January 5 is ostensibly D-day for Bangladesh, but on the evidence of the past few months, the nature of the verdict the elections will deliver is shifting rapidly. It is no longer about who will win at the polling booths. With the main opposition the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotting the elections as of now, 154 members of the 300-strong Parliament will be elected unopposed. That more or less decides the outcome of the polls going in. It also simultaneously delivers a body blow to the legitimacy of the new dispensation and that pertains to the real issues. Given the political situation and the continuing clashes in the streets there has been an uptick in violence after Abdul Quader Mollah, Jamaat-e-Islami leader, was hanged last week in the first war crimes execution Bangladesh runs a very real risk of seeing a return to the kind of Emergency rule last imposed in 2007 if all the players involved don’t change their current trajectories. And at stake also is the country’s secular future.
At the root of the standoff, of course, are the war crimes trials held by the current Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government. It was an essential step for bringing about a sense of national closure with respect to the genocide committed by religious militias allied with the Pakistani army during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of liberation. But good intentions count for only so much. There have been numerous observations by international human rights groups about the failure of some of the trials to meet international legal standards. With the BNP and the Jamaat the country’s largest Islamist party taking to the streets to protest two leaders from the former and eight from the latter being charged with war crimes, the question mark hanging over the trials has only added fuel to the fire.
Now, political exigencies have taken over. The BNP and Jamaat cadres have been responsible for widespread violence in the streets, but the Hasina government hasn’t kept its hands clean either.
For instance, when Hussain Mohammed Ershad, chairman of Jatiya Party, a ruling coalition member, threatened to pull out of the elections, he was hauled away from his home by security forces. Worse, there are reports that they also summarily executed Fayez Ahmed, deputy head of a district unit of Jamaat, at his house on December 14. Factor in the economic havoc caused by the violence the garment export industry has been hard hit for instance and the situation seems to be growing increasingly volatile.
There is little time left now for corrective measures given that the deadline for submitting papers to stand for election has passed. But at the very least, the government must ensure that the security forces operate under the ambit of the law. And New Delhi, for its part, must quietly talk to both the AL and the BNP behind the scenes and do what it can to bring them to the negotiating table. The elections will be an interregnum at best; a great deal of work remains to be done if the current situation is to be resolved. And if Bangladesh is to steer clear of Jamaat’s brand of radical Islamist politics, the mainstream parties must show the ability to work within a democratic framework.