In the past, initiatives on getting two biggest parties to agree on a political settlement on the issue of an election-time government were taken from within the country and outside.
This time around, no one is making any move.
With the announcement of the election schedule approaching, the Awami League and the BNP are standing at polar positions with no apparent signs of efforts towards reaching an understanding.
Human rights activists and political analysts have called on the ruling and opposition parties to reach a middle ground in the interest of the people.
An election analyst said in times of political crisis the ruling party must make a move to bring everyone on the same page.
Towards the end of last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina invited the opposition party over for “tea at the Ganabhaban”, but her invitation was turned down. Since then, Hasina has shrugged off any possibilities of a discussion.
Before BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir landed in jail on Oct 29, he said a discussion can only be held once the government accepts the BNP’s demand for a non-partisan caretaker government.
The ruling party’s response was talks without any conditions.
But since clashes between the BNP activists and the police on Oct 28 in Dhaka, the opposition bloc has enforced consecutive general strikes and blockades with the relevance of a discussion almost lost.
Dr Abdul Alim, an election expert, sounded downbeat about chances of political parties reaching an understanding. At the same time, he would not rule it out since “nothing is impossible in politics”.
“[Negotiations can happen] if a good idea for reaching a common ground miraculously pops up.”
Recalling the general election of 1991, he said: “The idea of a caretaker government was not part of the constitution at that time. That government was formed on consensus of the parties. The political parties need to come to an understanding now to end the current impasse.”
“This goodwill is now crucial. Everyone has to accept the idea of a proper, fair and trustworthy election. It means a party has to invite another saying ‘let’s come to a decision as the country belongs to us all’. And the others have to respond to the invitation as well.”
Asked whether it was possible with the ongoing conflict reaching a boiling point, Dr Alim said: “The term ‘end’ does not exist in politics. If an initiative can be taken now, it’s still possible in this small window of time.”
“In that case, the initiative can be direct, open or taken behind closed doors. But reaching an understanding is what’s important.”
Human Rights activist Khushi Kabir added: “People are now hostages. The opposition party is enforcing general strikes and blockades for its interest, but the people have to work. So they are the ones being put in harm’s way.”
“A settlement has to be reached with everyone’s participation. But if they keep holding on to their own demands and ignore what others are saying without any move for a solution -- then there’s no need for a discussion. It won’t solve anything.”
Stressing the need for goodwill among the political parties, she said: “Whether it be the government or the opposition party, it’s important to see how willing they are for a discussion.”
FAILURES OF THE PAST
The international community, including the United Nations, sent representatives to end political hostilities in Bangladesh before the sixth general election of 1996, the ninth election of 2006 which was cancelled and the 10th boycotted by the BNP in 2014. But it all ended in failures.
This time around, the United States declared a separate visa policy for Bangladesh saying anyone obstructing a proper election will not get visas for a trip to the country, along with members of their families. The US has also said it will do “whatever necessary” it can for a free and fair election in Bangladesh.
British High Commissioner Sarah Cooke spoke to the leaders of the Awami League, the Jatiya Party and the BNP in separate meetings. She sat with Abdul Moyeen Khan, a member of the BNP’s Standing Committee, on Nov 3. But no official words came from the high commissioner.
In 1994, Sir Ninian Stephen, then a special envoy of the Commonwealth secretary-general, arrived in Bangladesh for a solution when the Awami League and other parties took to the streets to demand the appointment of a caretaker government.
He spoke with both the parties, but the ruling BNP then remained firm on its stance. The Awami League and other opposition parties then boycotted the general election, which was held in February 1996.
Following the election, a parliament session was held in the face of an Awami League-led non-cooperation movement. BNP chief and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s government stepped down afterwards and the provision of a caretaker government system was added to the constitution. Another election was held in June that year which the Awami League won to return to power.
Before the 2006 election, the Awami League questioned who would head the caretaker government and the rules stipulated that the immediate past chief justice would lead the non-partisan government.
However, the term of the chief justices was stretched by two years during the BNP government and brought forth Justice KM Hasan as head of the caretaker government.
Hasan was once the international affairs secretary of the BNP, and the Awami League rejected the idea of his appointment and took to the streets. Hasan then declined to take the office.
Khaleda Zia then appointed the then President Iajuddin Ahmed to lead the caretaker government, skipping several steps of the constitution in the process, before herself stepping aside as prime minister.
At that time, envoys from the United States and United Kingdom held meetings with both camps.
With things proceeding towards a one-sided election slated for Jan 22, 2007, the army intervened and declared emergency. Iajuddin stepped down as president, as Fakhruddin Ahmed swore in as chief advisor to the interim caretaker government.
Although the election was supposed to be held within 90 days, another two years went by without a people-appointed government. After the Awami League won a landslide victory in December 2008, the High Court scrapped the caretaker government system in 2011.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in parliament retrieving the method of election to be held under a people-elected government.
Ahead of the 2014 election, the BNP-Jamaat coalition took to the streets to demand the restoration of the caretaker system.
At that time, United Nations Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco paid a visit to the country in an effort to clear out political animosities. Besides the Awami League and the BNP, he spoke with ambassadors of Western countries and representatives of India and Russia during his visit.
However, his attempt also failed as the election was boycotted and marred by conflict and violence.
RESPONSIBILITY OF THE GOVERNMENT
Dr Alim emphasised the government making a move to bring the parties to an understanding.
He said: “When such complications occur, the ruling party has to take steps. We’ve seen this happen around the globe.”
“One party has to step forward and the others have to respond. They can’t be rigid. That’s not how democracy works. Politics and elections are for democracy. The political parties must understand that.”
Security analyst retired Major General Abdur Rashid said the possibility of all political parties participating in the election was non-existent.
“The atmosphere and signs that we are currently seeing discount all possibility of that happening,” he said.
In his words, the politics of Bangladesh is “deeply polarised”, and the odds of negotiations were next to nothing.
“The parties in our country fail to reach an understanding. From what we see historically, it will take a lot of time in the future. I don’t think it can happen within the period we have before the election takes place.”
“One side has to accept the terms of benefitting the other side. And if the other side has power, why would they accept anything? That’s what we’re witnessing.”
Dr Alim feared that the conflict between “pro-election and anti-election circles” would intensify once the schedule was announced.
“If the protests intensify after the schedule is announced, the ongoing violence across the country, like setting buses ablaze, will happen more frequently.”
“And if that happens, it’s easy to assume that the violence will no doubt continue until the election. The ruling party may try to control or stop such violence, but I think those who are protesting would pour their efforts into continuing their programmes.”
‘CONTEST OF POWER’
Even amidst the rising political volatility, the chiefs of the two prominent parties have so far shown little appetite for reaching an understanding.
Awami League Joint General Secretary Mahbub-Ul Alam Hanif said: “Understanding with whom? Discussion with whom? The BNP is a terrorist party. There can be no understanding with those who cause violence in the name of protest, set cars ablaze, vandalise property and kill people.”
On the other hand, BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said: “We think taking to the streets is the only way. No matter how much they oppress us, we will continue our programmes. Until our demands are met, we shall continue our protests on the streets.”
[Writing in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo; editing by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]