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Asia

Growing polarization ahead of Bangladeshi elections

Divisive court rulings, an election ban and major disagreements over who should oversee the upcoming poll - growing political tensions in Bangladesh are raising concerns about the South Asian nation's democratic future.

Since 1996 governments in Bangladesh had transferred power to a non-partisan administration to organize elections and ensure that these were free and fair. This so-called caretaker government (CTG) had overseen three parliamentary polls, including the last one in 2008 that was swept by the Awami League (AL).

Although the country's Supreme Court declared this provision unconstitutional, especially after the 2007 CTG - backed by the military - remained in power for almost two years, the judges allowed for two more national elections being conducted under such an arrangement.

However, the ruling coalition led by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (main picture, right) didn't want to wait that long and amended the constitution in June 2011, declaring that in a democratic country "there is no space for any kind of unelected interim government."

'A temptation to cheat'

The move has triggered strong resistance from the opposition. Since July 2011 the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country's largest opposition party led by Khaleda Zia (main picture, left), has made the re-introduction of the CTG into the constitution their main demand, arguing that a national poll under a partisan body will not be "free and fair."

According to experts the issue has become the primary reason for the increasing volatility of politics and the impasse over the upcoming elections to be held before the end of January next year.

According to William Milam, a former US ambassador to Bangladesh, the opposition parties know that without a neutral overseer, any election in Bangladesh is "almost certain to be rigged" in favor of the incumbent government. "The political imperative in Bangladesh to get elected, or reelected, is just too fierce, and neither major party would be able to put the temptation to cheat behind it, even if it wanted to."

This view is shared by Ali Riaz, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. "I am afraid the elections might not be free and fair under a partisan government. There is a strong perception among citizens that it may adversely affect the outcome. Opinion-polls have shown that almost 80 percent of the population would like to see the election held under a caretaker government."

Controversial rulings

Political tensions between the AL and the opposition have been further exacerbated by the rulings of Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), set up in 2010 under the current government to investigate and mete out justice for the atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.

Although most Bangladeshis are believed to support the ICT, the verdicts being delivered by the court since January have exposed underlying tensions in the country's political and religious identity.

Former head of opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party Ghulam Azam (C) escorted by security personnel and lawyers as he emerges from the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka on January 11, 2012. (Photo: AFP)

The ICT has so far handed down six sentences on prominent leaders of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party

"There is polarization between those who favor a nationalist, multicultural, multi-religious identity for Bangladesh, and those who favor a more Islamic identity," said David Lewis, an expert on South Asia affairs at the London School of Economics.

The ICT has so far handed down six sentences on prominent leaders of the second biggest opposition party and most important ally of the BNP, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). According to Riaz, the judgments have served as a rallying point for Islamists, "who will try to make use of what they view as unjustified and harsh verdicts against their political allies to bring out their base in the upcoming election."

The Islamic party recently received another blow when Dhaka's High Court ruled on August 1st, in favor of a long-running petition which argued that the JI should never have been allowed to register as a political party.

The petitioners had argued that the JI's charter violated the country's secular constitution as it called for "the rule of Allah" and discriminated against minorities and women. The JI reacted to the ruling by appealing to the Supreme Court and calling for a 48-hour nationwide strike which led to at least one person being killed and several others injured.

International concerns

Henrik Maihack, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's office in Dhaka, says the Islamist party might only be a marginal force in terms of seats in parliament. However, "it has a fairly big mobilizing capacity as well as financial resources."

Protesters attempt to vandalize an auto rickshaw after hearing the verdict of the trial of Ghulam Azam (not pictured), the former head of Jamaat-e-Islami party as they demand his capital punishment in Dhaka July 15, 2013. Bangladesh's war crimes tribunal convicted and sentenced Azam, 91, to life imprisonment on Monday, in the fifth such conviction since January, as violence broke out between police and his supporters across the country. Azam was found guilty on charges of planning, conspiracy, incitement and complicity to commit genocide and crimes against humanity during a 1971 war to break away from Pakistan, lawyers and tribunal officials said. REUTERS/Stringer (BANGLADESH - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)

The ICT rulings have led to violent protests across Bangladesh

In many constituencies BNP and JI agree on one candidate who then receives support from both parties in the Bangladeshi first-past the post system, he explained, adding that "in case the ban of the JI is upheld, it is not unlikely that former JI politicians compete as independent candidates in some constituencies."

The political feud in Bangladesh has mounted to such a level that international players such as the United Nations and the European Union have expressed concern that the country might descend into political instability. In a meeting with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni in May, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the "critical importance" for the political leaders of the country to engage in constructive dialogue.

To boycott or not?

However, it remains unclear whether international pressure will bring about an amicable arrangement. Both the ruling party and the opposition have taken very inflexible positions and seem unwilling to compromise, with the BNP and its allies threatening to boycott the polls.

Analysts say the likelihood of the opposition parties, particularly the BNP, participating in the upcoming elections depends on some sort of compromise from the ruling party on the issue of the form of the government during the election, even if it falls short of a constitutional amendment. "If the BNP fails to extract any concessions and the election is held under a government headed by Sheikh Hasina, I don't think the BNP and the JI will participate," Riaz told DW.

Nevertheless, other experts argue that the BNP wants to be seen as taking a hard, confrontational line in order to keep their supporters onside and will simply wait until the last minute and then participate.

"Many want the BNP leadership to take part in the elections, especially after the party's victory in the recent municipal vote, which mobilized the grassroots level," said Maihack, adding that since the reintroduction of multiparty democracy in 1991, whenever there was an election in which ruling and opposition took part, the opposition won the elections. "This is a strong incentive for the BNP to avoid a boycott."

Bangladeshi social activistS shout slogans against Ghulam Azam, whom the protesters wished to be sentenced to death, outside a court in Dhaka on July 15, 2013, after he was sentenced to serve a 90 year prison term sentence for. A special Bangladesh court sentenced Ghulam Azam, 90, the wartime head of the largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and now its spiritual leader, to 90 years in prison for masterminding atrocities during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. AFP PHOTO/ Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts view the political situation in Bangladesh as increasingly polarized

Many analysts are increasingly concerned about the democratic prospects of the country, saying they view the development of the past few years as a worrisome zero-sum game. "Bangladeshi leaders seem to consider losing an election a near-death experience, impossible to tolerate. Winners always wreak vengeance on the losers. And it seems that the penalties for losing become more severe with each election cycle. This is not a fertile ground for substantive democracy to flourish," Milam told DW.