the provisions in the 15th Amendment word for word and see what sort of opposition that the BNP would be able to muster in the streets. Therefore, they further argue that eventually whether it would be the Prime Minister who would have her way or the Leader of the Opposition hers would depend on the show of strength in the streets after October 25th. There are still others who argue in favour of yet a different outcome. They agree with those who think that the election issue will go to the streets but do not think it will be decided there. They do not see any chance of the AL led government holding elections under the present Prime Minister and returning back for yet another five-year term. Likewise, they do not see the elections that the BNP wants under a neutral non-party government. They are certain that the street fights would cause civil order to collapse leaving the armed forces with no alternative but to intervene.

Those who see the intervention of the armed forces as certain also believe that such intervention could be nightmarish and more dangerous than the other scenarios that are also dangerous.  They think that in the January, 2007 intervention, the armed forces acted as a unified force and were anxious to step in and capture political power. This time, things are different. The extra-constitutional forces have shown no inclination whatever to step in because there are a number of serious issues concerning the armed forces that have not been satisfactorily resolved. Therefore, those who think that the intervention of the armed forces is unavoidable think that if the forces intervened, it would not be as orderly. They fear that it could lead to a more dangerous situation than the political parties fighting in the streets. 

Lone ranger?

These scenarios together with the consequences of each are also well known to both the parties. The public is deeply concerned why the ruling party is doing nothing when powerful countries/institutions like the United States, the EU, China, the United Nations have all said that the way out is to talk with the opposition to hold elections that would be free, fair, transparent and “inclusive.” This concern is leading many to believe that the AL led government is being backed by some powerful entity in pursuing its policy of “its way or the highway”. Increasingly, they are pointing the finger at India that has so far not joined the international voice for the national demand in Bangladesh for an election that would include both the ruling party and the BNP. Those who point the finger at India do so because they believe that New Delhi needs another term of the Awami League to institutionalize its security concerns and to achieve the land transit on a permanent basis.

They point at sudden interest of India in Bangladesh with the transfer of 250MW of electricity to Bangladesh’s national grid and the foundation laying ceremony of the Ramphal joint venture to establish their point. They consider these Indian initiatives as possible signs that New Delhi is standing behind the AL led government. The sale of electricity has been welcomed; the foundation laying ceremony of Ramphal, not so. It is indeed a matter of regret that the Indians went ahead with Ramphal after witnessing widespread discontent in Bangladesh over it.  It is also a matter of regret that the Indians failed to see the element of obstinacy on part of the AL led Government. Originally, the foundation ceremony date was set for October 21st. The ceremony was brought forward to October 5th after the opponents of the project served the government the October 11th deadline to abandon it.

India’s dilemma

In Bangladesh, almost every body believes that India does not allow any project as close to the Sunderbans as Ramphal. With Ramphal, the Indians have thus added another issue to the LBA/Teesta deals and the border killings to disappoint Bangladesh. Nevertheless, India, without contributing in anyway, finds itself in a position as it did in 1971. By encouraging the AL towards a credible, inclusive national election, it could help Bangladesh overcome its greatest political crisis since 1971 and overcome its disappointment over Teesta and LBA deals and border killings.  By backing it to hold national elections without the BNP, India would help create for Bangladesh a major catastrophe where its concerns with security and land transit would be up for grabs because the AL government that would come to power through such an election would simply be unable to govern. The choice whether Bangladesh would slide towards the apocalypse or come back from the brink thus rests to a large extent on India. India therefore should do the right thing and deal with Bangladesh and not with a political party.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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