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Bangladesh: Strategic Skirmish

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By Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
and

S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Amidst continuing street mobilization, violence and a strident debate over the ‘legitimacy’ of the January 5, 2014, Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, another battle of the ballots is currently playing out, commencing on February 19, 2014, and going beyond May 19, 2014, at the local sub-District level.

Unlike the Parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by the entire Opposition, and even by some of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed's erstwhile allies, candidates backed by almost all political parties participated in the fourth Upazila Parishad (Sub-District Council) polls.

So far, elections for a total of 459 out of 487 Councils have been held. The ruling Awami League (AL)-backed candidates won 231 Chairman posts while their challengers, favored by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) secured 162. Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI)-backed candidates cornered 36 Chairman posts; Jatiya Party (JP), the main opposition in Parliament, won four; and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) one. Apart from these, eight candidates from the Parbatya Chittagong Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS), four from the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF), and 11 independents and others, won Chairman posts. Results of two Councils were withheld because of the suspension of polling in several stations there.  

The Election Commission (EC) would need to hold polls to another 28 Councils. On April 16, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad announced the schedule of the 6th-phase polls to be held on May 19 in 14 Upazila Parishads. No information is currently available about elections for the remaining 14 Councils.

As compared to the General Elections which were marred by large scale pre- and post-election violence, the Council polls were relatively peaceful. While a total of 151 people killed during the Parliamentary polls, 10 persons have been killed during the Council polls. While, no fatality was reported in the first phase, one Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS, student wing of the JeI) cadre was killed on the poling day (February 27) of the second phase. Three people died and 68 persons were injured in violence on March 15, the polling day of the third phase. Violence was widespread and deadlier in the fourth phase leaving at least four people dead in Munshiganj, Brahmanbaria, Jhalakathi and Comilla Districts on the polling day (March 23), and more than 200 people, including about a dozen Policemen, were injured across the country. Although the fifth phase was comparatively peaceful, a leader of the Jubo League, the youth wing of AL, was shot dead in Laxmipur District five hours before the polling began on March 31. In a separate incident, a voter died from injuries suffered in a clash between activists of the AL and the JeI in Moulvibazar District. More than 100 people were wounded in clashes between AL and BNP supporters in at least a dozen Councils during polling hours. Indeed, street violence which had become the order of the day in Bangladesh since the establishment of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), has subsided considerably since the January 5, 2014, General Elections.

Crucially, according to the EC, the total voter turnout was 61 percent. Significantly, the voter turnout in the January 5 General Election was a modest 40 per cent.

Though Bangladesh has a unitary form of government in which all governing powers resides in a centralised government, for administrative convenience, the country is divided into six divisions; and each division is subdivided into Zilas or Districts and Upazilas or sub-districts. There are 64 administrative Districts; and 487 Upazilas. The Upazila election system was started by military ruler Hussain Mohammad Ershad, under whose regime the first Upazila elections took place in 1985. The elections again took place in 1990. The BNP scrapped the system after coming to power in 1991. However, AL had taken a decision to revive the local government system after taking office in 1996, but could not hold elections. The AL finally conducted the elections in 2009 after returning to power at the Centre.

Demonstrating a clear shift in political strategy, BNP participated in the present Upazila elections, seeing them as an opportunity of re-bonding with the political arena at the local level, after boycotting the January 5 National Elections over the demand for non-partisan arrangements. Clarifying BNP's "motive", the Party's acting secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir, observed on April 13, 2014, that BNP took part in the Upazila polls as part of its movement to unseat the present Government. By participating in Council elections, the BNP has also attempted to prove that it is a dynamic, pro-election party, with a strong base at the local level. The party also seeks to renew and revitalize its grass-root leadership and revamp its tarnished image as a party that supported a wave of political violence in 2013.

Interestingly, BNP Chairperson, Khaleda Zia's speech at a rally on March 1, 2014, at Rajbari clearly spelt out BNP's political agenda. Zia had declared that a fresh movement would be built up soon after the conclusion of the Council polls to ‘dislodge’ the ‘illegal’ Government and hold fresh General Elections under a non-party administration. Significantly, BNP has enhanced its performance. As against just 79 Chairman posts in 2009, BNP-backed candidates have, thus far, won 162 Chairman posts.  The BNP-JeI combine has also demonstrated its "hold" by winning a total of 198 seats. This is likely to encourage a renewed round of confrontation and agitation in the near future, sponsored by this combine.

On the other hand, AL has failed to repeat its 2009 performance, when it won 331 Chairman posts. Thus far, its tally is just 231 posts. Nevertheless, AL’s victory, though with a reduced margin, in the local body elections in which all parties participated augurs well for Bangladesh politics, and Hasina's Government has certainly gained in legitimacy.

Sharp contestations are, however, inevitable. Even as a new political game unfolded in the Upazila elections, the Hasina Government, on March 13, 2014, declared that it would take steps to ban JeI by June 2014 for its involvement in crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971. Liberation War Affairs Minister A. K. M. Mozammel Huq clarified, “The Government is planning banning the anti-liberation force Jamaat, but it has no plan to ban other religion-based political parties.”

Further, on March 27, 2014, the War Crimes Investigation Agency, which suggested banning JeI and six organisations (Islami Chhatra Sangha, Shanti Committee, Al-Badr, Al-Shams, Razakar Bahini, and the JeI newspaper Dainik Sangram) that were associated with the party in 1971, handed over its report on the JeI to the prosecution on March 27, 2014. Tureen Afroz, who is leading the prosecution in the case stated that this was the first time they were going to press "war crimes" charges against an organisation. Earlier, the prosecution had pressed charges of crimes against humanity and genocide against accused individuals. The probe report against JeI comes at a time when five of its top leaders have already been convicted of war crimes while four others, including its chief, are facing trial. One of the convicts, Abdul Quader Mollah, was executed on December 12, 2013.

In an indication that its campaign of agitation and violence would shortly resume, JeI, on April 16, 2014, demanded the unconditional release of party leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who was sentenced to death on February 28, 2013, by Internationl Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT-1), for crimes against humanity during the Liberation War. In a statement, acting ameer (chief) of the party, Mokbul Ahmad, and acting secretary general, Shafiqur Rahman, urged the country’s people to raise their voice against all the Government’s ‘plots’ against Sayedee. The statement declared, further, “We strongly condemn and protest the Government’s heinous plot against Moulana Sayedee".

Underlining the complete political polarization in the country, a court in Dhaka indicted Begum Khaleda Zia on March 19, 2014, in two cases involving charges of corruption for allegedly using an illegal fund to buy land for Zia Orphanage Trust and Zia Charitable Trust. Judge Basudeb Roy accepted the charges against Khaleda Zia, who was present in the court. Pressing the charges against Zia could further complicate the country's tense political situation. As expected, Zia has vowed to restart protests against Hasina to oust her from power.

The critical relevance of the local level elections lies in the fact that both AL and BNP needs to muster political support for their respective strategies. After the January 5 General Elections, international media widely branded the AL Government "illegal", because of the non-participation of the combined Opposition, led by the BNP-JEI combine. With the successful conduct of the Upazila elections, the Hasina Government seeks to strengthen its democratic credentials. On April 12, 2014, responding to Opposition allegations of rigging, Prime Minister Hasina thus stated, "People of the country exercised their franchise freely and fairly in electing their favourite candidates from Awami League, BNP and even Jamaat-e-Islami... Had the poll been rigged or manipulated by the Government of Awami League, not a single candidate of Jamaat could have won". On the other hand, the dynamics of the current Upazila elections and the participation of the BNP-JeI combine gave this political formation an opportunity to re-establish its own political outreach at the grassroots level, and, particularly for the JeI, to galvanise party workers and cadres to face off an imminent political purge.

[Source: SATP]

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