COLOMBO: The leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Begum Khaleda Zia, has thrown a political bombshell by declaring that the BNP, which is the principal opposition group in the country, will not contest the 2018 parliamentary elections if there is no Neutral Caretaker Government (NCG) composed of non-partisan people to conduct free and fair elections.

"A fair election is not possible with Hasina in power. I tell the chief election commissioner that it's his responsibility to hold a credible election in the country," Khaleda told a massive party rally in Dhaka on Sunday.

She reiterated her demand for a 'neutral government' for the polls. She also demanded deployment of the army with “magisterial power” during the polls and rejected the use of Electronic Voting Machines which she alleged could be tampered by the ruling party.

Ruling Awami League (AL) leaders, however, said that the elections will be held with Sheikh Hasina as Prime Minister as per the constitution of the country.

The constitution had been amended in by the current regime in 2011 to abolish the NCG system following a Supreme Court judgment that rule by an un-elected body of persons, however short its term may be, is a violation of the sovereignty of the people.

The BNP had boycotted the last elections in 2014 on the grounds that the elections would not be free and fair in the absence of an NCG to conduct it. The boycott led to Hasina’s AL sweeping the polls with 79% of the votes, though only 20% of the electorate voted. 154 of the 300 seats in parliament had gone uncontested. The elections were also preceded by intense and widespread violence.

The entire world questioned the credibility of the elections, but the boycott was not seen in a favorable light. Many felt that the BNP could have contested and amended the constitution to bring back the NCG system. Recently, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had met Khaleda Zia to persuade her not to boycott the 2018 elections. The international community, which is eying investment and strategic opportunities in Bangladesh, is also interested in political stability in that country.

However, given Bangladesh’s political history, a second boycott of the elections by the BNP and its allies cannot be ruled out. And before formally announcing a boycott, the BNP could unleash widespread violence to pressure the government to concede.

Pre-election violence of a high order has been part and parcel of Bangladeshi elections since the earliest times as ruling groups, whether civilian or military, have behaved extremely undemocratically and rigged polls.

The BNP is expected to put all its might into the campaign to get an NCG installed because it is smelling victory in the 2018 elections given the anti-incumbency factor at work against Sheikh Hasina. Hasina has been in power continuously since January 2009.

The war crimes trials that her government conducted, though justified from a Bangladeshi nationalistic point of view, did not accord with international standards, human rights activists had charged. Islamic militancy, tolerated initially, was crushed ruthlessly after foreigners and Bangladeshis from elitist families were massacred in an upmarket restaurant in Dhaka on July 1, 2016.

The Hasina government could also be blamed for being soft on India on the grounds that it has failed to force India to yield on the issue of sharing the waters of the Teesta river. Much will also depend on how Hasina tackles Myanmar on the issue of the 600,000 Rohingya refugees who have cast a huge burden on the Bangladesh economy.

The NCG has a long history in Bangladesh and it has been a violent and blood soaked one. The NCG system was brought into effect through the 13 th. Amendment of the Constitution in 1996. Three elections (1996, 2001 & 2008) had been held under NCG successfully.

The idea of an NCG was mooted in 1983 by the Bangladesh Jamaat e-Islami. But the struggle for the NCG began only in 1987 and that was against the military government of H.M.Ershad.

Three multi-party alliances signed an agreement that they would not take part in any elections under an Ershad-led government. In 1990 university students also joined the country-wide struggle. Ershad declared a State of Emergency but had no option but to resign in December 1990.

The fifth parliamentary election was held in February 1991 in a free, fair and impartial manner under an NCG headed by Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed.

However, despite this successful experiment, the main political parties, namely, the BNP and AL, did not consider institutionalizing or constitutionalizing the NCG. But in December 1991 the Bangladesh Jamait ul Islami leader Matiur Rahman Nizami, submitted a Private Members’ Bill for holding all future parliamentary elections with a NCG in place. In late 1993, AL and Jatiya Party (JP) of Ershad, changed their mind and submitted bills for NCG. But they did not press the issue.

However, when the BNP government brazenly rigged the Magura by election in 1994, the AL and JP got serious about making the NCG part of the country’s constitution The opposition parties were convinced that the 1996 parliamentary elections would not fair under a BNP government. To press for an NCG the opposition boycotted the parliament continuously.

But the BNP government was adamant. The opposition boycotted the February 1996 parliamentary elections which resulted in the BNP completely sweeping the elections though with a meager vote. There was widespread pre-and post-poll violence.

The international community too stepped in to bring about a rapprochement between the Khaleda and Hasina. All this made Khaleda bring in the 13th.Constitutional Amendment in March 1996, to set up the NCG. As a further concession to democracy, she dissolved parliament. And in the parliamentary election which followed in June 1996, the AL emerged winner, albeit narrowly.

Later in May 2011, the Supreme Court struck down the NCG saying that rule by unelected men abridges the sovereignty of the people. However, it said that the next two elections should be fought under an NCG. But in June the Hasina government got the 15 th.Amendment passed, which among other things, did away with the NCG.

When the time came for the next elections came in 2014, the opposition BNP declared a boycott after its call for an NCG was negatived. The boycott led to poor polling and an extremely lopsided parliament.

According to a paper written by Mahbub Alam Prodip and Golam Rabbani, both Assistant Professors in the Department of Public Administration, University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, the NCG though generally welcomed by the people, has not been an unmixed blessing.

Some of the non-political persons in charge had been as dictatorial and insensitive as politicians. Unlike politicians, these “neutral” persons had enjoyed power without responsibility, that is without the necessity to go back to the people for votes.

(P.K.Balachandran is Editor, South Asia, of The Citizen)