Day of reckoning

Last Sunday the Awami League (AL) presented the new Caretaker Government (CTG) under President Iajuddin with an 11-point charter of demands, for the CTG to prove it’s neutrality, and therefore its ability to hold a free and fair election. The AL gave a deadline of today before they would judge how the CTG has responded. The AL said that if the CTG wasn’t making any effort, they would begin ‘agititation’ and protests again, and possibly even withdraw from competing in the elections in January. In short, all hell will break loose.

Here’s the charter of demands, because I can’t find a link:

• Election Commission: Reconstitute the Election Commission (removing the chief election commissioner and other election commissioners); Postpone appointment order of all partisan election officials at upazilas;
• Voter List: Correct the voter list as per the Supreme Court verdict and update them with photo; Cancel the latest voter list;
• Administration: Revoke all appointments, promotion and retirement order since July 1; Cancel all contractual appointment; Withdraw all officials from sensitive posts, the list of which would be made available to him later by the party; Withdraw all officials who are loyal to, patronised by and benefited from the BNP-Jamaat alliance (the list would be provided later by the party); Replace the attorney general immediately;
• Police: Withdraw all police officers loyal to the BNP-Jamaat alliance (the list would be provided later; Replace all officers in the sensitive posts;
• Media: Make sure that state-controlled Bangladesh Television, Bangladesh Betar and all government-owned media outlets give fair treatment to the 14-party alliance, LDP and Awami League; Close down all radio and television channels launched over last five years and find out the source of income of the owners of those media outlets;
• Political Harassment: Withdraw all political cases and release all 14-party activists arrested since October 4;
• Militancy: Initiate a fresh enquiry into all incidents of bomb blasts and use of firearms; Arrest all identified militants;
• Firearms: Cancel all firearms licences issued over last two years. Recover arms and launch a drive across the country to destroy them. Reactivate all arms-smuggling cases on a priority basis;
• Corruption: Impose travel ban at all air, land and sea ports on all corrupt ministers, MPs, political leaders, businessmen, terrorist godfathers and others of the four-party alliance;
• Looting: Retract approval of development projects, block allocation, project agreement and related disbursement order made since January 1;
• Khaleda Portrait: Remove portrait of former prime minister Khaleda Zia still being hung at government, semi-government, autonomous bodies which were damaging the impartiality of the caretaker government.

So everyone’s anxiously waiting for news. The deadline has apparently been extended for another week, but things can change on the hour. The Economist published today a good round-up of the story so far, and rightly pointed out that whatever the allegations of corruption are against the BNP, the Awami League threatening to pull out of the election would hardly be a good move for democracy. Recent polls have shown that Bangladeshis have very low trust in their political representatives, are not confident about the country’s future, and also about 50% of them are undecided over who to vote for.

But for the AL to withdraw, and not even offer the people a means to express their dissatisfaction peacefully, can only make things worse.

The corruption in Bangladesh seems to have infected every sinew of the body politic, and explains why they sit at the bottom of Transparency International’s corrution league. Everything we read, everyone we talk to bemoans the leadership and the public bodies, stating that they’re infected with political appointees who aren’t working in the interests of the country, for the interests of the people.

The level of personal clashes is what’s astounding. Politics anywhere is characterised by being full of people who don’t get on – but here, no one is ‘neutral’, everyone seems to be under suspicion, and the quickest form of protest involves getting your people out on the streets and causing chaos. And this situation certainly is just chaotic.

Drishtipat has posted a thoughtful comment on why the election’s so important. Aside from the necessity to improve Bangladesh’s public services, erase corruption and reduce poverty, as well as improve the political culture – what people are beginning to become worried about is the rise of Islamic extremism.

The more that the political mainstream self-destructs, the more that extremist ideas become attractive, as an alternative. That is true in any society. But as Bangladesh has the fourth largest muslim population in the world, and a great deal of that population lives in dire poverty, analysts are beginning to fear that the situation is ripe for Islamic extremist parties to exploit.

The BNP in the 2001 election formed an alliance with two Islamic parties, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote in order to beat the Awami League. People say here that since then, the BNP have been turning a blind eye to extremism in return for crucial political support. In the last 18 months two AL rallies have been attacked with hand-grenades, Sheikh Hasina narrowly surviving in August 2005, and the blame was pointed at elements within the two Islamic parties that are junior members of the BNP-led four party coalition. 

Bangladesh is still very much a moderate muslim state, but I’m reading more and more about police making arrests among the youth wings of those two Islamic parties. I don’t know enough about the situation yet to really make much more of a comment, but I do certainly know that it’s essential that the political leaders of this country can manage to put their personal squabbles aside, and give the people the right to make their judgement, and have it respected. That’s the starting point before anything else can happen.

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