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Why BNP’s caretaker government campaign lacks credibility in Bangladesh

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been out of power for 17 years and seeks a return through the reinstatement of a polls-conducting caretaker government system for elections. Farid Hossein explains.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been carrying out protests against the ruling party

It has been almost 17 years since Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s main opposition group, is out of power. Not surprisingly, the party that is considered the key political rival of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League has become desperate to return to power. But the problem with the party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, is that it has consistently refused to take part in any election until a constitutionally-dead system called polls-conducting caretaker government is restored following the resignation of the incumbent government. The party has no answer to the widely asked question- why will the popularly elected government of PM Hasina step down after accepting a demand that is not constitutionally valid?

BNP holds a history of being a political loser since 2008.

In the 2008 general election, the party suffered a massive defeat to Hasina’s Awami League winning only 33 of the 299 parliamentary seats that were up for balloting. It again boycotted the 2014 election, but miserably failed to implement its vow to stop it despite resorting to widespread violence and arson attacks. In 2018 the party this time returned to vote politics, but for reasons better known to them, withdrew from the race midway accusing the Awami League of ballot stuffing.

Now, as Bangladesh prepares to go for its next general election in less than seven months BNP has vowed to boycott and resist the vote unless Hasina steps down.

Many in Bangladesh find the BNP stand confusing. That is because the party’s democratic credentials have always been under the scanner. Its slain founder General Ziaur Rahman was still a military ruler when he announced the party sitting inside Dhaka cantonment on September 1 in 1978. That came after he validated his military takeover by a sham referendum known as a “yes-no” vote on May 30 in 1977.

Voters were asked, "Do you have confidence in President Major General Ziaur Rahman BU and the policies and programs adopted by him?" The result saw 98.9% vote yes, with a turnout of 88.1%. The results came as a shock as the vote hardly saw any turnout in any of the polling stations.

The fake vote has been better explained by Prof Shams Rahman, who teaches at an Australian university. To him, it was a “notorious national referendum.”

He said, “that shameful step served a big blow to the spirit of the country’s liberation war, tore into the country’s constitution and offered an olive branch for anti-liberation forces—radical elements.”

In a recent Facebook post-Prime Minister’s ICT Affairs Adviser Sajeeb Wazed Joy has said General Ziaur Rahman's yes/no referendum is the shameful chapter of killing democracy in Bangladesh.

"General Zia, after the tragic murder of Bangabandhu's family, illegally seized state power through a ‘yes or no’ vote without any prior meetings, processions, or campaigns. In the name of so-called campaigns, the streets were filled with posters of General Zia in military uniform, forcibly displayed on rickshaws and private vehicles, creating panic," he said. Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujubur Rahman is fondly called as Bangabandhu by his people.

That was the country's first-ever referendum held in Bangladesh which was tailored to suit his political ambition of a military dictator. So, when Zia’s widow Begum Khaleda Zia, went ahead with holding another voter-less election on February 15 in 1996 many in Bangladesh drew parallel with the referendum and saw it as a pattern for BNP.

What, however, surprised Bangladeshis was that no concern or word of caution came from the United States with regard to both votes. Instead, Washington was friendly with Zia and his government. Washington also remained silent when a military-backed government took over power in Bangladesh and started using the media to tarnish the image of Hasina and other politicians bringing in false charges of corruption.

Zia’s should have been taken to task for his role in the assassination of Bangabandhu on August 15 in 1975. Consider what investigative journalist and former South Asia correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review Lawrence Lifschultz said about BNP founder’s role in regard to August 15 massacre.

“Men behind the assassination of Bangabandhu would not have moved without Zia's backing. Zia was the key "Shadow Man." Had he been against the coup, as Deputy Chief of the Army, Zia could have stopped it. Of course, it was his constitutional duty to do so,” said the Pulitzer-winning US journalist. He also questioned the role of the US at that time.

Now decades down the line as democracy in the country has come of age, thanks to the farewell to military rulers and the return of political stability, the recent US visa policy targeting Bangladesh election belies the ground reality.

Washington says the visa policy is aimed at democracy promotion in Bangladesh which can be done by making the next general election free and fair.

Many express doubt about the US intention though. They refer to some bitter points in Dhaka-Washington relations, especially during AL rule.

“From attempts to prevent the birth of this country to extending all-out support for Pakistan army to carry out genocide, US administration, back then (in 1971), clearly desired a Pak style military rule for now defunct East Pakistan,” said Ajoy Das Gupta, an researcher.

Bangladesh’s repeated calls to the US, including pleas from PM Hasina, to return one of the killers of Bangabandhu sheltered in that country have gone in vain.

Pulling up the last caretaker regime, that ruled the country for nearly two years until election in 2008, observers say “the country was reduced to a playground for diplomats”, as politicians were imprisoned with fabricated stories of corruption widely planted on media outlets against top politicians including Sheikh Hasina.

“But the extra-constitutional or unconstitutional role played by the unelected caretaker that turned Bangladesh into a playground of unseemly foreign maneuverers and severely undermined its sovereignty, must have influenced the subsequent Awami League decision to use its majority and scrap the caretaker arrangement. If the leading democracies in the West and neighbouring India can do without a caretaker, so went the logic, Bangladesh jolly well can”, said Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, a veteran journalist who worked with BBC.

According to a former advisor to that caretaker government who went on record saying, “installation of a caretaker system cannot solve all the problems… if the system can perform independently, then the stated purposes would be served”.

“Of course, the incumbent holds the responsibility to make the election participatory but if the opposition remained hell-bent on boycotting the polls and let loose violence, what can the government do? It was a strategic blunder on part of BNP to abstain from polls”, said Prof Pranab Pandey, a Rajshahi University teacher.

On allegations about the last election held in 2018, Nobonita Chowdhury, who worked with leading national and international media outlets, in a talk show with DW, placed her argument, pointing out “a complete absence of any substantive proof over rigging.

Debunking the opposition-backed narrative over “irregularities”, Nobonita said “in talk-shows, questions were asked about such allegations but opposition leaders hardly managed to place any evidence in defence of their claim”.

“It’s more like a wholesale assertion”, added Nobonita, who also worked with BBC and served as a member of the Soas International Human Rights Clinic Partner.

Moreover, a number of leading TV channels also found top leaders of opposition alliances cast their ballots at polling centers telling reporters that the election was fair but changed their tune after the voting ended.

Citing such comments, observers pointed out that “taking into consideration of these sweeping comments would only blow out the credibility of the Westerners”.

Now that BNP has already announced to bring the fugitive acting chief Tarique Rahman, dubbed as a symbol of violent politics by a former US diplomat, to the country and install him as the prime minister, with leaders vowing to boycott the election if held without a caretaker system, the specter of violence seems looming large.

No wonder some BNP leaders are even issuing public death threats to PM in an oblique reference to restage a 1975-style massacre of the entire family, launching attacks on Awami League offices and threatening to ouster the government with “all out movement”.

While BNP wants the foreign powers to drag into the domestic politics of Bangladesh, PM Hasina has vowed to uphold the country’s independence and sovereignty.

“Bangladesh will not bow to any external pressure. The next general election will be held on time. This is our decision,” Hasina declared in a recent speech drawing applauds from the people who matter most – not the external powers – in making their choice on who should govern the country.

In more than 50 years of his journalism career, Farid Hossain also worked for The Associated Press (AP), TIME magazine and The Telegraph in Kolkata.

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