Dec 27, 2008

World - Bangladesh;A vote most closely watched

Haroon Habib

With the lifting of the state of emergency on December 17, the last hurdle in the way of elections to the Bangladesh parliament goes and the country is all set to elect its ninth parliament on December 29.

The elections, scheduled to be held way back in January 2007, were stalled by a caretaker government backed by the country’s military following the promulgation of emergency in the backdrop of a serious political crisis. According to analysts, the timing of these elections adds a unique dimension to the process because it is in December that Bangladesh celebrates its national Victory Day, commemorating the 1971 surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka.

The elections are going to be held on the basis of new electoral rolls — prepared after removing 13 million fake voters enrolled by the erstwhile Khaleda Zia regime. Armed with a digital electoral list and having issued photo identification cards to 81 million voters, the government hopes to conduct free and fair elections in a peaceful manner. It has deployed some 50,000 troops across the country.

Washington’s interests in the elections has been summed up by its Ambassador to Dhaka, James F. Moriarty, who said in last week: “there will be no more transformational election in the world this year than the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 29 in Bangladesh.”

In the fray are two opposing alliances — the secular pro-liberation alliance led by the Awami League (AL), which took part in the country’s independence war against Pakistan, and the Islamist alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), many of whose partners had opposed the independence from Pakistan. This sharp polarisation has led analysts to predict the formation of either a model Muslim democracy or a new hotbed of extremism.

The military-backed caretaker government, which is holding the election nearly two years after its rule, has promised to hold a credible election. Though initially it received the unanimous support from the common people, the interim administration failed to hold its popularity due to lack of transparency in many of its activities. Added to it was its ill-designed attempt to implement the ‘minus two theory’ of ousting the two powerful women — the AL’s Sheikh Hasina and the BNP’s Khaleda Zia — from the nation’s political scene. Moreover, the administration’s inability to contain the price spiral of essentials due to its na├»ve market management policy eroded its popularity further.

The people of Bangladesh are still appreciative of some pragmatic steps taken by the interim administration such as its drive against financial corruption, reformation of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the Election Commission (EC). The initiative to correct the distorted history of the nation’s independence war in school textbooks was also widely appreciated.

The Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have announced their manifestos. They contain programmes of action to contain inflation and keep prices of commodities under check, vitalise industries and agriculture, ensure the basic right to food, shelter, clothing, education and health. While both the parties promise a range of political reforms to improve governance and counter-militancy, there are important differences in their approach.

The AL’s Vision-2021 manifesto is aimed at the young generation of voters, who got registered for the first time this year. The BNP promises poverty reduction through economic growth. Fight against corruption ranks the second in AL’s priority, and third in the BNP’s. Both talk about increased transparency and stiff penalties for corruption.

While the AL puts the need for maintaining economic stability in the face of the global financial crisis right at the top of its priorities, it is striking that the BNP merely mentions the worst economic crisis in generations half way through its manifesto.

While the Jatiya Party of Gen. H.M. Ershad promises a corruption and terrorism-free society in line with its ally Awami League, the Jamaat’s manifesto says the party will formulate blasphemy laws preventing and punishing those responsible for hurting religious sentiments. The promise of blasphemy laws by the premier ally of the BNP has come under sharp criticism.

A total of 39 political parties are contesting the election. After about two years of emergency restrictions, there is vibrancy in the country’s politics with the leaders of the two key alliances — the AL and the BNP — engaging themselves in hectic election tours, addressing meetings everyday. They are, however, under the watchful eyes of the special security personnel. The security for Ms Hasina is extremely tight because of the number of death threats she has received from Islamist militants.

A near full-time campaigner, Khaleda Zia is urging voters to give her four-party alliance another chance to complete her unfinished tasks. “Independence and sovereignty of the country is safe in the BNP’s hands and only the BNP-led alliance can solve the present crises of the country,” she tells her audience.

Begum Zia fears sabotage in the election process but cites no immediate reason. Urging voters to protect “Islam,” she alleges that the election is going to be a “managed affair” to install a “puppet” government. Ms Hasina who is said to be better positioned than her arch rival promises economic freedom, peace, prosperity and development if her grand alliance is voted to power.

Asking the people to take a vow to stop ‘war criminals’ from taking office again, Ms Hasina promises to put on trial the war criminals, who collaborated with the Pakistan army in the nation’s liberation war, and now allegedly getting political patronage from Khaleda Zia’s BNP.

Analysts say that the alliance with Mr. Ershad’s party appears to be a plus point for the Hasina-led grand alliance though the former president and military dictator still suffers from an image crisis but his party enjoys roughly a 10 per cent vote, particularly in the vast northern Rangpur region.

In 2001, the Awami League independently polled 41 per cent of the votes while the BNP-Jamaat coalition polled 47 per cent. The grand alliance has brought all the smaller Left leaning parties into its fold.

In a bid to woo the voters, both the alliances have accommodated popular issues such as arresting the commodity price hike, providing a social safety net for the poor and vulnerable groups, increasing power generation, infrastructure development, carrying forward administrative reforms, investment and employment generation, anti-corruption measures and good governance.

The AL’s manifesto says it will address terrorism originating both from the Islamists and criminals and promises to try the war criminals of 1971; the BNP is silent on war criminals but says it will curb terrorism. While Begum Zia has urged the voters to ‘save Islam and the country’ by electing her four-party alliance, Ms Hasina’s stress is on a campaign against the five years of “misrule” by the BNP and the Jamaat.

There will be over 200,000 local and foreign observers, making it the most closely watched vote in the country’s history. Whatever the outcome, everybody is eager to see a credible and peaceful exercise to help strengthen Bangladesh’s quest for a stable democracy.

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