Crisis looms as AL in no mood for dialogue

Having completed one year in office in its second consecutive term virtually without resistance, the Awami League-led government now appears more reluctant than before to hold dialogue with its archrival Bangladesh Nationalist Party for an inclusive election. The Awami League has turned a deaf ear to the BNP’s repeated demand for a consensus over an election-time administration for free and fair polls that intensified uncertainty leading to a political impasse. ‘The government is more confident as it steps into the second year in office after the January 5, 2014 elections without any effective pressure from BNP or the people at large for a fresh election,’ a minister told New Age responding on BNP’s demand.

He said that the AL was not in a position politically so as to give in to BNP’s demand and hold fresh polls midway to bring BNP to power. ‘We have no choice but to serve out the five-year term,’ the minister asserted. Sheikh Hasina took over as the prime minister for the second consecutive term on January 12, 2014 through a controversial election which was marked by low voter turnout, ballot box stuffing and more than a half of the lawmakers being elected unopposed amid boycott by most of the parties, including BNP. Recalling the events leading to the polls, some cabinet members said that when no one was certain whether the election would be held in time, it was Sheikh Hasina who did not budge from her stand on holding the polls with herself at the helm on the ground of constitutional obligation ignoring the violent protests by the BNP and its allies for her resignation and restoring the non-party caretaker government system.

The BNP termed the elections ‘farcical’ and the AL-led coalition government ‘illegal’. Demanding fresh polls under a non-party caretaker administration, it time and again called for initiating dialogue to reach a consensus over the issue. The prime minister on several occasions rejected outright the possibility of mid-term elections as well as holding dialogue with BNP. ‘Why mid-term elections, what problems have arisen, and for whom the mid-term election is needed? Is it to bring back the party of Ziaur Rahman who grabbed power illegally?’ Sheikh Hasina asked at a press conference in New York on September 27. Asked about the proposal for dialogue with BNP and other parties that boycotted the January 5 polls, she said that she had nothing to do, as per the parliamentary system, for a party which was outside parliament.

‘The country has already plunged into a crisis rooted in the repeal of the caretaker government system through a constitutional amendment,’ said Tofail Ahmed, former professor of public administration at Chittagong University. He feared that the crisis might deepen further with the government increasingly showing ‘fascist’ attitude and the opposition forces being denied their democratic rights to protest. ‘The country is heading for anarchy. There is no sign the political deadlock will be over anytime soon,’ Tofail, also a governance expert, told New Age. BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia on Wednesday put forward a seven-point proposal, including an election-time non-party government for immediate holding of a fair and competitive election on the basis of consensus among the contesting parties, to put an end to the ‘suffocating’ situation in the country.

At a press conference in the city, she demanded reconstitution of the Election Commission before announcement of the election date with neutral, qualified and honest persons acceptable to all contesting parties so that necessary amendments to the RPO could be made, biased officials could be withdrawn from EC secretariat and field level. But Awami League promptly rejected Khaleda Zia’s demand for a dialogue to hold early polls under a non-partisan government. ‘The caretaker government will never come back. So there is no scope for holding dialogue on the issue,’ AL publicity secretary Hasan Mahmud put it bluntly. He ruled out any chance of holding the next general elections before 2019. Asked for comments, BNP standing committee member Mahbubur Rahman said that their movement for a free and participatory election was gaining momentum with the support of the people. ‘BNP’s demand for fresh elections is not for its own interest, but for democracy.

It is more important to see how much committed the government is to democracy than pointing the finger at BNP for its failure to press home its demand,’ said the BNP leader, also a former army chief. The AL-led government initially said that BNP must shun the politics of violence, sever links with terror outfits and accept the incumbent government as conditions for an effective dialogue between them. In his address to the first session of the 10th parliament, president Abdul Hamid on January 29 appealed to the parties that had boycotted the January 5 polls to help democracy flourish through dialogue with the government. The controversial 10th Jatiya Sangsad began its session with the party in the opposition sharing power in the government and major political parties staying out. A day after assuming office, LGRD and cooperatives minister Syed Ashraful Islam claimed that the Awami League had intensified the talks that had began with the BNP before the January 5 polls to reach a political consensus.

He hinted that the talks for negotiations were going on offstage after a series of meetings between the AL and BNP at the secretary level which was brokered by the United Nations for an inclusive poll. But there was no progress in terms of political negotiations for a participatory election as time passed by, according to policymakers in the government. The government is going ahead with its five-year routine plan focusing more on issues relating to ‘good governance’ and development in various sectors taking into consideration its previous lapses, according to several ministers. It was rather trying to brighten the country’s image across the globe in bid to remove the controversies over the January 5 polls at home and abroad, said officials.

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