12/21/2006, 00.00
BANGLADESH
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Country at a standstill a month from the elections

by Abu Shakoor
Another general strike paralyses Dhaka. Opposition Awami League continues demanding reforms and threatening boycott in January 22, 2007, elections. Crisis was long in the making.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) – One person is dead and 20 injured in clashes between rival political activists in Shailkupa, west of Dhaka. In the capital the latest general strike launched by the 14-party alliance Awami league (AL) has seen demonstrators clash with police. And the repercussions of the ongoing crisis are having a heavy toll on the country’s financial and transport sectors.

 

For months now tensions have been high in Bangladesh. The situation remains unpredictable.

 

The country’s Elections Commission, after wavering, set the next parliamentary elections for January 22, 2007. Until then, a weak caretaker government led by President Iajuddin Ahmed will be in charge.

Mr Iajuddin himself is ill, having recently undergone a heart operation, and allowed to work only three hours a day.

 

He is seen by many as a close ally of the outgoing ruling party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who has been accused of corruption and support for Islamic terrorism.

The tensions affecting the country are closely related to the January date for the elections. The Awami League said it would boycott the elections if its demands for changes to the Elections Commission are not met and more time is not give to the campaign.

 

How did we get to the current situation?

 

Bangladesh’s political system is anomalous in one respect. Parliamentary elections are held every five years, but when parliament is dissolved a caretaker, i.e. “neutral”, government is put in charge of running the government and organising the elections, which must be held within three months.

 

This system emerged in 1996 when the then-ruling BNP government was forced to resign and the opposition was able to impose a “neutral” government to prepare the elections. And it worked relatively problem free for two legislatures when well-known and respected figures were put in charge and avoided any favouritism as was the case in previous elections. However, the current outgoing government tried to go back to the old practices and stacked the cards in its favour.

 

Outgoing government’s moves

 

The Elections Commission appointed to prepare and run the elections was placed under the iron grip of a BNP loyalist, Judge M.A. Aziz. To counter opposition by two commission members, the government appointed two other people which gave Aziz a majority.  This resulted in rigged voters’ lists which the High Court and then the Supreme Court ruled had to be drawn up again if the constitution were to be respected.

 

But the government two years ago raised the retirement age for constitutional judges expecting that the “neutral” caretaker government in 2006 would fall to K.M. Hasan, another BNP supporter. However, the opposition cried foul right away and announced it would accept not the changes.

 

In September and October more than 30 people died and thousands were hurt in clashes with police, often egged on by men from the ruling coalition, as protesters called for Aziz’s and Hasan’s removal.

 

With the possibility of an agreement between ruling and opposition parties dimming, Hasan bowed out.

 

In spite of opposition by constitutional experts, President Iajuddin decided he would take over the caretaker government. Now he is president, prime, foreign and defence minister. He is assisted by ten advisors appointed from other parties but after long drawn out negotiations.

 

The Awami League was taken by surprise, but was urged by personalities like recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nobel Yunus and especially Western governments, to hold Iajuddin to his words and see if he would organise “free and fair” elections.

 

The first move the opposition demanded was the removal of Aziz, the unpopular Election Commission chairman.

 

Iajuddin and his advisors sidestepped the issue by sending the chairman on a holiday. Under pressure from the Awami League they tried the same with other Commission members but failed.

Latest developments

Time for updating electoral lists is fast running out. The BNP points to the constitution, which says elections must be held within 90 days of the end of a legislature, and is against any delay.

 

The Awami League calls for their postponement also citing the constitution, which says elections must free and fair, but is in the meantime preparing to run in the elections as well as threatening to boycott them.

 

Protests by voters excluded from the voters’ lists are growing, especially when they find out that large groups, including whole villages, are not counted.

After a few days of pause, the 14-party Awami League coalition organised a mass rally in Dhaka on Monday, joined by other smaller parties, calling for the ouster of the more compromised members of the previous government. 

 

The next day the ruling BNP-led coalition held a counter rally.

 

Today the latest general strike is underway, a possible lead up to the announcement by 16 parties that they would boycott the elections.

 

 

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See also
Still disagreement over electoral reform in Bangladesh
25/10/2006
State of emergency lifted to pave the way for elections in Bangladesh
17/12/2008
Elections begin in Bangladesh amid tight security
29/12/2008
Some 80 million voters to cast their ballot in parliamentary elections on 18 December
03/11/2008
Opposition to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections
03/01/2007


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