Violence mars poll process in Dhaka

A decision by Bangladesh President Iajuddin Ahmed last Sunday to head an interim government to conduct general elections set for January may exacerbate widespread political violence that has already resulted in 27 deaths over the weekend.

The main opposition Awami League party of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has already said that it would continue with the agitations - unabated since the 345-seat parliament was dissolved last Friday — to press for the appointment of a non-partisan leader to run the caretaker government. Ahmed appointed himself head of the caretaker government after a series of discussions with the four main political parties, including the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jatiya Party, failed to produce a consensus. While the president’s largely titular office is supposed to be above party politics,

Ahmed has been closely associated with the BNP and, in past elections, been a successful candidate of the ruling party.

Last Saturday KM Hasan, till recently the chief justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court, refused to take up the job after the Awami League accused him of being biased in favour of the BNP.

“The person who will be chosen to hold the polls must be neutral,” said Hasina Wajed. “The delay in appointing the chief of the caretaker government is pushing the nation towards a confrontation,” she said, before Ahmed decided to take on the responsibility himself. Wajed had proposed that Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, also a former justice of the apex court and therefore eligible, be appointed leader of the caretaker government — a device that is supposed to prevent an outgoing government from attempting to influence or rig the polls.

To press its demands, the Awami League, leading a 14-party opposition combine, has been rampaging through the streets of Dhaka setting fire to vehicles and shops and clashing with the police and supporters of the BNP-led, ruling coalition. The main political rivals fought pitched battles at several places in Dhaka, isolating the bustling capital city of 10 million people, from the rest of the country. Few dared venture outside and the highways remained deserted, crippling life in this impoverished country of 144 million people.

“I feel I’ve been kept hostage to the will of the major political parties fighting for power,” a school teacher, Shahana Begum, said.

Last Sunday, hundreds of Awami League activists carrying bamboo poles and oars paraded through the city streets, chanting slogans against Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia.

Meanwhile, the authorities have taken up stringent security measures in and around the capital city. More than 20,000 security personnel will guard the capital city to thwart plans declared by the Awami League to lay siege to it. Business leaders have been voicing worry at the political violence and the Awami League-led alliance’s programme of cutting the capital off from the rest of the country and also blocking the country’s main port of Chittagong.

The president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, SM Fazlul Hoque, said the political unrest and blockades were causing daily losses worth approximately $29 million in the apparel business alone. — IPS