Does Bangladesh need mid-term elections?

Abdul Gaffar Choudhury
Published : 8 August 2015, 07:57 AM
Updated : 8 August 2015, 07:57 AM

BNP has suddenly taken a new political turn. For the longest time they have been demanding a general election to be held under a neutral caretaker government. To force the government to accept their demand, they launched two movements before and after the January 5 election in association with Jamaat.

They killed people indiscriminately throughout the country. This terrorism under the cover of political movement did not succeed. BNP was demoralised and there was division among the party's leaders and workers regarding the boycott of elections and whether it was justified or not. BNP's rank and file believed that they would have won had they participated in the elections. Many of them, including the older leaders, lost faith in the wisdom of their high command, and there was silent discontent within the party against the high-handedness of Tareq Rahman. They believed that he was misleading the party from the comforts of his self-inflicted exile in London.

Reports were circulating that Begum Zia was losing her grip over the party as she grew older, and repeatedly making wrong decisions. The last two movements of BNP associated with Jamaat were nothing but terrorism that killed and maimed dozens of innocents, and hardly served in toppling the government.

Instead, it came back as a boomerang to bite BNP. Now the party and its leadership are challenged from within. There was also widespread talk about reorganising BNP under new leadership. No one else except Dr. Badrudduza Chowdhury, the founder secretary of BNP, has hinted on this, as has been reported in the media. Perhaps the change of the political situation in Bangladesh has forced Begum Zia to change her mind.

Recently, after consulting with her supporters who are lawyers, she declared that her party will not demand for elections under a caretaker government. Rather, they will participate in the election under a government headed by Sheikh Hasina conditionally.

The conditions are: A mid-term election should be arranged and the ministry of home affairs, public administration and information, should be placed at the hands of neutral people chosen by consultation between AL and BNP. The chief election commissioner should be replaced and the two parties should sit for dialogue to arrange the mid-term election.

This is a welcome decision coming from the second largest political party of Bangladesh. The caretaker governments have failed to hold free and fair elections in the past and the abuse of power by some leading men such as Abdur Rahman Biswas and Iyazuddin Ahmed of those governments has proved the caretaker government system to be far from fool-proof. The system was therefore abolished by constitutional amendment.

Yet BNP wanted to ride this dead horse and obviously could not achieve anything out of it. Many observers think this realisation has forced Begum Zia to abandon the demand for caretaker government, but she still insisted on a mid-term election. There was widespread rumour that two factors worked to change Begum Zia's mind.

Most of her party leaders believe that BNP committed a great mistake by not participating in January 2014 elections and that they could have won the election easily. It was an incorrect decision by the leadership, which led the party to its current disastrous position. Now Awami League government has gained ground with economic development. Sheikh Hasina's popularity rate is also rising. BNP failed to prove that this government is illegal. People of Bangladesh and the wider world have accepted the government as a legal one.

Awami League did not prevent BNP from joining the last election. It was BNP's own decision to boycott the elections and prevent people from participating, which they failed to do. Now, Begum Zia is desperate for a mid-term election. Perhaps her advisors are thinking that BNP is rapidly losing their chances of winning the election. If AL gets more time to hold on to power and complete their present term, then it will be difficult for BNP to win thereafter. So, mid-term elections are BNP's last chance.

Some BNP sources revealed that Begum Zia allegedly fears that if AL can complete its full term, then she and her son Tareq Rahman may not get a chance to participate in the elections after three or four years. There are serious allegations of corruption and abuse of power against her and her son, and the cases are proceeding in the court of law. The proceedings of those cases may conclude within the tenure of the present AL government, and if they are proved guilty, they may be barred from their election candidature.

That will be the end of their leadership and consequently split the party. Some of the old leaders, who were humiliated by Tareq Rahman, and lost their positions in the party, are waiting in the wings for an opportune moment to come back and retaliate. This is another reason why Begum Zia is desperate for an early election.

If an early election is held, and BNP can win, then Begum Zia can dismiss the charges against her and her son through her official power, and Tareq Rahman may also be able to return to Bangladesh free of legal charges against him. He can then fulfil his dream of being Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

But the question in the political circle of Dhaka is whether BNP can convince the government to a mid-term election or not under Sheikh Hasina's government. From a pragmatic viewpoint, there is no reason why AL government will accept this demand. The political situation in Bangladesh before and after the elections on January 5, 2014 is not the same.

Before the elections, AL offered several concessions to encourage BNP to join the elections and to avoid bloodshed in the name of anti-government movement by BNP-Jamaat. Now that situation has been totally altered. The election was held with AL remaining in power and people at home and abroad accepting this government as legal. BNP tried their best to convince the outside world that this government is an illegal one.

That attempt failed, and Hasina's government achieved some kind of stability. There is no demand from people to hold an early election. AL government cannot really hold a mid-term election at the simple demand of the BNP which the people themselves are largely not really ready for.

Moreover, AL has undertaken a large number of social and economic development plans. The trial and punishment of the war criminals of 1971 remains unfinished. AL has a moral duty and commitment towards the people that they will complete this within their present tenure. They need to remain in power for the rest of the term to fulfil their promises towards the people.

BNP's demand of putting chosen people in some ministries during election is not a very tangible one. This is tantamount to asking for a share of power before one of them wins the election. This is unheard of in democratic countries. For conducting free and fair elections, the mechanisms should be geared up to ensure neutrality. Sharing power between two contesting parties is not practised in a democratic system.

Abdul Gaffar Choudhury is a columnist.