Gloomy prospect for Bangladesh

Farid Ahmed

As the military-backed interim government continues to arrest leaders of mainstream political parties on charges of corruption, hopes for early restoration of democracy in Bangladesh are receding. With the arrest on the weekend of Moulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, chief of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and minister for industry in the last elected government, the leaders of Bangladesh’s three main political parties are now behind bars.

Former PMs Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, heads of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League respectively, have been under detention since mid-2007. Both have said the charges they face, of corruption and abuse of power, are politically motivated. The detentions are in conflict with the government’s announcement that it would begin dialogue with political parties this week in preparation for polls scheduled in December. Political analysts say the arrests are not conducive to participatory and credible election.

“It’s a difficult situation and it seems the political situation is going back to square one,” Ataur Rahman, a professor of political science at Dhaka University, said. “If such a situation continues, there is a possibility that some of the major political parties might not join the polls and, if so, the elections might not be credible.” After Nizami was refused bail on Monday, his Jamaat-e-Islami party, a major component of the BNP-led coalition government that ruled from 2001 to 2006, has come out with a statement accusing the interim government of plotting to ‘depoliticise’ society and push the national elections into uncertainty.

The BNP has already threatened to boycott the polls unless emergency was withdrawn while the Awami League, on Tuesday, observed a countrywide hunger strike to press for a lifting of the emergency and the release of its leader Sheikh Hasina. The interim government’s head, Fakhruddin Ahmed, in a televised address on May 12 announced that general elections — originally scheduled for January last year — would now be held in third week of December.

Ahmed had, in his address, also announced that he would begin a dialogue with the political parties in a bid to restore democracy suspended by a state of emergency imposed on Jan. 11, 2007 following deadly street violence between supporters of the bitterly rivalling BNP and the Awami League. “It is the responsibility of all of you to make the dialogue a success. In a word there is no scope for failure. The nation is now united in its aspirations. The journey that we started on Jan. 11, 2007 is near its end,” Ahmed, former head of central bank, said.

The Ahmed government had earlier advocated reforms in the major political parties involving a change in their top leaderships and said it would only go for elections after purging national politics of corrupt people. “While inviting the political parties to the proposed dialogue with an ‘open mind’, the military-controlled government of Ahmed has clearly laid out certain agenda (leadership change) for the politicians to approve,” Nurul Kabir, editor of the leading daily New Age, said. “Subsequently, political parties are finding it difficult to engage themselves in the dialogue, which, in turn, might stand in the way of peaceful transition to a democratic political order.”