Army ready to break anti-poll blockade

Political parties pushing for cancellation of national elections set for Jan. 22 began on Sunday a three-day transport blockade that the caretaker government led by President Iajuddin Ahmed has warned would be tackled by the army — already deployed in strength on the streets of the capital. More than 12,000 army and police troops, backed by a ban on demonstrations, are geared up to break the blockade of Dhaka called by a coalition of 19 political parties. Poll-related protests and blockades since October have resulted in the deaths of at least 35 people. Ahmed enjoys the support of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Begum Khaleda Zia, who stepped down as PM in October after completing a five-year-term in office. Backing the move to push the polls through is the Jamaat-e-Islami, BNP’s fundamentalist ally.

Ranged against them is the coalition led by the Awami League, headed by former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, that is determined to allow the elections to be held only under a ‘neutral’ caretaker government and after the installation of a new Election Commission that is ready to revise ‘rigged’ electoral rolls.

The Awami League and its allies have already announced a boycott of the polls and withdrawn their candidates. “If necessary, we’ll continue the blockade for 10 days,” Sheikh Hasina threatened on Friday night. “If Iajuddin Ahmed doesn’t quit, we’ll lay siege to the Bangabhaban (presidential palace) for an indefinite period.” Laying out plans to get the “one-sided polls” cancelled, Awami League general secretary Abdul Jalil said the siege of the presidential palace would begin on Tuesday and followed by a mass rally in Dhaka on Wednesday. Reacting, the President issued a statement late on Saturday saying that he did not have the power to postpone the polls as this would call for a constitutional amendment. “The next few weeks are very crucial for Bangladesh as the country is set to see widespread violence after weeks of political bickering over the polls and finally the government’s decision to hold the polls without ensuring the participation of all key stakeholders,” said Shafiqul Islam, a college teacher in Dhaka.

In December, the Asian Development Bank had warned that the persisting political unrest would slow down the momentum of Bangladesh’s growth, hamper industrial production and service sector expansion. A leading Bangladeshi economist Zaid Bakht said that the situation had reached a point of no return. “The country will have to pay a huge toll as the unrest will dampen the economic activities,” Bakht, a director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said.

Like economists and businessmen, the NGO workers have also been calling for a solution to the impasse. “Political stability is interlinked with any development activities and if there is any unrest we’ll have to suffer a lot with our ongoing projects across Bangladesh,” said Syed Ishteaque Ali Jinnah, Director for Policy and Advocacy, of Water Aid Bangladesh, an associate of Britain Non-governmental organisation — WaterAid.

“We’re working with 21 local partners to improve the lives of the poor people here through water, sanitation and hygiene education projects and none will be able to work if the unrest continues,” he said. —IPS