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Awami League in Power: Lost Priorities and Opportunities

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 14, 2010

    Did the two year intervention by the military that backed Fakruddin Ahmed’s caretaker government teach any political lessons to the political parties in Bangladesh? The answer is unfortunately no. The culture of confrontation and ideological contestation are very much parts of Bangladesh’s political culture where the two political parties refuse to cooperate. The Awami League (AL) won a landslide victory in December 2008, which generated the hope of democratization and a change in the confrontational politics that has plagued the nation. People sincerely believed that the two years of military intervention has certainly taught the parties a lesson. Expressing such sentiment the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) General Secretary said “We should replace the existing political culture with a fair one. I won't see your face just because you hold different political ideals or there's a difference of opinion…this attitude can never be helpful for democracy."

    Though Awami League assumed office on 6 January 2009, it is yet to make its presence felt and is gradually losing popular appeal. The level of its unpopularity is yet to reach a critical point where the opposition can enforce a successful hartal, but there is a general disillusionment about the lack of change. AL has been going slow on many important issues that were vital to its success in the last election. Apart from the issue of price rise and power shortage, the government faces crucial challenges on two fronts that would impinge on its performance.

    First, the Party’s inability to control the violence unleashed by its Student organization, the Bangladesh Chattro League (BCL), in various University campuses has been one factor that has reflected badly on the Party leadership. Violence by the student organization of the incumbent party is not a new phenomenon in campus politics. Capturing residential halls and providing political patronage to students in lieu of support is a method of recruiting cadres, exerting influence and distributing patronage. Many of the student leaders are involved in criminal activities and are patronized by law-makers for political reasons and the police have chosen to remain a mute spectator. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s repeated calls to rein in the Chattro League has fallen on deaf ears. Unruly incidents have been reported from all over the country adding to the unpopularity of the AL. At universities like Dhaka University and Jehangirnagar University, the BCL is engaged in a confrontation with the Jatiyobadi Chatra Dal (JCD). At Rajshahi University and Chittagong University the BCL has fought pitched battles against Chattro Shibir, the student organization of Jamaat Islami. At various Engineering colleges and technical organizations such violence has resulted in disruption of classes. In some cases it has resulted in the death of students as seen in Dhaka University and Rajshahi University. In the May 11 clash in the Jaganath University, choppers, machetes and axes were used between two factions of the BCL. These incidents and their frequent recurrence are reflecting poorly on the AL leadership.

    Second is the issue of trial of the war criminals for their role during the liberation war. The government could have done well to avoid controversy regarding the constitution of the tribunal and appointment of Abdul Matin as Chief investigator of a seven member probing agency. Matin was alleged to have been a member of Chatra Sangha, the student body of Jamaat Islami in the pre-independence days, which is accused of collaborating with the Pakistan Army and killing freedom fighters. Though most of the political parties are supporting the government effort to establish a war crime tribunal, BNP has kept its position ambivalent. Initially, given the popular mood, BNP Secretary General Khondokar Delwar Hossain had said, “We support the demand for the trial of war criminals in principle and none should have any objection against it.” However, the BNP has raised several questions about the Government’s motive in constituting the tribunal. To generate a controversy and create doubts the BNP says that it doubts the transparency and fairness of the tribunal. It has accused the government of holding the trials to eliminate the political opposition. The government has formed a 3 member tribunal and 12 member panel of lawyers under the International Crimes (tribunal) Act of 1973. Since one of the prominent BNP member S.Q Chowdhury’s name figures among the list of war criminals, the BNP has demanded that the government probe and initiate actions against some of the war criminals within the AL itself. Controversy and political bickering has not helped the process of the trial. It has created unnecessary doubts regarding the independent functioning of the tribunal. It is important that the tribunal has independent members without political bias. If unnecessary doubts are created, the credibility of the tribunal will suffer and thus render the entire exercise futile.

    The two political parties neither share cordial relations nor have made any attempt to develop a consensus in spite of their promises to the people soon after the election. On the 16th of January 2009 in the first Parliamentary Party meeting of the BNP, the leader proclaimed, “we want to assist the government and we want the government to create that atmosphere and maintain it.” Soon after, a major problem arose out of seat sharing arrangement in the Parliament leading to the opposition boycotting the parliament – a tradition that continues. The opposition returned to the Parliament on the 11 February 2010 after having boycotted the Parliament for ten months.

    AL needs to work with the BNP on many of the issues that remain fundamental to the AL. It has the majority and needs to show magnanimity. Instead, the AL has kept itself involved in trivial issues like the renaming of the airport, renaming University, questioning Zia’s leadership and whether Zia was buried in the Jatiyo Sangsad premise or not. What has perhaps helped the AL is BNP’s poor political health. Rivalry within the party and differences between leaders has afflicted the party organization. BNP is yet to shed its image of corruption, militancy and misrule. Their poor performances in the election and its inability to come out of the election debacle and reorganize the party have resulted in the demoralization of its cadre. Even if Begum Khaleda Zia gave a call to launch a movement against ‘government’s misrule’ the party is not in a position to demonstrate its strength. Given the state of the BNP, the AL has time to resuscitate itself, to prioritise issues and prepare itself for the next election from now. For AL time is running out and it has miles to go in translating promises into action.