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#4184, 20 November 2013

Bangladesh Elections 2013

Under Third Party Shadow?
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati & Visiting Fellow, IPCS

With the installation of an ‘all-party’ interim government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to oversee the ensuing national elections and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is not part of it, dismissing the new regime as a ‘farce’, the stage is set for more street protests and intense lobbying by third parties to work out an arrangement to ensure the polls actually take place in a true democratic spirit. The Hasina-led Awami League went ahead with its idea of putting in place an ‘all-party’ government, rejecting the BNP-led opposition coalition’s demand that the polls in January end are held under the supervision of a neutral caretaker government. Predictably, all the eight ministers sworn in, including the two ministers of state, belong to the Awami League-led grand alliance.
The promise by Khaleda Zia’s BNP to step up protests not only increases the possibility of street battles in the days ahead, but also gives a clear indication that the party may actually boycott the elections itself. In this scenario, one is already witnessing nudgings by third parties like the United States and India. But as things stand now, neither Washington nor New Delhi enjoy the trust of the political establishment across the board in Bangladesh. In fact, the ‘all-party’ government was installed as US assistant secretary of state Nisha Biswal ended a three-day visit to the country with a call for dialogue between the Awami League and the BNP to end the deadlock.
The visiting US official said, “The announcement of the interim cabinet simply underscores the urgency for a dialogue to take place immediately to determine a way forward for peaceful, free, fair and credible elections.” Biswal’s remark does indicate that Washington was ready to try and bring about a rapprochement between the Begums at least in so far as smooth conduct of the polls are concerned. But, the Awami League has indicated it has doubts about the neutrality of the US. Some Awami League leaders have openly accused the US Ambassador in Dhaka of ‘behaving like a BNP leader.’  India, too, has voiced the need for ‘dialogue’ to break the deadlock but New Delhi suffers from a high dose of credibility crisis because the BNP and its allies view the UPA regime to be pro-Awami League.
In this backdrop of uncertainty, one cannot rule out the Army in Bangladesh stepping in to play a limited role in holding the elections and ensuring a civilian government in place. If at all this happens, such a civilian government will come to have the Army’s backing. But, as of now, the Awami League appears to be working overtime to drive a wedge among the BNP-led coalition to see if some of the smaller parties of that combine could be persuaded to contest the polls. But, the Awami League’s significant success thus far has been to get Gen. Hussain Mohammed Ershad’s Jatiya Party to agree to contest the elections. The fact that five of the eight ministers in the ‘all-party’ interim Cabinet are from the Jatiya Party indicates the extent of adjustment, even compromise, the Awami League has been forced to make to provide a semblance of legitimacy to the poll process.
As things unfold in Dhaka, India has lot to be worried about. The Election Commission in Bangladesh, and earlier the High Court, has barred one of BNP’s key allies, the radical Jamaat-e-Islami, from contesting the elections. That has not deterred the BNP from strategizing its course of action ahead of the polls with the Jamaat. Besides, the BNP has the backing of the relatively new Islamist outfit on the block, the Hifazat-e-Islam, said to be a front of the Jamaat. New Delhi is bound, therefore, to watch the situation in Bangladesh carefully and hope the polls take place in an acceptable manner, and a democratic force is able to occupy the seat of power in Dhaka. New Delhi also must be bothered about whether the opponents of the ruling Awami League would try and target the minorities during the run up to the polls. Estimates say the minorities comprise 10 percent of Bangladesh’s electorate and are a deciding factor in several constituencies. Things are volatile to say the least, and as far as India is concerned, its dilemma over Bangladesh never seems to end.

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