Political confrontation and ensuing violence are nothing new in Bangladeshi politics. The birth of Bangladesh was a result of confrontation that morphed into an armed struggle then with an intransigent coterie of power ruling from a distance. Later, Bangladeshis fought amongst themselves to oust, first a legitimate elected government through violence, and later with mass movement to throw out an autocrat masking as an elected President.
But even after that second ouster, violence has been part and parcel of our political culture. The ouster of General Ershad through mass movement in 1991 ushered in the first truly elected government in the country since 1973 and we all thought that we have finally graduated to governments elected by popular choice after a long time.
Unfortunately, our hopes and aspirations were short lived.
We had only three free elections since 1991 that led to formation of governments by the winning party, much to the satisfaction of the electorate albeit the losing party always cried foul, sometimes refusing to take part in the parliamentary proceedings. But these are part of the democratic rights of the parties. These protests were mostly non-violent and within norms. The elections were viewed both domestically and internationally as fair and neutral mostly because the elections were held by a non-partisan caretaker government which was actually a life saver for the country considering the acrimonious relationship between parties.
No one doubted the integrity of the caretaker government, particularly the electorate, which is the nation itself. In fact, the consensus among the contesting political parties in 1990-’91 was for a non-partisan caretaker government to hold the elections. Had there been no agreement for a caretaker government in 1991, the country probably would have had to endure another round of military government for an indefinite period.
But the caretaker provision in holding general elections was scrapped by a constitutional amendment by the government in 2011 after three successful elections. Reason behind this drastic step was that the provision was declared unconstitutional by the country’s highest court, although it had opined that the sunset on the caretaker government may come after another two parliamentary elections. But the ruling party at that time (which continues to be at the seat) lost no time and amended the constitution to scrap the caretaker government provision with immediate effect, much to the chagrin of the opposition parties.
Since then the main opposition, along with other political parties, have been clamoring for restoring the caretaker provision for holding general elections. Their demand escalated to riot proportions in the next general election, in 2014, when the country witnessed consecutive hartals, work stoppages, transport strikes, burnings, and looting. Dhaka streets and those in other major cities became scenes of horror and mayhem. When the government steadfastly held on to its determination to hold the elections despite the opposition protest, the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted the elections. This, of course, cleared the path for the ruling party and it sailed to an easy victory with a thumping majority.
The same scenario would be repeated five years later with the opposition crying for a return to caretaker government for holding the elections but to deaf ears. The result was another easy victory for the ruling party in an empty election field.
Today, after a hiatus of another five years, we are back to square one.
But this time the noise began much earlier, not only domestically, but also internationally. The domestic noise began as usual with demands from the main opposition parties for a caretaker government, making it an essential condition for their participation in the elections. But the noise from abroad was more generic, creating conditions for holding peaceful and participatory elections. These conditions were for a whole range of things, starting from basic human rights of free speech, free assembly, reining in law enforcing agencies from illegal actions, and of course holding free and fair elections. These calls came not only from the United States (which started with sanctions of some top officials of law enforcing agencies followed by visa restrictions), but also statements from a number of Western countries in a similar vein.
No doubt, direct and indirect threats and actions of many Western countries, who are not only our benefactors but also major business partners, have altered the upcoming election scenario. The main opposition has found strength in the stand of Western countries in their demand for an enabling environment for participation in the general elections. Primary among the conditions is a restoration of the caretaker government provision. Short of fulfilling this demand the opposition, mainly Bangladesh Nationalist Party, will not take part in any elections. And the government is equally determined that it will not, or cannot, restore an unconstitutional provision for holding the elections.
Who knows how long these “peaceful” rallies will remain peaceful and not turn into riots and mayhem? You cannot release a snake and a mongoose on the streets and expect them to roll side by side quietly for long.
So, is there a way out from a return to the horrors of 2014, when the streets of Dhaka became battlefields? So far from what we have seen are posturing by two major parties in the name of “peaceful” rallies or assemblies, but each sticking to their own demands. The government party will not hold elections under any government other than the one that runs the country now. For the opposition, any election under the current government is dead in the water.
No caretaker government, no election.
The irony in these opposing demands is that, without a compromise between the two demands, one cannot have a participatory election – a hope and demand from our friendly countries abroad. How can you have a free and participatory election if the opposition does not participate? This is like having your cake and eating it too.
Time is unfortunately not on our side. It is running out quickly. The government, particularly the leaders of the ruling party, need to take a step back and make some statesmen-like decisions – whether to stick to their guns or save the country from the precipice. The solution will be from a judicious decision on how to make the upcoming elections a success by participation from all parties. A consensus from a joint meeting with the opposition leaders like the one in 1991 may yet save the day.
It will take concessions from both parties on forming an interim government for holding the elections and in the electoral process. But these concessions for the national good are far better than the unyielding positions of either side. Can our leaders rise above their narrow party interests and prove that they are truly national leaders?
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.
This article was first published on Dhaka Tribune.