Bangla showdown continues

A four-day transport blockade called by a powerful opposition coalition has succeeded in getting the chief election commissioner to stand down, but the protestors are demanding further reforms before national elections set for January.

“We want reconstitution of the election commission and the revision of the existing voters’ list, which has 14 million fake voters,” said Sheikh Hasina Wajed, chief of the main opposition Awami League party, last Thursday, soon after announcing an end to the blockade which had crippled normal activity in the capital and other urban centres from Monday to Thursday. Last Friday, the ports of deltaic Bangladesh were limping back to business and motorised transport was plying the streets. But as the political standoff continued, there were worries as to when normal life would resume. “It’s frustrating. The problems have to be resolved immediately. November and December is the end of academic year and I can’t send my children to school,” said Hamidul Haque, a banker in Dhaka.

Hasina Wajed, a former PM, said protests planned for the coming week by her party and its 13 coalition partners would include mass demonstrations outside the presidential palace and the election commission. As chief election commissioner M A Aziz stepped down, the caretaker government headed by President Iajuddin Ahmed appointed one of Aziz’s three deputies, Mahfuzur Rehman, as acting chief election commissioner. The Awami League’s demand was that not only Aziz but all his deputies should go. The coalition alleges that the present commission is biased in favour of the outgoing Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and that President Ahmed is not doing enough to ensure that the administration left behind by the BNP-led coalition acts impartially during the poll process. Earlier, the Awami League succeeded in thwarting K M Hasan, who has close links with the BNP, from heading the caretaker government resulting in Ahmed appointing himself president, amidst days of street violence which left at least 30 people dead.

In Bangladesh, elections must be held by a neutral caretaker administration to prevent the possibility of an outgoing government influencing the poll process. The Awami League general secretary said they would intensify the agitation if any other controversial person was named as a new commissioner as announced by the president. A cabinet member of the interim government, Akbar Ali Khan, said: “The President has assured us that neutral and qualified persons would be appointed as the new election commissioners.” Hasina Wajed had earlier threatened to boycott the election if the interim authority failed to fulfill the alliance’s demands.

The blockade has taken a toll on the country’s economic activities. The biggest foreign exchange earning apparel sector, which employs 2.2 million people and earned $8 billion from exports in the last fiscal year, was badly affected and the readymade garments exporters have urged the president to take effective measures to end the political impasse.

“We are in trouble with our scheduled productions and shipments disrupted by political unrest,” said Ranah George Abraham, the country’s sourcing manager for the Levi Strauss, a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of global brands Levi’s and Dockers. — IPS