COLOMBO: Bangladesh is to have its 11 th. parliamentary elections in November-December this year. As in the past, the elections are expected to take place in the midst of several controversies, some new and some enduring. Again, as in the past, ensuring free and fair elections in Bangladesh’s highly divisive, politicized and violence-ridden environment is going to be a major challenge for the State.

Begum Khaleda Zia, head of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is in jail for alleged corruption with no chance of release before the polls. The leaderless BNP has threatened to boycott the coming elections if she is not released and if a neutral or Non-Party Caretaker Government (NPCG) is not put in place to conduct the polls.

In 2014, the BNP had boycotted the elections saying that it had no faith in the electoral process in the absence of a Non-Party Caretaker Government (NPCG).

Though only 30% of the electorate voted as a result of the boycott, the Awami League (AL) was got into power with a huge majority. It had won 150 seats uncontested.

With the BNP leaderless and without any influence over the government, the AL headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been having a field day. It has achieved notable feats in the economic sphere launching mega projects with Chinese loans. But the government is also seen as being repressive. Disappearances, arrests of critics and the extra-judicial killing of suspected terrorists and drug dealers had become commonplace, giving rise to fears that in her bid for a third term, Hasina could rig the 2018 elections.

Hence the rising demand for a non-partisan election-time government, a system which had existed in the past and had, on balance, succeeded in instilling confidence in the public.

Given the subtle pressure from Big Brother India and the West to facilitate the return of the BNP to parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Hasina has talked about holding the elections “ under an election-time government”. But she has not said if the “election time government” will be a non-partisan or a non-party government.

However, the General Secretary of AL, Obaidul Quader, has said that no one from outside will be part of the “election-time government”. In other words, there will be no technocrat in the election-time government. Earlier, Hasina had said that it could be a government of the ruling and opposition parties. Quader had said that the Jatiya Party requested the government to include two or three of its members but added that the Prime Minister had not decided on it.

With Hasina and her party being vague about the election time government, the Gono Forum led by Kamal Hossain, and the Jukto Front on Saturday demanded dissolution of parliament before the schedule for the next election and the formation of an election-time government after discussions with all parties.

The leaders of the poll-time government should not contest the elections, the two organizations said. They demanded the reformation of the Election Commission (EC) with people acceptable to all parties.

The EC, they said, should control the police. And the army should be deployed with magistracy powers for 40 days from a month before the voting day. There should be a moratorium on the arrest of politicians and Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) should be prohibited.

Past Performance

Sheikh Hasina’s reluctance to sanction a Non-Party Caretaker Government (NPCG) is not unprecedented. In the past, political parties and civil society had to struggle hard for it, losing life and limb in the process. It was part of a larger struggle and continuous for democracy.

The first blow to democracy was delivered in January 1975, four years after the birth of Bangladesh, when the then President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman banned all political parties barring his own Bangladesh Farmers’ and Laborers’ Peoples’ League popularly known as BAKSAL. This led to his assassination by some army officers in August 1975. That in turn led to military rule under Gen.Ziaur Rahman. Later he formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to give his rule a civilian veneer. After Zia was assassinated by military personnel in 1981, Gen.H.M.Ershad assumed power and ruled through his own outfit, the Jatiya Party (JP).

Though elections were held by Zia and Ershad, these had no credibility because of the military backed their political outfits. It was only in 1986 that political parties got together to oust Ershad and hold free and fair elections. The movement for NPCG intensified and got the widest measure of support ahead of the 1988 elections. The struggle continued till Ershad quit in 1990.

President Shahabuddin Ahmed was made head of the Caretaker Government, which held the fifth parliamentary elections in 1991. In sharp contrast to the past, these elections were free and fair.

The BNP won the elections and formed the government in alliance with the Bangladesh Jamat-i-Islam (BJI). But the BNP’s rigging of the Magura by-election made the AL and Jatiya Party support BJI’s proposal to hold all future elections under a NPCG.

The ruling BNP resisted this, but offered to reform the Election Commission. But this was not acceptable to the AL, JP and the BJI. The opposition began a boycott of parliament and started an agitation with AL demanding that power be handed over to the Chief Justice. When the BNP rejected this, 153 opposition members resigned from parliament. The Speaker declined to accept their resignation. The opposition stuck to the boycott of parliament though.

The sixth parliamentary elections were held in February 1996 without NPCG, The opposition had boycotted the election. With only 10% of the electorate voting, BNP won handsomely. But Prime Minister Khaled Zia could not savor the victory as agitations against the illegitimacy of her government mounted. She had no option but to enact a law to install an NPCG. She then resigned and handed over the government to retired Chief Justice Habibur Rahman.

The NPCG held free and fair elections in 2001.For the 2006 elections the NPCG was reconstituted with K.M.Hasan as the Chief Advisor. But the opposition opposed Hasan saying that he was a BNP loyalist and launched an agitation, which resulted in President Iajuddin Ahmed himself becoming Chief Advisor with a team of Advisors chosen by him.

The Awami League’s continuing agitation led to Dr.Fakhruddin Ahmed, former Governor of the Bangladesh Central Bank, becoming the head of the NPCG but with the involvement of the army chief Gen.Moeen U.Ahmed. The people welcomed the army-backed NPCG. But this NPCG was turned out to be undemocratic, banning all political functions, annulling scheduled parliamentary elections and launching a massive anti-corruption drive, arresting over 200,000 suspects.

NPCG alienated the political parties, which resulted in Hasina and Khalida joining to fight for a proper NPCG.

Repeal of NPCG

Fresh polls were held in 2008, which the NPCG conducted in a free and fair manner. The AL registered a landslide victory. But once ensconced in power, the AL took advantage of a Supreme Court ruling of May 10, 2011 on the NPCG, to end the NPCG system.

The court had said that the NPCG is an undemocratic and unconstitutional system because it is unelected. By the 15 th.Amendment, Hasina got rid of the NPCG system.

President Zillur Rahman, an AL man, tried to sugar coat the bitter pill by saying the Election Commission will be strengthened. But this did not cut ice with the masses. According to a survey conducted by the Center for Strategic Research, 67% of the people interviewed were against abolition of the NPCG.