Shonar Bangla, not so golden

With the current situation so bad in Bangladesh, it can only get betterAfsan Choudhary DhakaIt’s come down to no-choice options in Bangladesh: not between democracy and chaos, but between chaos and anarchy. And it’s clear as daylight that all the signs of this deep-rooted ailment lie in the national electoral system.Indeed, the entire political scenario is based on entrenched mutual mistrust. Since the political parties don’t trust each other, elections are held under a neutral caretaker non-party government to prevent rigging. A chief adviser, who is supposed to be the last retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, leads such a structure. Ten advisers, nominated by the two main parties—the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—make up the ‘election cabinet’. This caretaker system was established in 1990 when General Mohammad Ershad’s government was chased out of power after street protests, leaving behind a vacuum. This forced a constitutional innovation, which was institutionalised in 1996 by Parliament—later forced to dissolve in the face of mass protests. This year, things reached an extreme point of crisis, when the AL-led 14-party combine demanded various political and electoral reforms, claiming the caretaker structure is being manipulated. It refused to accept retired Chief Justice Hasan as chief adviser since he was a BNP member. Dialogue between the two parties failed to take off in the days before the caretaker regime took over on October 28. The AL-led alliance refused to negotiate with a team that had Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) as a member. JI is a key member of the BNP-led four-party alliance that governed Bangladesh from 2001, but is considered ‘anti-liberation’ for its dubious role in 1971 when Bangladesh attained ‘freedom’. The main issues revolve around voters’ registration, false voter claims and procedures deemed unconstitutional. The BNP, perhaps, calculated that once the caretaker government takes over, the AL would be forced to agree; but the 14-party alliance launched violent street agitations all over the country. Hundreds were injured and two dozen killed. The sight of a JI supporter being beaten to death proved that total breakdown had occurred. AL’s plan to take over the streets as soon as the BNP rule ends, seemed to have worked. In this situation, Justice Hasan refused to take over as head of the caretaker government. Other judges, too, refused. As this crisis mounted, AL leader Sheikh Hasina declared another ‘shutdown’. The BNP promised to hit back on the streets. President Iyazuddin Ahmed, a university don and BNP ally, held talks with the major political parties and declared the chief adviser’s name. Indeed, the president himself became the chief adviser of the caretaker regime! This was astounding. Nobody expected this. A cabinet of 10 was sworn in. Meanwhile, Hasina gave the government a week to prove its neutrality that ended the call for “oborodh (cut off) without end”.  The farcical nature of politics in Bangladesh is reflected by the endless effigy burning of the CEC-dubbed “Mad Aziz”, Chief Election Commissioner Justice MA Aziz, and slogans and cartoons everywhere. Even General Ershad, generally called the “world’s most shameless man” (behayaa), admitted he may have been upstaged in that exalted category by Justice Aziz.Earlier, the president, by using the home secretary’s office and without informing his colleagues, had ordered the military to be prepared for deployment. However, the cabinet put pressure to have the order rescinded, and rebuked the bureaucrats, who then said they had only carried out the orders. While AL has welcomed the initiative of the advisers, the BNP criticised it by saying that holding elections is the priority and insisted that the CEC must stay. It seems that Iyazuddin is being pitted against his own advisory cabinet and is increasingly seen to be aligning with the BNP. While the power games go on, mass suffering has reached levels that defy description. With public transport off the roads, almost any non-motorised vehicle is being used to ferry patients to hospitals. Market prices of essential goods have hit the roof. All educational institutions have been shut down, offices don’t function, and the daily loss claimed by businessmen is over Rs 500 crore in the garments sector alone. The situation became so bad that the ‘shutdown’ was lifted for a week. The 14-party alliance has declared that no ‘rigged elections’ will be allowed to be held under Aziz and his colleagues. Hasina has demanded the resignation of Iyazuddin Ahmed for failing to demonstrate ‘neutrality’. Oborodh returned on November 20 and the BNP promised to counter it.  With the situation so bad, it can only get better. Because one desperately hopes, it’s not democracy that is the final victim.