Monday, December 23, 2013

Countdown to Bangladesh upcoming 'elections', (23-29 December)

This page contains a rolling blog containing news, commentary, and analysis as Bangladesh's 'election' day, due to take place on 5 January 2014, approaches. To provide information, tips or analysis please e-mail: or tweet at @davidbangladesh.

This page relates to 23-29 December onwards.

To see page dealing with the current period from 30 December, go here.

To see page dealing with the earlier period of 18-22 December, go here.


3.15 pm: A government success ... so far
The objective of the government was to to ensure that the rally did not take place, and so far they have succeeded. Not a single protestor stands in front of the BNP office in Purana Palton. Some BNP leaders who were walking to the office earlier today were arrested. There have been some small clashes in different parts of Dhaka - with one person reported shot dead - but other than that, very limited activity. A clash outside the High Court gates with BNP supporters inside the gates and the police outside (using pink water from a cannon to spice things up!) and another at the press club. But otherwise not very much else.

Khaleda Zia, the opposition leader, remains in her house, with the road adjacent to her house blocked both ends, with dozens of police present, and even more journalists. There remains no sign of her trying to leave at the moment. If I were the government, I would let Khaleda go to her party office, and she would then have noone to give a speech to - though perhaps the government fears that her presence in the office will spur supporters to come out of the Dhaka woodwork.

At present, the government must be very happy with itself.

11.30 am: Saving the war criminals?
Throughout the term of this government, at every juncture, at any turn if any one raised any critical issue about this Awami League government, whatever it may be, the most common response back would be that that person is trying to 'save the war criminals'. It has been the consistent arguments made by every Awami League politician.

So it should come as no suprise when Sanjeeb Wazed, the prime minister's son, and these days the government's chief propagandist, argues in today, Dhaka Tribune that the only reason why the BNP/Jamaat are protesting against these elections is 'to save the war criminals.' He writes:
Yes, these elections are not ideal but that is a topic in itself. The people will still get a free and fair election. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this wave of unjustifiable violence that BNP-Jamaat has unleashed is about elections. It is about saving the war criminals. 
Even if we were to somehow get BNP to participate in elections, as long as the war crimes trials are ongoing, BNP-Jamaat will continue their violence. The only compromise which will stop the violence is the release of the war criminals. BNP and Jamaat have declared war on the ordinary citizens of Bangladesh. Under the pretence of fighting for elections they are terrorising the people to save war criminals. 
If the demand is to bring the BNP to the elections and stop the violence at all costs, are you willing to pay the price? We are not willing to pay this price because it compromises our liberation and the very spirit that makes us a nation. Such a compromise would be a betrayal of the three million who gave their lives to give us this democracy and freedom. - 
There is no doubt that the Jamaat would like to stop the tribunals, and at the very least to stop the executions - and they must be very motivated to do so. And no doubt some of the violence is linked to this issue.

However, the issue of elections and the issue of war crimes trials are separate matters.

The people of this country, every five years, want to be able to have a free choice as to which party should be in power in Bangladesh. As I have argued earlier, the government must bear principal responsibility for preventing that happening by removing the caretaker provisions from the constitution. When they have those fair elections - and they would like to have had them now - but when theydo  have them that is the time for people to decide whether or not they vote for the Awami League (who supports the tribunals wholeheartedly in the manner in which they are being undertaken) or vote for the BNP/Jamaat (who are likely to stop, or amend the manner in which the tribunals are taking place). This is a manifesto issue - not a reason to stop there being free and fair elections.

The Awami League - and Sanjeed Wazed - cannot or should not take away the right of people to make that decision. But that is what is happening right now.

There is much to be said about these tribunals (read here for material on the tribunals). However, the tribunals taking place now are not trials that should make the country proud. They are highly problematic processes in so many ways - but most recently have allowed a man to be executed on the basis of a charge which simply should never have been prosecuted in the first place, so limited and contradictory was the evidence. In fact at the time at which the tribunal charge-framed Quader Molla, the tribunal had no evidence before it of any kind that Molla was present on the day that the concerned family was massacred or in any way involved.

Why Sajeeb wants to base his argument for supporting the Awami League on the basis of these flawed processes, and not seek in any way to improve them, is beyond me.

10.15 am: A UN triggered state of emergency?
I have written an op-ed for today's New Age which looks at the role of the United Nations in 2007 in bringing about the intervention of the army which resulted in the President proclaiming a state of emergency. The UN triggered the army action with a threat that the military's peace keeping duties could be affected if it supported the elections at the time. The key quote in the UN statement issued on the day that resulting in the army nudging the president to call a state of emergency is this one:
However, should the 22 January Parliamentary Elections proceed without participation of all major political parties, deployment of the Armed Forces in support of the election process raises questions. This may have implications for Bangladesh’s future role in UN Peacekeeping Operations.
The situation in 2007, is uncannily similar to the one we have today: major political party not participating, international observers not turning up due to lack of credibility of the elections; and the army deployed to assist the government nevertheless.

Does this mean that the UN will intervene this time and do a similar thing? As I conclude in the article, I think it highly unlikely - particularly of course because the UN has just asked the Bangladesh government for peacekeepers, that makes using that lever practically impossible.

However, one thing I did not consider in the article is this: If the UN thought that it was inappropriate for the army to be supporting the elections in 2007, should it also not think the same thing in 2013 - since both elections lack credibility and are not involving all the main parties?

There is perhaps one important difference - in 2007, there was a clear suggestion that there could be massive fraud in the election because of the claimed millions of 'ghost voters' on the voter list, and there is not such a similar situation. Whether though this is such a difference to justify a different approach by the UN is not clear.

I should of course also mention that at that time, Sheikh Hasina told diplomats at a meeting on 6 January (5 days before the army's intervention) that she was was content if the military intervened
‘Hasina was not troubled by military involvement, either directly or under a state of emergency. If the military can intervene and “make things okay”, that would be good, she said,’
For those who are interested in looking at the 11 January 2007 US state department cable mentioned in the article, titled: Military Says No To Political Role, Extra-constitutional Action For Now.

And here is the cable which provides the quote about Sheikh Hasina: Ambassador And British High Commissioner Meet With Sheikh Hasina Regarding Military Coup

9.10 am: Civil society gangs up against the government
On the eve of today's rally, many normally AL sympathetic civil society members and organizations came out strongly against the 5 January elections. Here is the New Age article, Stop Jan 5 Polls - Citizens; the Daily Star article, 'Defer Jan 5 Polls' and the Dhaka Tribune report, 5 Jan polls to deepen political crisis.

It is difficult to know the significance of something like this, and it is easily to over interpret, but it does indicate that the government looks ever more isolated.

It should be noted, however, that the day before the rather government-subordinated National Human Rights Commission held a meeting where took unsuprisingly a very much more more pro-government position - focusing only on violence, and how the crisis is only about ending the war crimes trials. This however, was given second page treatment in most newspapers, and the NHRC has decreasing credibility these days.

No-one dares talk about the army, but everyone is thinking about it. There seems right now to be two ways out of this crisis - if there is indeed to be a way out. Sheikh Hasina herself to appreciate that she has to change course or she receives a nudge on her shoulder from a military officer. My sense is there will be no army involvement before 5 January - but if there was to be one, the next 24 hours (with the BNP rally in the background) could be crucial.


9.00 pm: What will happen tomorrow, the day of BNP's 'March for Democracy' ?
In response to the call on Tuesday of the opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, for a ‘March for Democracy’ to take place tomorrow, the Awami League government had two options. It could have taken the high ground, and allow the march, hope that it would not be that popular, and then carp about the failure of the BNP to muster significant support and at the same time gain the political dividends from treating the opposition fairly.

The risk in taking this option was that the rally could course have been popular; and were as many as 500,000 to one million people to assemble in Dhaka, who quite knows what politically could happen.

The second option - which would remove any risk that the march could trigger wider political protest against the government - was to be proactive and stop the people gathering, which is indeed what the government has in the last few days been doing.

It has not given BNP permission to hold the rally, it has been arresting hundreds of opposition activists, and it is stopping buses and ferries from plying the roads and rivers. It is using all of the state’s coercive powers to stop people from gathering in Dhaka.

Not so long ago, it was the opposition that was cheering the delinking of Dhaka from the rest of the country - but now we have the rather extraordinary sight of the government creating the blockades.

The problem for the government in taking this second option is, however, for all to see. In a situation where the government is already widely criticized for hosting the kind of election that you might only expect many years ago in countries of the former so-called communist bloc countries, it does not look good when it also acts to prevent the opposition the basic rights of assembly and liberty.

The justification given for not allowing the BNP rally is the risk of violence. However the likelihood of violence in what Khaleda has announced was to be an avowedly ‘peaceful’ rally (calling for flags to be brought) is now surely increased through the government’s actions in preventing individuals from exercising their basic rights of assembly and protest.

Tomorrow, people will march in Dhaka or  towards Dhaka – though no doubt not in as large a numbers as the party would have hoped. The police will try and stop them, there will be police firings, and the violence is likely to escalate. Right now what level of violence is uncertain – but it will not be pretty.

The government’s rationale to stop the rally - perhaps, like its one for removing the caretaker government - has nothing to do with its stated reasons and everything to do with its partisan political objectives. It will though ensure that Sheikh Hasina will achieve her current immediate political objective of ensuring that her path to the January 5 elections remains unobstructed.

However, it will be at the further cost of support both within and outside Bangladesh.

It will also bolster BNP’s propaganda against the government – with the situation within the country moving closer to the reality of the rather hyperbolic descriptions of the government contained in Khaleda Zia’s speech (see below).

The government has also lost a fantastic opportunity to gloat on the weakness of the BNP. Many people (including myself) had predicted that the rally could well be a flop, or at least not a great success – but the government has just given the BNP a great reason to explain its failure away.

All these are costs that the government though is willing to suffer right now. A well-connected politician told me that he thought nobody would gain from this rally. The BNP would not achieve its political objective of changing the government’s path one jot. The actions of the government would also be subject to wide-spread criticism, losing the party popular support.

The only thing that was certain to happen, he said, was there will be more violence. Tomorrow he is likely to be proved right.

This is part 2 of my analysis of Khaleda's speech on the nation, which took place on Tuesday. To see part one, you can click here, or just scroll down to the bottom of this entry.

Below, the text in ittalics is from Khaleda's speech itself. The non-italicised text is my comment on that ittalicised text. (Please note I do not comment on every part of the speech)

8. Back in 1995/96, the Awami League with the Jamaat e Islami and the Jatiya Party as their partners had carried out a prolonged and a destructive campaign to realize their demand for holding Parliamentary elections under a neutral, non-party caretaker government. That campaign was characterized by deaths, destruction and large-scale mayhem. Passengers on buses were burnt to death using gunpowder. Chittagong port was closed down for long periods.

‘A prolonged and a destructive campaign … characterized by deaths, destruction and large-scale mayhem. Passengers on buses were burnt to death’. Which year is she talking about – this could just as easily be applied to the BNP in 2013. Also, interesting that Khaleda is willing to be so critical of the Jamaat, her current ally.

9. The BNP was in office at that time. We had tried our utmost to reach an understanding with the opposition. Even efforts by friends from the international community collapsed in the face of Awami League intransigence and their destructive politics. Overcoming our initial reluctance to accept their demand, we did concede in the end in the interest of free, fair and participatory polls. However, by then the Members of the Parliament from the Awami League, Jamaat and the Jatiya Party had resigned their seats. That left us without the required two-thirds majority of MPs to pass a Bill on this. With this sole purpose in mind, the Parliament was dissolved and an election was conducted for a Parliament with a short duration in which this Bill was passed and enacted into law. Immediately following the introduction of the Non-Party Caretaker Government in the Constitution, the Parliament was dissolved and fresh elections were held.

I have already written a little about this, and Khaleda is basically correct. The BNP did reportedly agree to change the constitution and bring in a caretaker government before the elections, but because of the lack of a two thirds majority, had to go head with the election, but promised to change constitution afterward – though there was no formal agreement. However, after the elections, I understand the BNP wavered a bit and thought of trying to carry on in power without changing the constitution, but in light of the continuing AL protests, did the change in the constitution take place.

However, it is significant that the BNP did agree to compromise before the election – which the AL has not agreed to do.

10. By abolishing this Caretaker system from the Constitution through the highly controversial 15th Amendment, the Awami League has brought the country to the present state of political chaos and uncertainty. The Awami League will have to bear full responsibility for all that is happening on this issue. Experience shows us that without an understanding between the major political parties it is not possible to ensure a participatory, free and fair election that would see a peaceful transfer of power. The present government’s blatant move to go ahead with an election in the absence of such an understanding is what is causing so much suffering to our people today.

The decision by Sheikh Hasina to remove the constitutional provision for the caretaker government is of course behind everything that is going on now. That is not to say that even had Hasina decided to leave the caretaker provisions within the constitution, all would have been rosy – there would almost certainly have still been arguments as to which person would be the caretaker chief advisor. However, having arguments about who would be the caretaker chief advisor would have been very different from what we are having to argue about now - the whole nature of election process.

It is therefore important to remember that even if the government did not remove the constitutional provisions, there would still in all likelihood have been serious conflicts between the parties – as indeed there was in 2006/7.

Nonetheless, Hasina’s decision in removing the caretaker government was a colossal misjudgment, from which both the AL and the country is suffering. It is important to read Badiul Majumdar’s note on discussions that took place in parliament about the caretaker government – and how noone on the committee ever suggested that the caretaker government provisions should be removed. It was in effect the decision solely of the prime minister very late in the day – and the decision was made without any public consultation at all. A set of provisions which had been obtained in 1996 following months of political protests, deaths, and indeed a void election was changed by the current prime minister just like that. And all the rationales that have been made by the Awami League since then to justify this have been created post-facto.

So, as many other commentators have said, Hasina’s decision to remove the caretaker government was one of immense hubris. There have been many mistakes made by past political leaders in Bangladesh, but this could be one of the most costly.

So, yes, the BNP is right that we are now because of the government – but whether that makes the government responsible for the violence that has ensured is a different matter. Those who perpetrated and encouraged the violence remain directly respondible for their actions – even if Hasina must take some of the blame for allowing a situation, where violent protests were forseeable, to happen.

11. Awami League Chief Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has claimed that the 15th Amendment was done to ensure voting right of the people. But facts prove otherwise. By conducting a farcical election under this unpopular 15th Amendment, 154 Members of the Parliament are about to elected without any contest. This means, that to form a government with a majority of MPs, it is not necessary to obtain people’s mandate. Today more than 53 percent of the country’s voters have been denied their right of choice. For the remaining seats, there will not be any credible contest in the absence of any serious opposition. Even there the voter is being denied his right to choose his representative. Because it is not just the BNP, all serious opposition has chosen to boycott this farcical election. Only the Awami League and a handful of their chosen ones are taking part in this farcical exercise. This is not an election. It is unabashed selection. This denial of the voter’s right will live as a shameful scandal in our nation’s political history.

There is no getting away from it. This is a legitimate summary of the current situation. And the Awami League will, I forsee, suffer much in the mid-term and long-term for getting itself into such a situation.

12. Over the last few years, we have been talking of this devious design of the ruling party. With their record of poor governance and repressive politics, the Awami league is now completely removed from the people. They are in fact scared of facing the public in a competitive election.

‘Devious design’ again! Yes, this government can be accused of poor governance and, at times, repressive politics – but the BNP’s last term in office could equally be termed as such, and perhaps there is even more reason to criticize them when one looks at how they turning a blind eye to militancy.

It is difficult now to say why the Awami League is leading the country into this poll – but it is not just that the party is unwilling to face a competitive election – which of course is what it does look like. It is also, and perhaps even mainly, pride and hubris. We are in this situation because the prime minister does not want – and feels she cannot take – a U-turn. It has come down to something as simple as that.

13. Our demand for conducting elections under a neutral non-party government has now emerged as a people’s demand. All credible opinion polls clearly show that more than 80 percent of the country’s voters favour this system.

Almost right, but not quite. It has been 80% but not quite at that level in all polls. But the basic point is correct, there is overwhelming support for the caretaker government

14. Just when the mass of the people are ready to express their solidarity peacefully with us on the streets, the government has imposed an indefinite ban on their movement.

What is this about? For the last month it has been the BNP which has stopped people coming out on the streets and to even travel from district to district. And whilst it is true that most people support the caretaker government and their demand, and may even support the BNP if an election were to take place – it is very unclear whether a ‘mass of the people are ready to express their solidarity peacefully’, partly of course, it should be said because they fear the law enforcement agencies

15. Democratic societies everywhere allow their citizens to express their protests peacefully on the streets. But this is not the case in present day Bangladesh. Here only the armed supporters of the current government are allowed this privilege and that too under the protection of the state’s law enforcement personnel.

There is truth to this. Even if the BNP – or those who supported their demands - wanted to take out obviously peaceful protests, it is very possible that it would not be allowed.

16. The country’s prisons have been filled with leaders and supporters of the Opposition. The Party’s offices in Dhaka and other parts of the country are consistently under police siege. Acts of killing, abduction, indiscriminate arrests, tear gassing, lathi charge and other such repressive measures have become the norm. This planned tactic is aimed to create fear and panic among the opposition activists so that the government can implement its blue print for a farcical election.

Many opposition leaders and activists have been detained and are in jail – mostly on political reasons, though some detentions may be justified due to involvement in violence. Since this speech this has become ever more the case. But the basic truth is articulated with too much hyperbole!

With the BNP march to take place tomorrow, I thought I should put Khaleda's prepared speech, at which she announced the event to some inquiry. This is the first part, the rest will be published shortly.

The english translation of the speech is taken from the text sent around by the BNP itself - which can be downloaded in full here. I undertook an analysis of Khaleda's previous big speech made in October which you can access here.

Below, the text in ittalics is from Khaleda's speech itself. The non-italicised text is my comment on that ittalicised text. (Please note I do not comment on every part of the speech)

1. "The country is now in the grip of deadly state terrorism. Blood is shed on a daily basis as human life is snatched through extra judicial killings. The wail of cry engulfs countless households. The sense of fear has transcended the limits of the cities and has now reached even the far-flung countryside. The sense of uncertainty is in everyone’s eyes. It is only the government that remains unmoved by all this. Their only goal is to cling on to power at any cost. It is for the attainment of this goal that they have launched a “scorched earth” policy with the mindset of an intruder." 

It is a strong start – but complete hyperbole. Sure there has no doubt been state terrorism, but most of the violence of recent weeks has apparently been carried out by opposition activists or people working for them or supporting them or paid by them. The opposition denies this, and claims that it is intelligence agencies or agent provocateurs doing it, but there is no evidence that I know of to substantiate that.

2. Our proposal was for a free, fair, neutral and a credible election where all parties could take part.

This is of course rair enough.

3. We had even placed our proposal in the Parliament.

This is technically true – but very misleading. On May 22 BNP lawmaker Mahbubuddin Khokon tabled an adjournment motion in parliament to discuss the restoration of the caretaker government system.
 He withdrew the proposal a few days later. No reason was given for the withdrawl, and the BNP then said that they would longer put forward any proposal on the outline of the non-party government system.
“We will not even bring up this issue in parliament. It is the government who should take measures to restore the caretaker government system,” BNP standing committee member Moudud Ahmed is quoted as saying..

4. We appealed for a consensus on this issue through discussions. The government summarily rejected our appeals. They remained rigid on their stance. They planned for an election keeping the government and the Parliament in place. They offered us some posts in the Cabinet. One can clearly see the fate of a particular political party that agreed with to go along with this plan. We appealed to the President of the Republic to take initiative that could pave the way for an understanding. Although our effort did not yield the desired result, our sincere wish for a negotiated solution has become clear for all to see.

In terms of willingness/unwillingness to seek a negotiated settlement, I think it is six of one, half a dozen of the other. Khaleda Zia did not take up Sheikh Hasina offer to meet her at Gonobhavan and subsequently the AL general secretary of the party was not receiving calls from the BNP to initiate dialogue.

In any case, I would argue, there was never any willingness by either party to move away from their very entrenched positions, which meant that discussions, had they taken place at an earlier point (i.e. before the UN intervention with UN Assistant Secretary General's visit earlier this month) would not have resulted in any success. 

AL would not change the constitution; BNP wanted a caretaker government position which required a change in the constitution. There was talk that the BNP might agree to something less if the prime minister resigned, but for the AL this was completely off the table.

Was it reasonable for the BNP not to accept the AL offer of  ministries within an all-paty government? I did argue earlier that such a deal incorporating this might be possible – but it would have been difficult for the BNP leaders to have become ministers with the prime minister still in power, and most informed commentators also accepted that in Bangladesh the identify of the prime minister is all that really mattered.

5. The Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon sent his special representative Oscar Fernandez-Taranco for yet another attempt to seek an understanding on the election time government. On our part, we readily accepted his request for sitting in dialogue on this issue, even when many of our senior leaders were languishing in prison on fabricated charges and when sustained oppression of our supporters had not stopped. 

Khaleda is quite right to focus on the BNP leaders who at that time - and indeed now - remain in jail simply for political purposes, and for nothing else.

6. Our repeated appeals for postponing the one sided election schedule to facilitate meaningful discussions went unheeded. In other words, the government remained unwilling to create an environment conducive for serious dialogue. Our sincerity for consensus, however, has been proven beyond any doubt. 

Was it possible to postpone the elections, and Khaleda suggests. The AL says that the constitution did not allow it. The BNP says that it does. I have argued earlier that the constitution does appear to allow it - and so this is a matter of politics rather than law

Of course even if the AL was right, they could always have recalled parliament and changed the constitution. But having the elections within the five year period was another red line for the AL. Anyway, delaying the election by 3 months would not have helped as they would still need a deal.

7. Three sessions of talks between representatives of our Party and those from the Awami League under the auspices of the UN has failed to produce an understanding. The government has remained intransigent on going ahead with an election that is neither free nor fair and one without the participation of all parties. Their plans for a fraudulent election has by now become clear to all. Their participation at the talks was only to deceive the public. This was only a time wasting charade while the government was plotting to implement its devious plan.

Whenever I hear about ‘devious plans’ I am reminded of a plot line from one of my kids books. And whilst deeply serious - rather than political analysis. There is a kind of childish quality to all this.

Are we now where the Awami League has always planned to be? I am not entirely sure of this at all. At least some senior Awami Leaguers thought that the BNP would in the end come to an election, which polls seemed to suggest they could win, even if many other things were stacked against them. And the AL was certainly preparing itself for a proper election – with an organized research team.

And of course, AL’s plan certainly didn’t expect the Jatiya party to pull away, for there to be some many uncontested seats, and uncompetitive elections, and for the international community to decide to to send observers due to the election’s lack of credibility. This is not a good place for the Awami League to be in right now – though of course they are putting a good face on it, and know that despite their setbacks, they remains in control of state power, whatever the problems

12.05 pm: Diplomatic 'boycott' of the AL manifesto launch
Bangladesh Politico has learnt that the United States and some European and other Western countries will not attend today’s launch of the Awami League manifesto for the 10th parliamentary elections at an event hosted by the prime minister. One diplomat told Bangladesh Politico that a number of like-minded embassies were ‘boycotting’ the event as, ‘given the current situation, it would send the wrong message regarding our view of the electoral process if we were to attend. This is a clearly political event with the prime minister presiding in her role as AL president.’

Another diplomat however said that he was not attending as it was an ‘internal party matter’ and did not think that it was necessary to go to such an event. ‘I would not say it was a boycott,’ this diplomat said. It is understood that some countries will however attend, though sending junior officials.

As earlier discussed, earlier this week both the US, the EU and the Commonwealth announced that it would not be observing the 5 January elections as they lacked ‘credibility’.


5.15 pm:
'It will not be business as usual?'
How will the international community deal with Bangladesh's government on 6 January, the day after Sheikh Hasina and her party will be 'elected' as the country's new government. (To see my previous analysis one month ago of the position of the international community towards Bangladesh, see here)

(For those new to this issue, the word 'elected' is put in inverted commas to indicate that this will not really be an 'election' - since 154 MPs have already been selected unopposed, and in almost all the other 146 seats, where there will be an election on 5 January, there is no real competition, since either it is a foregone conclusion who will win or if there is competition, it is between two Awami League candidates - the official and the rebel one.

But back to point.

The 'West': No doubt there will be differences of approach between the United States, the European Union, the Australian and Canada - all of whom have agreed that the elections are not credible and should not be observed - but it is clear from speaking to a variety of diplomats that it will not be 'business as usual' as they put it. I don't think any one knows what that means in reality - what preferences Bangladesh gets now, but which it will not get in the future - and over the next few weeks, no doubt this is what they will be working out.

However, although none of these countries thinks the 5 January elections will be in any way credible, they will continue to work with it.

India: India's position is interesting. It seems to be supporting the current Bangladesh government in conducting these elections - and it doesn't see any credibility problem. For them, if the opposition parties have not turned up to participate in the election, that is their problem. The election was carried out according to the constitution and the law - and that is enough for India.

India has not formally announced whether it will send election observers (in 2008 it sent around 11) and even though it may well want to provide political support to the AL government in the election, it may well choose not to do send observers, since this could well make India the sole country to send  them. Will India really want to be in that position - giving an appearance that Bangladesh has only one country that 'supports' the credibility of the election? Moreover, in the context of Bangladesh politics where there is a deep anti-India feeling amongst significant sections of the population, this would also not be good for the Awami League ... or indeed India.

India had in recent weeks been working hard to persuade both US and the EU to send observers and 'support' the elections. The decision by both US and EU to 'boycott' is likely to be a bit of a blow for India, and some commentators suggest that the Indian government is rethinking its strong support for the Awami League government. There is no question that India feels more secure with Awami League in power - but they have reportedly said to the BNP that if the party were to win an election, and when in power dealt with India's concerns relating to security and militancy, the Indian government would happily work with it. For India, it will be business as usual with the next Awami League government

Russia: Russia is not sending election observers (though it should be said that it did not do so in 2008). Its ambassador told me that this is not in any way a political decision and that they would have sent observers had it received a request much earlier. Russia, as I have said earlier, has two key contracts that it needs to protect - an arms deal, and the nuclear plant. For Russia, too, it will be business as usual.

China: When the West withdrawals politically from a country, it is China that these days moves in - with Sri Lanka being a key example. China seeks stability, that is its main concern, but is unlikely to change any aspect of its foreign policy towards Bangladesh because of the elections - and indeed will try to exploit any gaps that may arise from any withdrawal of the West that does take place.

One informed commentator told me that Bangladesh has not a single friend of significance in the international community that will speak up for it - and whilst this may well be a wee bit of an exaggeration, it is probably, right now, close to the truth. It is important to note that the US and EU are the country's largest trading partners - and both of them are pretty upset with the Bangladesh government. Together with Canada and Australia, they are also important aid development partners.

Whether this will have any impact on how the government conducts itself after the January 5 election - and in particular on whether and how quickly the new government agrees to hold a subsequent election in which the opposition can agree to participate - is however far from clear. It will also be important to see how the World Bank and the IMF respond.

One thing is certainly clear. Unlike what Sajeeb Wazed thinks (see below), his mother, Sheikh Hasina is no 'rising star in the international community' right now

3.30 pm: A disaster for South Sudan, political benefit for Sheikh Hasina
Sometimes terrible things happen in one part of the world that coincidentally help even rather deperate leaders in a completely different part. One such 'thing' was the events in South Sudan where a civil war has erupted, mass graves discovered and thousands have died. Who would have imagined that what was happening there might be of some political benefit for Sheikh Hasina - and the timing could not have been better for her.

There was the opposition leader Khaleda Zia giving her speech to the nation, announcing her 'do or die' rally in Dhaka and saying how isolated Bangladesh now was in the international community when who should call Bangladesh's prime minister but the UN General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon asking the prime minister for help with peace-keeping troops. The Awami League has tried to squeeze every last iota of political benefit out of this call - and was indeed the subject of another of Sajeeb Wazed's brazen facebook posts (who in case you dont know is the son of the prime minister):
The other day Khaleda Zia in her speech stated Bangladesh has become isolated in the international community. This sentiment has been echoed by some in our so called “civil society”. Yet when there is an international crisis, who did the UN Secretary General call? Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. 
The truth is Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina has become a rising star in the international community. It is considered amazing that Bangladesh in the past five years has surpassed India in most social indicators. Sheikh Hasina has won repeated awards and accolades from the international community. 
In contrast, during Khaleda Zia’s regime Bangladesh came to be considered a failing state. It became known as a terrorist haven. Her blatant attempts to rig the national elections, even under a so called “neutral caretaker government” led to a military takeover under the guise of yet another “caretaker government.” 
No one in the international community has claimed that the upcoming elections will not be free and fair. We are certainly not isolated. On the contrary, the world still looks to Sheikh Hasina for help.
I will write another time about the question of Bangladesh's isolation in the international community - but right now I just want to explain how misleading is the argument that Moon's phone call meant anything more than a desperate United Nations scampering desperately around for more troops to deal with an urgent crisis in the world.

I wrote about this in a story for New Age, which can be read here but, in summary, on Tuesday the security council met and agreed, due to the emergency situation in South Sudan, to increase the number of peacekeeping troops. A note on the UN website shows that Sheikh Hasina was far from only leader to whom Moon spoke to - in fact there were seven others, and Bangladesh was listed second last in the list published by the UN, after Pakistan, and only before Nepal. It read:

On the situation in South Sudan, the Secretary-General has been speaking to many leaders, reaching out for their support for bolstering the capacity of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country (UNMISS) to allow it to do its utmost to protect civilians and for stepping up efforts to find a political solution to the crisis. 
So far, the Secretary-General has spoken with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission; Hailemariam Dessalegn, Chairperson of the African Union and Prime Minister of Ethiopia; Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda; Joyce Hilda Mtila Banda, President of Malawi; Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, President of Tanzania; Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan; Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh; and Khil Raj Regmi, Prime Minister of Nepal.
Considering the fact that Bangladesh provides the UN the second largest number of peacekeeping troops, and has troops already in the region, the only thing that can really be said about this phone call is that had it not been made, it would have meant that Bangladesh had fallen as low in international esteem as North Korea. And I am happy to say, that has not happened .... yet!

Of course, one has to give credit to the Awami League for their exploitation of the issue. They need whatever good news they can get. (As this post gets published, Wajeed's statement has got 8195 likes and has been shared 509 times - and pro-Awami League media is lapping it up)

11.30 am: Could the elections have been postponed?
When UN assistant general secretary, Oscar Fernandez Taranco came to Bangladesh earlier this month on a four day visit to help find a solution to the country’s political impasse, he came with an understanding that the date of the elections could be postponed for three months without needing to change the constitution.

The government was adamant however that this could not happen.

This issue has of course now become academic – as on 13 December 2013 (two days after Taranco left), 154 candidates were elected unopposed, so half the election had in effect taken place. The election could no longer be postponed without a significant legal head ache, or with the agreement of all those individuals elected unopposed.

However, it is worthwhile taking a quick look at this issue – to see whether or not there was an opportunity lost.

Article 123(3) - which was inserted by the 15th amendment - sets out when a general election should be held. This states that:
(3) A general election of the members of Parliament shall be held-
(a) in the case of a dissolution by reason of the expiration of its term, within the period of ninety days preceding such dissolution; and
(b) in the case of a dissolution otherwise than by reason of such expiration, within ninety days after such dissolution: ....
If we first look at article 123(3)(a), how should the expression 'expiration of term' be interpreted.

This seems to refer back to article 72(b) which states that,
‘Unless sooner dissolved by the President, Parliament shall stand dissolved on the expiration of the period of five years from the date of its first meeting’
This therefore suggests that the maximum term of parliament is five years, and article 123(a) refer to a situation where parliament runs its full term of 5 years with the election being held within a period of 90 days before that period comes to an end.

So this is not helpful to those who might argue that an election could take place after the five year term of parliament.

However, article 123(b) appears to provide an alternative time period for an election when the dissolution of parliament takes place before the full term has been completed.

It suggests that if parliament is dissolved before five years is completed, an election can take place within a period ninety days after the dissolution.

Now this would seem to be helpful for those who want to argue that the elections could be prolonged as currently parliament has not yet been dissolved so it would seem that technically parliament could be dissolved at any time before the end of the five year term (i.e 24 January 2014) and elections could then happen within a period of 90 days after that.

However the question is how article 123(b) and article 72(b) sit together.

Doesn't article 72(b) require that any election must happen within a five year period - so it would be wrong to interpret article 123(b) to allow an election to take place beyond the five year period?

The important thing to notice about article 72(b) is that it states that parliament shall 'stand dissolved' on the expiration of the period of five years; it does not say that ‘elections’ shall take place at the end of five years.

So, it seems to be possible to read article 123(b) as not necessarily as being in contradiction with article 72(b).

It is true that it would seem odd that the effective term of parliament is five years, but an election can take within a period of 90 days after that. However, that interpretation does seem viable.

It should also be noted that the constitution would allow Sheikh Hasina to remain prime minister until a new prime minister is chosen

Article 57(3) of the constitution, which deals with tenure of the prime minister states
Nothing in this article shall disqualify Prime Minister for holding office until his successor has entered upon office
The view set out above is not the definitive version – and constitutional lawyers have different views.

However, it does seem to be the case is that there was a reasonable interpretation of the constitution that could have allowed the elections to be delayed until around the third week of April.

Of course any delay in the election would have served little purpose unless a wider agreement between the two parties could have been made.

It would be interesting to know whether Taranco continued to think that the elections could legally be postponed or was persuaded by the Awami League that this was not possible


11.30 am: Will BNP's rally on 29th December be a game changer?
Will December 29th, the day that Khaleda Zia has asked people to converge on Dhaka, be a game changer, forcing a change in Awami League's stance towards the elections?

One informed commentator suggested to me that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party could get 1 million people on the streets of Dhaka, and under pressure the prime minister will recall parliament and change the constitution.

Well if anything like that does happen, then it will be against all odds.

There are few people who believe that the BNP could pull of such a feat - with most pointing to the party's lack of organization, the absence of active public support for it, and the tactics that the government will use to prevent the rally happening. Even those I have spoken to who are keen to force the government to change tack, have no confidence in the BNP succeeding.

BNP - which some cynics like to claim should stand for Basically No Party - has never been that organizationally strong. Added to that, many leaders are now detained in jail or evading detention - so the ability of the BNP itself to manage the transport and logistics of so many people is uncertain.

The BNP needs not only its supporters and activists to come - but also ordinary members of the public who support the party's message. The problem is that whilst the message and argument made by the BNP about the 5 January election has, I would guess, majority support throughout the country, ordinary people will not come out of their houses to support the messenger.

Whilst it may well be the case that if there were a free and fair elections, the majority of people would vote for the BNP, very few of them will do anything beyond that. The opposition party has not in the last months been able to organise a popular 'movement' in the country - and rather has succeeded (to the extent that it has done so) through violence and fear.

And then of course there are the reports that the government will do anything to ensure that the rally is a flop - no doubt organizing a bus strike, arresting more BNP activists, and trying to cut Dhaka off from the rest of the country (in a reverse tactic of what the BNP has been doing in the last month). So the outlook appears grim.

The commentator who suggested that the BNP could get 1 million people onto the streets of Dhaka  suggested that the party had been preparing itself for this moment, the last big push before the elections, and till now they have been keeping their powder dry - leaving much of the activism on the streets to the Jamaat.

However, one thing that I have not noticed with the BNP is much forward or strategic thinking. As one diplomat mentioned, who keeps in close contact with both parties, he had no inkling at all that that the party had such a rally planned.

What must be remembered is that the current weakness of the government is not the doing of the BNP. It has not ben brought about by weeks of the operod (seige) - but primarily due to the confused decision making within the Jatiya party. Had Ershad not decided at the last moment against participating in the election, there would not now be anywhere near as many uncontested seats - which is what really hit the Awami League hard in terms of the election's credibility both nationally and internationally.

There is one uncertain outlier in all this - and that is the possible role of Hefazet in supporting the BNP's rally. However, after Hefazet's own debacle of its 'on/off' 24 December rally, it is unclear that it can help the BNP bring the numbers into Dhaka. And of course, if they do, there is a significant danger for the BNP that it sends the wrong kind of message to the country and the outside world about what the party stands for, and who are its supporters.

Of course, the risk now for the BNP is that if the rally flops, the government will take away the message that the AL is unassailable - and that even without a popular mandate from the elections on 5 January, it will be able to continue in power for a long time to come.


9.15 pm: Two BNP leaders reported arrested ... not connected to murder case ... one released
Former BNP MP, Sardar Sakhawat Hossain Bakul was arrested this morning as he tried to meet Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition party at his home. Bdnews reports that: As Bakul was about to enter the BNP chief's house, police detained him after he got into an altercation with them. He was picked up and taken away in a vehicle even as journalists looked on. Police officers on duty declined to comment on the incident.

And then senior BNP leader RA Gani was arrested this evening as he tried to meet Khaleda. And what do police say about this .... now this will make you laugh:
DMP’s Gulshan zone Assistant Commissioner Nurul Amin said they escorted Gani home.
“We did not even arrest him, how can we release him? He wanted to enter the [BNP chief’s] office, but we escorted him to his house from there,” he claimed.
So, the police now think it is completely fine to pick people up and detain them in hospitals that they don't want to go to (as happened to Ershad, see below), or now be taken back to you home when you would rather go somewhere else?

9.00 pm: Case filed against BNP leaders - but where is the evidence
Earlier today, the police filed a criminal case naming 18 Bangladesh opposition party leaders, some Jamaat leaders - and 22 unnamed people including two motor bike-riders - relating to the murder of a police officer

Traffic police constable Ferdous Khalil died on the spot when two young men on a motor bike are said to have hurled a petrol bomb at a parked requisitioned bus full of police at Banglamotor on Tuesday morning. Two other people including a policeman who were in the bus received serious burn injuries.

According to one report Salauddin Sohagh, a witness to the incident, said he had seen two persons on a motorbike fleeing immediately after the attack and that it was alleged in the complaint filed with the police that two men had carried out the attack at the instigation of Fakhrul and the other accused.

So the situation is as follows: two unidentified men threw a bomb at a bus which killed one police officer. It is quite understandable for the opposition to be under suspicion in a situation like that - but apart from an allegation made in a statement to the police, there is no basis to the case that any of the named men are involved in the murder. 

This is why Bangladesh police has a trained CID to investigate matters like this. 

However, in Bangladesh, particularly at times like this, it is just too convenient for the police - no doubt under instructions from political superiors or perhaps they don't even need to be told what to do anymore - just list the names of politicians whom the government would like to arrest and put behind bars.

This is not - and I have said this before in relation to other similar incidents - how an incident like this should get investigated or dealt with. Of course, it should be mentioned, that similar allegations would in all likelihood be made against AL leaders if the BNP was in power

8.40 pm: Khaleda leaves house
Khaleda Zia has been reported to have left her house for a reception - so suggestions that she is under hosue arrest are at present not correct!

7.45 pm: Will Khaleda Zia be put under house arrest?
Yesterday evening, Khaleda Zia, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party gave a speech in which she announced a meeting on 29 December, outside her party's Dhaka office, in which she encouraged people from all round the country to come and attend to 'save democracy'. This appears to be BNP's last throw of the dice to avert the 5 January election and I shall shortly be analysing that speech.

However, it appears the government knows what it thinks. A large number of police have surrounded her house, supposedly to provide her extra security, but it looks like a possible prelude to Khaleda'a arrest, or more likely to her being put under effective house arrest.

It was of course only on 13 December, when General Ershad, the Jatiya party was whisked off against his will from his house to the Combined Military Hospital in the army cantonment by law enforcement agents - as he supposedly needed a health check up. It was planned that he would be taken out of the country, and his passport and that of his assistant, with whom he was going to travel, were taken from him - but this has not happened and he remains at CMH, with reports of him playing golf, which I assume he did consent to.

I wonder what health concerns the state decides Khaleda may have?

Of course, it may be a force alarm - and perhaps the government does not yet even know itself what it will do to try and avert the meeting on the 29th.

6 pm: How now should one view the Election Commission?
A month ago, at the heart of the government's claim that a free, fair and credible election could take place under a political rather than a 'caretaker' system of government, was the argument that there existed an Election Commission that was  strong and independent and could ensure that no political government could  inappropriately influence the election process.

One of the reasons why the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had been boycotting the polls was because it counter claimed that the election commission was not sufficiently independent from the government, and could not play the role that election commissions around the world play in countries which do hold free and fair elections under a political government

After the election commission announced on 25 November the date of  election (with 2 December as the date of submissions of nominations, and 13 December, the date for withdrawals) it has been possible to test Awami League's assertion.

At the time of the election announcement, BNP was (as it is now) boycotting the polls, and the election commission said that it would do whatever it could to encourage the BNP to take part in the coming elections - so one might have expected that the election commission would in particular try to show itself as independent from the government, and perhaps even bend over backwards to show its strong independence

It should be noted, of course, that there had already been a number of indications that the EC was not as independent as the Awami League was suggesting. For example, when parliament removed paragraph 6 (1) (j) of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2009, that had stated that a person cannot take part in an election if he or she “has not been a member of a registered political party for three years,” prior to the election, the Election Commission failed to make any hint of a complaint - even though this was considered to be a very important provision that had been introduced by the last election commission.
Nonetheless, it was wise to give the election commission a benefit of the doubt - as indeed the government suggested that one should, until the process of conducting the election took place

So what have we learnt since 25 November?

There are at least four things that taken together suggest that the Election Commission, for all its claimed technical competence, is politically subordinate to the government.

(a) no charges in the civil administration; in the last three elections under a caretaker government, the interim government working with the election commission (which under article 44E of the RPO is given control over transfers in the civil administration) has as soon as it came to power, overhauled the civil administration to try and remove the political partisanship within key posts within the civil administration that has always been created by the incumbent government over the previous five year period. In fact the changes to the civil administration that came about through the caretaker government system, were one of the principal arguments in support of having such a system.

If you look back in October 2006, even though President Iajuddin had controversially installed himself as caretaker adviser, a significant amount of transfer took place in the civil and police administration and the Awami league indeed called for even more.

However, since 25 November, there has been no overhaul of the civil administration. In fact there has according to New Age been only been three transfers of any note in the administration. On December 3, the government withdrew Dhaka divisional commissioner AN Shamsuddin Azad Chowhury and Khulna deputy commissioner Mesbah Uddin in keeping with an order from the Election Commission and on December 18, Satkhira deputy commissioner Mohammad Anwar Hossain Hawlader was withdrawn.

The same partisan civil and police administration that existed before 25 November remains in place - and the election commission has not sought to take any action to change it. This is perhaps the most significant failure on the part of the EC.

(b) Jatiya party nomination withdrawals: On 3 December, General Ershad, the Jatiya party's head, withdrew from the 'all party government' and announced that his party would no longer take part in elections. He asked all his candidates to withdrawal their nominations as election candidates. The Jatiya party claim that in many situations, the returning officers have refused to accept the withdrawals.

It is important to note that it was very much in the governing Awami League party's interest to stop the Jatiya party withdrawing from the election - and between the 3 December, Jatiya party leaders reported that huge pressure was being place on them to get the party to change its sposition on participation in the elections, which finally resulted  ten days later, in Ershad being in effect kidnapped from his house by law enforcement officials and taken to a hospital in Cantonment Medical Hospital where he continues to be detained.

Now exactly what happened about these withdrawal applications is rather murky: we don't know for sure which candidates really gave a withdrawal application rather than saying that they had, and we do not know whether there were genuine reasons on the part of the election commission for refusing to accept some of the withdrawals. But we do have a bizarre situation where General Ershad (in relation to a constituency in Rangpur), his brother GM Kader in relation to a constituency in Lalmonirhat and the party secretary general, ABM Ruhul Amin Howlader in relation to a constituency in Patuakhali sought to withdrawal their applications and the Election Commission refused, apparently because the person who sent the withdrawal application had not been properly authorised to send it.

(c) Dealing with party symbols: On 12 December, Bobby Hajaj, an adviser and spokesperson for General Ershad, went to the election commission with a letter, signed by Ershad himself, asking that the party symbol, the plough, should not be assigned to any candidate - and also informing the commission that the party had 'decided to cancel all the party nominations.’ According to Hajaj, the commission officials informed him that this might not be possible under the RPO - and it does appear that the RPO appears to be silent on whether a party leader can seek the removal of a symbol from candidates whose nominations have not been withdrawn.

However, one day later on 13 December, Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League wrote a letter to the election commission in which she asked that her party's symbol of the 'boat' be given to then ten of her allies. It read: '“I would like to request to allocate the boat symbol to the candidates of different political parties that are partners in the Awami League-lead alliance in the 10th parliamentary election.” This request was acceded to. However section 20 of the RPO makes it clear that such a change can only be made within 3 days after the date of elections are announced, which would have meant that such a letter could only be accepted by 28 November 2013 - not 13 December.

It is this kind of apparently discriminatory approach to how the RPO is applied to the Awami League on the one hand and to other parties, who are opposed at that moment to what the Awami League wants to happen, on the other, which is highly suggestive that the Election Commission is not acting fairly. There is a distinct impression that had it been in the interest of the government for the election commission to allow the Jatiya party request, it would have readily agreed.

(d) Late Awami League withdrawls: In a front page story in the Dhaka Tribune, it was reported that in order to try and get Jatiya party candidates to take part in the election, the Awami League sent applications for withdrawal of certain of its AL candidates after the cut off day which was 13 December, and these were accepted by the election commission. The article states:
As part of a “compromise” deal with its once ally Jatiya Party, the Awami League has allegedly pressured many of its candidates to withdraw nominations so that JaPa candidates could be elected uncontested. In many such constituencies, letters were sent to the returning officers instructing them to accept withdrawal applications from Awami League candidates.

Some of these letters were reportedly signed by HT Imam, adviser to the prime minister and co-chairman of the Awami League’s Election Steering Committee.

The last date for withdrawing nomination was Friday, December 13. The process is to file an application telling the respective returning officer that the candidate did not wish to contest the polls anymore. Reportedly, in many of these constituencies, where [Jatiya Party] leaders were wanted, the Awami League candidates refused to withdraw nominations.

There are allegations that some of these candidates were forced to withdraw their nominations and the returning officers were instructed to accept their withdrawal applications even if it was after December 13.

Some of these nomination withdrawal papers, submitted after that date, were reportedly accepted with retrospective effect. For example, an application dated December 12 and submitted on December 14 was accepted. The Awami League “compromised” these seats to ensure JaPa’s participation and a credible look for the upcoming polls.

Sources said the Election Commission took more than usual in finalising the list of “elected uncontested” candidates because of those “compromised” constituencies.

Remarkably, the names of three JaPa candidates M Shawkat Chowdhury from Nilphamari 4, Moshiur Rahman Ranga from Rangpur 1 and Fakhrul Imam from Mymensingh 8 were sent to the EC on Sunday, two days after the deadline for nomination withdrawal.
This again suggests that the Election Commission was falling over backwards to assist the Awami League.

So in sum, I think, it is fair to say that, there is enough evidence to suggest that the Awami League has lost the argument that, under a political government, the election commission could hold an election without cow-towing to the interests of the governing party.

And having lost this argument, it is unclear on what basis the Awami League can claim that political governments in Bangladesh can hold free and fair elections. And the argument in favor of a caretaker government system or something similar has become that much stronger.


1.00 pm: Bangladesh's current crisis - an electoral one or one about Islamic militancy?
This is as good a summary of what is going on now as you can get, extracted from an article in today's Dhaka Tribune.
In the everyday violent melee of power politics, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the strategies behind the tactics. With some presumption, it is not hard to divide the broad strategies behind the two warring factions. 
Basically, the AL government is pursuing a two-pronged strategy. Its preferred strategy is to get BNP to participate in an election managed and supervised by AL so that the next AL government gets the stamp of legitimacy from domestic constituents and international partners. 
Failing that, AL’s second option is to try to paint Jamaat as a full-fledged terrorist organisation internationally, with BNP as its patron-accomplice, and manage the low level insurgency by BNP and Jamaat indefinitely while sitting snugly at the throne of state power. 
BNP’s strategy is singular. It is going by the tested and proved way to pry open the government’s grip on power by preparing the ground for a third party to intervene. BNP is incapable of creating that scenario on its own, and that is why Jamaat is so indispensable to them now. Few would doubt that if BNP could achieve the goal of power politics without the help of Jamaat, it would discard Jamaat in an instant like a used tissue paper. 
In pursuing this strategy, BNP is again following the “manual of tactics” to create maximum destabilisation by interrupting regular life in the country. But this year, the BNP-led opposition has upped the ante. The lives of general people are not only being interrupted, but they are even being targeted. The series of vehicles burning with people inside has aroused universal disgust and apprehension of this dastardly deed becoming a regular part of Bangladeshi politics. 
The ruling Awami League on the other hand is using state power in an unprecedented crushing of the opposition. Entire ranks of senior leaders have been rounded up and all mass political activity has been clamped upon. In scenes reminiscing brutal foreign occupation, law enforcement agencies are using lethal force without restraint. 
In the daily barrage of atrocities and excesses of the political power players, it is easy to lose sight of the root cause of this current round of confrontation. BNP wants a free and fair election – an election that most neutral observers agree the BNP will easily win. The AL recognises that as well, which is why it is determined to hold the election under its own terms denying the people their voice. 
This foundational subtext of power politics is not because of any inherent virtue of either party. This situation is essentially the reverse of what was in place in 1996 and 2006, the only difference being that this time opinion polls and local elections have repeatedly underscored this fact on the ground. 
The AL government is aware of the original sin of its position, and that is why it is throwing around a host of allegations about BNP to obfuscate the issue. BNP doesn’t want elections, it wants to free war-criminals. BNP does not want to respect the rule of law as enshrined in the constitution recently amended by AL to uphold democracy. BNP wants to install a religious theocracy. BNP is colluding with hostile foreign entities. BNP wants to reverse the great developmental achievements of the AL government. BNP is joined at the hip with Jamaat, a terrorist organisation. Terror tactics cannot be allowed to succeed. Terrorism is the biggest threat facing the country. And so on.
Particularly, significant is the last paragraph - which is reflected for example in Anis Ahmed's article in the Wall Street Journal.

I have written about this earlier but Anis's article provides another opportunity to discuss this.

Anis, whose brother and joint director with him in the family Gemcom's businesses, is one of those Awami League candidates who has been elected unopposed in the coming election on 5 January, does of course have perhaps more of an interest than most in needing to favor the Awami League right now - however, despite this, I am sure the article represents his genuinely held views whatever his brother's position.

His argument placing the Jamaat at the centre of the problem in Bangladesh right now is typical, as Shafique Rahman puts in the extract above, of smoke and mirrors.

Yes, Jamaat was a party that collaborated with the Pakistan military during 1971, and in that capacity some of the leaders deserve to have been put on trial for crimes that they are alleged to have committed at that time. And whilst violence is never a way to respond to judgments that one does not like, at the same time over the last two years, the highly unfair and politically motivated nature of the trials has become very evident - and when as a result of that process, people are given sentences of hanging, and when a leader in fact does gets executed in response to a charge where there was clearly insufficient credible evidence to prosecute, yet alone to convict and hang - a violent response is comprehensible.

Moreover, there is also a wider context in which Jamaat violence is taking place. The party has been very seriously harassed over the last five years - with all Jamaat district leaders, and sub-district leaders arrested on mostly false or cooked up charges. It is not just that the party has been not allowed to take part in the elections (as Anis mentions) - but for the last five years it has not been able to function in any way as a party, with most party leaders at national and district level in hiding and with most party offices locked up. Most media in Bangladesh, with is anti-Jamaat bias, simply has not covered this issue

Moreover, if you look at the number of deaths since February this year, at least half of them are the result of police shootings - with most of these in circumstances in which police have used disproportionate use of force or just simply apparently been involved in murder. One recent case was highlighted by Human Rights Watch in its recent press release. It stated:
On December 14, for example, members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) entered the house of Fayez Ahmed, the 66-year-old deputy head of the Laxmipur district unit of Jamaat. His wife, Marzia Begum, said that they then took him up to the rooftop of the house, shot him in the head, and threw his body onto the ground. A RAB spokesman denied Ahmed had been shot and instead said he fell while trying to escape. RAB has a long history of claiming that detainees died while trying to escape or in crossfire. 
There may not be that many more examples of such alleged cold-blooded murders by law enforcement agents, but there are many examples of something close in the last nine months.

If there has been Jamaat terrorism, which one has to accept that there almost certainly has been, there has also been considerable allegations of even greater levels of state terrorism identified by both local and international human rights organisations.

But what is completely wrong about Anis's article is its myopia in suggesting that Jamaat violence is at the heart of the problem in Bangladesh right now. The reason for the country's instability, and possible economic and social decline is the debacle between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (yes the Jamaat plays only a bit part in this) in failing to to agree an election time government which they both accept.

This is the principle cause of the instability and violence in Bangladesh right now. And this goes back to the decision by the Prime Minister to remove from the constitution, provisions for an election time caretaker government. She did this against the wishes of the country (all polls, even one done for the AL, show overwhelming support for this provision), and over the heads of the parliamentary committee which was looking at the constitutional amendments at the time.

If a party controversially removes a very popular and crucial constitutional provision relating to the handing over of power at elections, without any public discussion or consultation, simply because it has a two thirds majority, and without agreement of the main opposition parties, and when it only seven years earlier was making the same demands as the opposition is now, and which clearly also provides advantages to that party, it is inevitable that it will be a cause of instability unless the party agrees to compromise - which it has not shown itself willing to do.

The BNP has not played a glorious role at all in current events - and of course Anis is right to point to concerns about the failure of the BNP to deal with militancy particularly at the beginning and middle of its last tenure - but in seeking credible and fair elections this time round, the BNP have been the right side of the argument.

And right now in Bangladesh, it is not the Jamaat nor the state violence that is the principle concern, though of course they are concerns. It is the fact that the Awami League government has now set itself on a course of organising and taking part in elections which all the world can see are not credible - and show absolutely no sign in backing down from its current positions.

11.50 am: What will Sajeeb Wazed say about the US and Commonwealth decisions?
I have written earlier about the prime-minister's son Sajeeb Wazed's response to the EU's decision not to send election observers in which he stated that the government is 'taking sides with war criminals.'

I had assumed that he would quickly regret his comments and they would shortly be removed from his facebook page. But, no, they are still there and have 9559 'likes' and have been shared 631 ones (as of now).

Although the local media tends to pick up most comments of Sajeeb, these ones - which I would argue are some of his most newsworthy - had picked up very limited local media attention. I am not sure why this is - perhaps some kind of 'self censorship' by the media to protect him.

I contacted the European Union yesterday to see what their reaction was to his statement, but it did not want to comment officially. You would imagine that the EU would be quite concerned whether this response to the EU is now official government policy or not - and the government has not done anything to dispel the idea that Sajeeb's very undiplomatic response is not the policy of the Awami League.

Now, since these comments were made, the United States and the Commonwealth have of course also decided not to send election observers. Does this mean that the US and the Commonwealth (which of course Bangladesh is a member) are also on the side of 'war criminals', as is being suggested?

11.30 am: Commonwealth apparently also not observing election
The Commonwealth is also reported now not to be sending election observers, UNB reports - though there is no press release on the commonwealth website, as yet. Bangladesh is part of the commonwealth, so perhaps it is particularly embarasing for the government. UNB reports:
Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma in a letter to the Election Commission on Sunday conveyed the message, an EC official told UNB wishing anonymity. 
According to the official, the Commonwealth informed the Commission that they are not sending election observers to monitor the national election as most political parties are not joining it. 
On December 2, the Election Commission requested the Commonwealth Secretary General to send its election observers to Bangladesh.
7.15 am: 'What to make of the Awami League polls?'
A month ago, I wrote a post with the above title. I received a rejoinder from the Awami League, and you can can read about what the rejoinder said, my response and the changes I have made to that post here.

4.30 am: US decides not to deploy election observers
Sometime in the early hours of 23rd (Bangladesh time), the US government published its statement in which it announced that it would 'not deploy observers' for the upcoming elections. This follows on from the European Union decision discussed on this page. The statement was given by Jen Psaki, State Department Spokesperson in Washington, DC .
The United States believes Bangladesh has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to democracy by organizing free and fair elections that are credible in the eyes of the Bangladeshi people. 
The United States notes with disappointment, however, that the major political parties have not yet reached consensus on a way to achieve such elections, since more than half of the parliamentary seats are uncontested for the January 5 polls. In this context, the United States will not deploy observers for these elections. We remain prepared to reengage our observation efforts at a later time in a more conducive environment. (emphasised added)
The United States urges the major parties to continue their dialogue and redouble their efforts to find a solution worthy of the people of Bangladesh. 
The people of Bangladesh deserve the opportunity to elect their national representatives in a climate free of violence and intimidation. The nation’s political leadership – and those who aspire to lead – must ensure law and order and refrain from supporting violence, inflammatory rhetoric, and intimidation. The United States encourages all political parties and Bangladeshi citizens to participate peacefully in the political process. Violence is not acceptable because it subverts the democratic process. 
The United States believes all parties and Bangladeshi citizens have the right to freely and peacefully express their views. The government is responsible to provide space for such activity; equally, the opposition is responsible to use such space in a peaceful manner.
This was not unexpected - particularly following the EU decision. It remains unclear whether the US will continue to fund the 'Parallel Vote Tabulaion' monitoring of polling stations that was planned to be undertaken by Democracy International. US-AID has also been funding the National Democratic Institute to provide training to local NGOs to deploy election observers - but since most of this work has been undertaken already - it will not be very much affected, even if the US government cut of funds for that work.


  1. Could you please make each update 'linkable' (ie. using # tag) so I could link to a specific update (as opposed to the entire page)? Thanks for the great work.

  2. Good observations but you still have no idea what is going on outside Dhaka.

  3. It'll be appreciated much if you please take some time to go out of Dhaka and reflect that in your write up. many thanks.

  4. ".. And what exactly will be the opposition's response to that?"
    Haven't we seen the same by the govt on December 29? They forced people to stay away from Naya Paltan (BNP Office). I'd think the opposition's response would be similar to that of AL's when they used state power and violence to keep people away from assembling for 'March for Democracy'.