The Begums of Bangladesh continue to be at loggerheads with each other one year after the controversial 2014 election, refusing to cede concessions to the other even in the interest of peace and security of their country.
The Begums of Bangladesh have nothing in common with each other except their family name, Rahman. As current leaders of the two main political dynasties, both Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have taken turns at office for most of the country’s existence, keeping the other on a tight rein and occasionally even throwing the country into turmoil in pursuit of their personal agendas. To understand the reasons of the current strife, a little background would be helpful.
Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the founder of Awami League (AL), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She has headed the AL since 1981, and her party has been in power since 2009. Two-time Prime Minister and current opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, has led the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) since 1983, and she is the widow of General Zia-ur-Rahman. Both women have had several stints in power over the years, fraught with instability due to their bitter rivalry. In 2007, the military jailed them on charges of corruption and made some concerted efforts to open up the political arena to other players but did not succeed in weakening their hold.
Both parties have very different political agendas for consumption of the public. The AL seeks a platform on the basis of Bengali language and culture; the BNP relies on unifying its vote bank on nationalist Bangladeshi sentiment with alliance of the religious parties, chiefly, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). Media reports often cite the leaders’ autocratic style of governance and pursuit of politics of revenge as they trade turns in office, fanning civil unrest to destabilize the other’s government, jailing opposition leaders by lodging false cases against them, and rendering institutions like judiciary and security weak and ineffective with nepotism. Owing greatly to their misguided policies, Bangladesh currently stands at a ranking of 145/177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2014.
Both, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia attribute the current political crisis to each other’s stubbornness and lack of political foresight. The initial stirrings of the present conflict likely happened in 2009 when the AL sought to make an amendment in the Constitution to undo the care-taker system introduced in 1996. Under this system, a neutral, impartial interim government oversees elections to ensure their credibility. Given their history, and distrust of each other to hold free and fair elections, the caretaker system has provided a workable solution. As the amendment passed in 2011, the BNP launched massive country-wide protests which resulted in loss to life and property in staggering numbers, but the AL government refused to change its stance. Additionally, the ruling AL began war crime trials of the leaders of religious parties aligned with BNP in 2010, which the New York-based Human Rights Watch termed legally-flawed, and the BNP insisted were politically-motivated persecution of its allies.
Concerned by the growing instability, foreign diplomats, including UN officials, and some national level leaders tried mediation efforts between the two, albeit unsuccessfully. Both the US and the EU refused to send their election observers to the controversial election, and the BNP announced a boycott. Compared to almost 80% voter turnout at the 2009 election, only 40% vote was cast in the January’14 election (Bangladesh Election Commission) owing to the boycott and election-day violence, with only 147/300 seats to be contested. The ruling AL won 105 of those147 seats, while filling 127/153 seats uncontested; winning a staggering total of 232/300 seats in all (Harvard International Review). Not only was the election deemed ‘illegal’ by the BNP, most of whose leadership was in jail or under house arrest at the time, but the international community also showed strong reservations about the whole process.
The US State Department issued a statement on January 6, stating that “…the United States is disappointed by the recent Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. With more than half of the seats uncontested and most of the remainder offering only token opposition, the results of the just-concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people…” , and encouraged “...immediate dialogue to find a way to hold as soon as possible elections that are free, fair, peaceful and credible, reflecting the will of the Bangladeshi people.”
The European Parliament also adopted a Resolution on January 14, 2014 to record its concern: “2013 has reportedly been the most violent year in post-independence Bangladesh’s history, and the pre-election and election phases in particular have been marked by widespread violence, with blockades, strikes and voter intimidation orchestrated mainly by the opposition and with over 300 people killed since the beginning of 2013, including at least 18 on election day, with Bangladesh’s fragile economy being paralysed as a result.”
The year that followed was filled with similar periods of political turbulence, and the first anniversary of the 2014 election brought renewed calls for a nation-wide transit strike and anti-government rallies by the BNP, reiterating demands for ‘snap polls’ under a caretaker government. The AL’s ban on public demonstrations did not deter BNP from successfully enforcing shutdowns on working days, incurring huge losses to the economy. The AL is uncomfortable with BNP’s massive street power and funding that is allegedly attributed to its close alliance with the JeI. Wary of the perceived attached radical element, Sheikh Hasina has made the severing of ties with JeI and other religious parties a pre-requisite for talks with Khaleda Zia, a demand the BNP has refused. Neither side appears to want to show any flexibility towards the other.
The international community has repeatedly called on all parties to work together to diffuse the tension. On January 16, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), urged restraint: “We urge all political parties to show restraint and to bring an immediate end to the violence. We also call on the authorities to ensure the prompt, impartial and effective investigation of all killings committed – irrespective of whether they were committed by State or non-State actors.” The European parliament delegation also paid a four-day visit to Bangladesh last month, led by Cristian Dan Preda, vice-chairperson of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on Human Rights, was quoted saying: “We’re here because we’re very concerned about human rights situation”.
Although the plight of the common man through this turmoil should be enough to guide the actions of their leaders, perhaps a look at financial considerations would help the Begums get their priorities in order. An unstable country is not an attractive option for foreign investment, not to mention how one unstable country has the potential to destabilize the whole region – especially one already as volatile as South Asia.
In conclusion, this political strife in Bangladesh requires a concerted effort on the part of both leaders to show an earnest desire for reconciliation and bringing peace and security in the country. Rising above personal vendettas would be a crucial first step towards any improvement, before compromise and strategic depth can become the main strengths of their political strategy. A comprehensive political dialogue aimed at resolving all issues of discontent, including the caretaker system, war crimes tribunals and fresh elections is of utmost urgency. Only then can any future government focus on building and strengthening independent state institutions to improve long-term prospects of transparent and democratic governance in Bangladesh.
SouthAsia Magazine, March 2015