The announcement of a schedule for the next general election in Bangladesh has triggered hope of a credible poll but also concern about more political violence
across the Muslim-majority South Asian nation. The chief election commissioner, K.M. Nurul Huda, said earlier this month the elections would be held on Dec. 23 and gave a deadline of Nov. 19 for the filing of nomination papers. On Nov. 12 the commission, apparently paying heed to an appeal from opposition parties rescheduled the date for Dec. 30 and extended the other deadline to Nov. 28. The announcement comes against the backdrop of a series of talks held between the ruling Awami League (AL) and opposition parties over unresolved issues relating to the elections. These include who will serve in a caretaker government overseeing them, the dissolution of parliament, the release of key opposition leaders from jail, and the deployment of the military during the polls.
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The talks seem to have ended without any consensus on these thorny political issues. The 23-party opposition alliance, Jatiya Oikyafront (National United Front), led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country's second-largest political party, said on Nov. 11 it would take part in the polls despite their demands largely having been ignored by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. "We will take part in the election as part of our movement to restore democracy," Mirza Fakhrul Islam, the BNP's secretary-general, told journalists in Dhaka on Nov. 11. The BNP and its allies boycotted the last general election on Jan. 5, 2014, after the AL refused to relinquish power and move aside so that a non-party government could step in to oversee the process. The boycott helped the AL gain re-election in a landslide victory
that saw it claim over half of the 300 parliamentary seats uncontested amid nationwide violence by supporters of the BNP and its hard-line ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamist political party. In the absence of any effective opposition, the AL government has been accused by national and international rights groups of unchecked corruption. They also see it as authoritarian and claim it has been formulating unfair policies that suppress opposition, muzzle dissent, stifle the media, and attract radical groups to appeal more to conservative Muslims. This year doubts have been cast over whether the BNP and its allies would take part in the polls, given that former prime minister Khaleda Zia, who now serves as the chairperson of the BNP, remains in jail after being handed two lengthy prison terms in two separate graft cases. Bangladesh's main opposition leader and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson Khaleda Zia (center) looks on as she is escorted back to prison from a hospital visit in Dhaka on Nov. 8. (Photo AFP)
Moreover, Zia's eldest son and heir-apparent, Tarique Rahman, who has been living in self-exile in London since 2008, was recently given a life sentence for a grenade attack at a political rally in 2004
. Tarique Rahman was sentenced in absentia for the attack in Dhaka carried out by Islamic militants with the backing of ministers and top law enforcement officials of the then-BNP-led government. Rahman was accused of being the mastermind. Meanwhile, Jamaat, a longtime ally of the BNP, cannot contest the December polls as the Supreme Court has banned the party from running because its Islamist charter was in conflict with the country's secular constitution. Dozens of top-ranking Jamaat leaders have also been sentenced to death or given life sentences for crimes against humanity during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence. Minorities at risk
Bangladesh holds parliamentary elections every five years and violence between the supporters of rival parties is commonplace. Religious groups and ethnic minorities are often targeted. Church officials and minority leaders have expressed hope of a more fair, representative and legitimate election this year but most fear political violence and irregularities will again mar the occasion. Some 30 million people, or just under 20 percent of the population, belongs to a religious or ethnic minority. Most minorities are seen as making up a "vote bank" for the nominally secular AL. In previous polls from 1996 to 2014, these minority groups came under a series of attacks that left dozens killed and more injured. "Parties held talks but they were largely fruitless. Now they are all lining up to take part in the polls but there is no guarantee they will refrain from violence. It is still unclear whether the government is enthusiastic about holding a fair election," Holy Cross Father Liton Hubert Gomes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Justice and Peace Commission, told ucanews.com. He said the chosen deadline "could dampen the Christmas spirit" due to all the safety and security concerns. "If political violence erupts, many Christians might not line up to vote," the priest said. Govinda Chandra Pramanik, secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Grand Alliance, said parties often look to minority groups to serve as scapegoats. "In the past, we have seen Hindus attacked and killed not just during the polls but at various times of the year," Pramanik, a Supreme Court lawyer, told ucanews.com. "The perpetrators come from all major parties, and there is no justice. This is because the parties want to win by any means necessary," he said. "We've called upon people to only vote if the parties pledge to nominate Hindu candidates and ensure security for the community
. Otherwise, they won't cast their ballots." Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists set fire and vandalize police cars during a clash with police following a march by BNP activist that blocked a road near BNP's Naya Paltan Central office in Dhaka on Nov. 14. (Photo by AFP) Long road to democracy
Born to be a secular and democratic country, Bangladesh endured a series of political assassinations, political changeovers, and 19 attempted military coups including two successful ones from 1975-1990. Parliamentary democracy was restored after nearly 15 years of military rule in the early 1990s. Since then, the center-right BNP and center-left AL have alternated power. Caretaker governments were only supposed to stay in power for a maximum of three months and these oversaw elections in 1996, 2001 and 2008. However, the military-backed interim government that was in power for over two years leading up the 2008 polls started trying to get rid of rival politicians, and attempted to banish both Hasina and Zia from politics. This came to be known as the "minus two" formula. In 2011 the AL scrapped the caretaker government system following a Supreme Court ruling a year earlier which said the system was in conflict with the charter, amid strong protests from opposition blocs. Dhaka-based political analyst Mirza Taslima Sultana said the upcoming polls will serve as a crucial litmus test for democracy in the country. "People want the election to be a triumph of democracy, and they want to exercise their voting right to support or reject a government. With the BNP-led opposition camp joining the polls, the government will be under pressure from the public to hold a fair poll devoid of any irregularities," said Sultana, a professor of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University near Dhaka. "No matter who wins, the election must be legitimate. In the past five years we have seen an imbalance in power, as parliament was largely one-sided and ineffective in the absence of any effective opposition. People don't want to see that repeated," she added.