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Bangladesh’s democracy now stands at crossroads with the arrest and conviction of Khaleda Zia, chairman of main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), ahead of the upcoming general polls.
Begum Zia, three-time prime minister of the country, was recently convicted by a Bangladeshi court and sentenced to five years in prison in a corruption case. Zia was accused of transferring 21 million taka ($252,200) from the Zia Orphanage Trust to her personal account from 2006 to 2008.
Her arrest has plunged the country into uncertainty, especially given that the verdict came down a week after the announcement that Bangladesh would hold a parliamentary election in December. Zia’s party is the only viable alternative to challenge the present government led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL), and consequently, as Bangladesh is dominated by two major parties, the BNP and the AL, it would be virtually impossible for a lesser-known third party to challenge the ruling AL and if the BNP’s viability crumbles over Zia’s conviction, Bangladesh will be a de facto one-party state, categorically says The Diplomate in an article.
This is how writer K.S. Venkatachalam in his article painted a gloomy forecast about the looming uncertainty over the politics, multi-party democracy and inclusive polls of the South Asian nation with a population of 166.37 million.
Khaleda Zia’s conviction has led to widespread protests, as BNP cadres and other supporters have taken to the streets in Dhaka. BNP supporters have threatened to boycott the December polls if their leader is not released; the BNP and other opposition parties also boycotted the previous elections, in January 2014. They have also accused the government of indulging in a political vendetta by fabricating the case against Zia, as part of a larger AL conspiracy to cling to power.
“Now Zia’s party is left with few good options. If the BNP refuses to participate in the December elections, the party stands to be deregistered, paving the way for a third continuous term for Hasina,” he added.
Besides, with the BNP sticks to its demand for holding the next national elections under a non-partisan polls-time government, the ruling Awami League insists the elections will be conducted as per constitutional provisions.
The BNP, however, has reiterated its call for holding a dialogue on the election-time government to reach a consensus on the issue, that the ruling party continues to ignore. Thedy ragther assert that the demand is not in accordance with the constitution that they have already changed to suit their purpose.
AL, BNP in verbal spats over polls
The Awami League (AL) and the BNP have become involved in a verbal tug-of-war centering the next general election, which is likely to be held by the end of this year. The BNP demands a national consensus for resolving the current political crisis before the next parliamentary polls. But the AL denies the existence of any such crisis and claims that the election would be held in due time in keeping with the constitutional guidelines.
Besides, the BNP has been saying that it would not join any election if they are held under the Sheikh Hasina-led administration. However, the ruling party is sticking to its guns that the next polls too would be held under Hasina-led administration, just like the previous general election in 2014.
Earlier, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia was sentenced to five years in jail in a graft case. This has sharpened the enmity between the two rival camps. The conviction has also cast doubts if Khaleda, a three-time prime minister, would be allowed to even participate in the next polls.
BNP leaders, on their part, allege that the government is planning to hold a one-sided election by keeping party chief Khaleda Zia behind the bar. But AL leaders maintain that there is no relation between Khaleda Zia’s conviction and the next general elections.
Politics could become even more toxic
A lull in violence over recent months may prove only a temporary respite. With elections approaching in December, politics could become even more toxic in the coming days.
The longstanding political deadlock between the two main parties, the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) and the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have facilitated the rise of extremist groups, the narrowing of political debate, and the erosion of the rule of law.
As Bangladesh’s political polarisation reaches historic highs and local jihadist groups forge links with transnational movements, conditions are ripe for new forms of militancy that could threaten the country’s security and religious tolerance, says International Crisis Group.
Bangladesh’s antagonistic politics have also played a part in enabling the jihadist resurgence. The state confronted groups responsible for an earlier wave of violence with some success from 2004 to 2008. Subsequently, especially since controversial January 2014 elections, bitter political divisions have reopened space for new forms of jihadist activism.
“Without a change of course – and particularly if the December elections trigger a crisis similar to that around previous polls – the country could face another jihadist resurgence, fears International Crisis Group.
Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh began in the 1980s, when around 3,000 Bangladeshis reportedly joined the U.S. and Saudi-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
In 2015, Bangladeshi intelligence and security agencies discovered a link between jihadists and Bangladeshi fighters in Syria, although they could not decode much of this. In a Chattogram raid, officials also discovered an ISIS flag and evidence of communication of to join ISIS, ICG said.
Many security and counter-terrorism experts believe that a new generation of jihadists, earlier linked to IMB or Ansar, now indentifies more directly with ISIS than with purely homegrown entities though the government refuses to acknowledge an ISIS presence in Bangladesh, the evaluation assessed by ICG shows.
Political polarisation has contributed to the growth of militancy in less direct ways, too. The marginalisation of the BNP through politically motivated corruption and other trials of its leadership, including party chief Khaleda Zia’s 8 February 2018 conviction and five-year sentence for corruption, and of the JeI, through the war crimes trials and a ban on its participation in elections, have eliminated most democratic competition and encouraged the growth of a jihadist fringe.
Two groups, Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Ansarul Islam, dominate today’s jihadist landscape; a faction of the former appears to have consolidated links to the Islamic State (ISIS) while the latter is affiliated with al-Qaeda’s South Asian branch. Both have perpetrated a string of attacks over the past few years, some targeting secular activists, others Bangladeshi minorities. The ruling Awami League has politicised the threat. Its crackdowns on political rivals sap resources from efforts to disrupt jihadist activities. Instead, it should invest in reinforcing the capability of the security forces and judiciary and build political consensus on how to tackle the threat.
Besides, the influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August-December 2017 also raises security concerns for Bangladesh. Jihadist groups – including ISIS and Pakistani militants – have referenced the Rohingya’s plight in efforts to mobilise support. For now, though, little suggests that the refugees are particularly susceptible to jihadist recruitment. Bangladesh’s response to the humanitarian tragedy should focus primarily not on counter-terrorism but on providing support for refugees and redoubling efforts to assuage potential friction between them and host communities.
Countering Jihadist Militancy in Bangladesh
According to International Crisis Group (ICG), the two biggest political parties in Bangladesh are not willing to work toward a new political compact that respects the rights of both the opposition and the ruling party to govern within the rule of law and due to such attitude, the violent Islamist groups have already regrouped, threatening the secular and democratic order, said the International Crisis Group (ICG).
On the other hand, Awami League and its President, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have emphasizes that the absence from parliament of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party make them face threat of political existence.
But, according to the ICG, Awami League needs to realize the outcome of keeping the BNP away from the mainstream politics that encourages anti-government activism to find more radical avenues.
Instead of relying on indiscriminate force, including alleged extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the government should adopt a counter-terrorism strategy anchored in reformed criminal justice and better intelligence gathering. Rather than cracking down on rivals, it should forge a broad social and political consensus on how to confront the threat.
The government should also reinforce the capability of law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, and build political consensus on tackling the menace.
What should be done?
Although there was no major attack in 2017, the potential for further jihadist violence in Bangladesh remains. The resurgence of jihadist groups over the past few years has been facilitated if not accelerated by years of political deadlock. While there is no direct line between toxic politics and the rise of jihadist violence, a bitterly divided polity, between those espousing secularism and those emphasising Bangladesh’s Muslim identity, and a brutal and highly partisan policing and justice system, nonetheless has opened space for jihadist groups.
Against such a backdrop, ending the deadlock is even more urgent today as Bangladesh confronts a new generation of potentially more dangerous jihadists with apparent links to transnational terror groups such as ISIS. Instead, Sheikh Hasina’s government has made no serious attempt to reconcile with the mainstream opposition, opting instead to waste police resources on repression of opponents. This choice has undermined both democracy and security, with countrywide violence bringing the country to a standstill for months at a time. Given the jihadist revival since then, another breakdown of law and order would almost certainly play into the hands of groups like Ansar and JMB. If the government does not change course, such forces may experience another resurgence.
The previous general elections, which took place in 2014, were boycotted by the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by three-time former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. As a result, the Awami League led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a walkover, with its candidates declared victors in 127 of the 154 uncontested seats by default. Of the remaining uncontested seats, the Jatiya Party led by Rowshan Ershad won 20, the JSD won three, the Workers Party won two, and the Jatiya Party (Manju) won one.
Recently, the BNP has stated that it is ready to return and stand in the next general election if the current parliament is dissolved and the election commission consists of non-partisan members. Furthermore, Jatiya Party chairman and former President Hussain Ershad has stated that it wishes to leave the Awami League-led Grand Alliance and stand as its own political unity in a new alliance with democratic left and Islamic democratic parties. On 14 September 2017 the Official Chief Election Commissioner had confirmed that the BNP would officially join the election.
Under these circumstances, the government should adopt a counter-terrorism strategy anchored in reformed criminal justice and better intelligence gathering rather than cracking down on rivals and it may forge a broad social and political consensus on how to confront the threat, ICG suggests.
The people of all strata in Bangladesh are used to standing against jihadist activities, but the political relationship between BAL and BNP should be respectable and realistic to enhance the democratic culture in the days to come.
Shakhawat Hossain is Dhaka-based freelance Journalist and political commentator