Political complications in Bangladesh have deepened as the government and the opposition are on a collision course with regards to the upcoming national elections. The 14-party opposition alliance’s 36-hour countrywide strike took effect on Tuesday, following the June 11 “Dhaka siege” that saw widespread violence in and around the capital. The programme was meant to cut off the capital from rest of the country even as pressure mounted on the government to accept the opposition’s demands on holding free and fair polls.

The 36-hour strike was called to protest the “repression” of opposition leaders and workers by the police and “ruling party” activists, while the government maintains that the opposition went ahead with its programme to delink the capital despite a High Court ruling prohibiting such “destructive” programmes.

National elections are due latest by end of January, 2007 as the five-year tenure of the four-party coalition government led by PM Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) comes to an end on October 28. Under the constitution, a non-party caretaker government headed by a chief justice takes over the helm for a maximum of three months to organise polls. But the polls are uncertain, as the opposition alliance headed by former PM Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League is demanding reforms in the “caretaker” government to make voting fair and free. The government says there is no need to change it, a view sharply contested by the opposition that is hell-bent on reforms. The loopholes in the present system must be plugged to give meaning to the non-partisan caretaker government, the opposition says. Both the sides agreed for talks on the issue, but a committee envisioned to discuss the matter could not be formed.

The opposition is unwilling to accommodate into the committee members of a key government ally, Islamic Jamaat-e-Islaami, that the opposition blames of opposing the country’s independence war in 1971. The government finds this objection unacceptable. The impasse continues as contending sides accuse each other for the stalemate.

The opposition also accuses the Election Commission (EC) of being manned by government cronies. A faulty voters’ list is also at the centre of controversy after the Supreme Court invalidated the EC’s list.

The polls are fast approaching with no progress either on the proposed talks on reforms or on preparation of an acceptable voters’ list. However, the EC has initiated a process that it hopes to complete by July end. It remains to be seen how effective the commission’s efforts will be in removing the bottlenecks on the talks front. The opposition is also demanding the resignation of Chief Election Commissioner, Justice M A Aziz.

The “Dhaka siege” and the strike have worsened government-opposition ties. The two sides exchanged heated words in the parliament on Monday on a number of issues, including the “objectionable” remarks about both PM Khaleda Zia and the main opposition leader Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh is likely to face more political troubles in the coming days.

Chowdhury, a journalist, writes for THT from Dhaka