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Violence inserts uncertainty for Bangladesh

With elections due next year, the two political dynasties in Bangladesh have begun fighting a political war to consolidate grip over power in a country that has long been plagued by violence, corruption and poverty. The government has repeatedly rejected the opposition demands to quit and put in place a caretaker government instead, but this political crisis, accompanied by the controversial judgment on the 1971 war crimes is not helping the country emerge out of its violent history. Thus, what lies ahead for Bangladesh is continued violence amidst uncertain developments and the possibility of external elements exploiting the volatile situation.


Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy that has been alternately ruled by current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Awami League) and key opposition figure Khaleda Zia (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) since 1991.

The issue of peaceful transfer of power has always remained a major challenge.

Scores have been injured and killed across Bangladesh since Sunday when the decades-old rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia flared up, resulting into a nationwide strike as government opponents clashed with the ruling party supporters.

Khaleda Zia wants to force Hasina's government to quit and have a caretaker administration established from outside of political parties to oversee an election scheduled to be held in early 2014. The opposition and its allies have threatened to boycott the elections because they accuse the government of being incapable of holding credible elections.

Khaleda Zia has called the government illegal and is using a legal provision that requires a neutral government to be set up months before the elections to strong her claims.

Hasina has refused to step down, arguing that such a demand is unnecessary and unconstitutional. Instead, she has proposed forming a caretaker government from ruling and opposition parties to supervise the vote.

With both women holding their stances high, the mounting political crisis shows no signs of abating, which only makes the already volatile environment conducive for external forces and anti-elements to exploit the situation to their advantage.

The country has already suffered huge losses to its billion dollar garment industry and flack for its controversial war tribunal’s court.

It is still not clear whether Sheikh Hasina is really actually unpopular, but what is apparent is that this move by Khaleda Zia is another political gimmick prior to the elections to throw mud on the opponent.

However, the concerns of the main opposition party – the BNP and its allies cannot be ignored. Already there have been concerns that PM Sheikh Hasina, who has been known for her liberal stand, has been resorting to steps restricting individual freedom and freedom of expression.

A statement made by the editor of a major daily newspaper that he was severely tortured brings no laurels to Hasina’s argument. Hasina is also reportedly undertaking an overtly aggressive campaign, which might be pressurizing her party’s opponents.

Recent incidents also suggest that even law courts are dropping cases against the Awami League, but pursuing them vigorously against the BNP. This only shows Hasina’s insecurity of losing power, following which she is resorting to means to ensure her rivals are at a disadvantage.

But this is not to say that Khaleda Zia’s demands are entirely fair and justified. Like any other political battle between rivaling dynasties in South Asia, the two powerful families are virtually unchallenged, which gives them the leverage to maneuver the winds to their advantage from time to time.

It is no secret that Tarique Rehman, son of Khaleda Zia was involved in scams and corruptions and now, of fear of being arrested in Bangladesh, is living in a self imposed exile in London.

The fact that he is accused of maintaining links with the ISI is also significant. This means that there are external factors influencing the political environment in Bangladesh.

Such a claim not only suggests trouble for Bangladesh internal security and environment, it has significant ramifications for its neighboring country, India.

Already the BSF has begun extensive patrolling along the Indo-Bangladesh border, fearing that continued political strife would result in an illegal exodus of Bangladeshi immigrants into the country.

India also needs to be vigilant of the possibility that the ISI and other rogue organizations might be fuelling problems for Hasina’s government, who recently has been forging good relations with India.

There is a general impression in Bangladesh that India is closer to PM Sheikh Hasina than the opposition leader Khaleda Zia. But this is expected of India because during Khaleda’s regime, Bangladesh has indeed acted as a safe haven for anti-India elements and pro-Pakistani terrorists.

For decades, Naga underground activists and militias from Manipur have also operated from Bangladesh. Even when India pointed this out to Zia’s government, there was no response. Sheikh Hasina is indeed caught in a precarious situation.

On one hand, she must work an end to the violence resulting from the political impasse and the controversial war crime history, as well as secure a struggling billion dollar garment industry and on the other hand, she must respect the democratic sentiments and ensure free and fair elections.