Monday, February 1, 2010

Power shift in Bangladesh's politics

Received via e-mail:


There has been a distinct shift in Bangladeshi politics in the year since the Awami League (AL) won the last parliamentary election. The ruling party appears to have worked overtime in its bid to weaken the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and marginalise its Islamist allies. The AL has also taken the bold step of seeking to mend relations with neighbouring India. These moves appear to be succeeding so far, but a backlash cannot be ruled out.

Many analysts believe that the AL has used its first year in office to neutralise the BNP, a local Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and other pro-Pakistani forces. Proponents of this view believe that the government has the full support of the security forces and thus would remain in control in the event of street protests, terror attacks or a major crisis. However, others fear that such a strategy could have dire consequences.

They believe that the AL is seriously underestimating the risks of alienating the opposition parties, who still managed to garner over 40% of the votes cast in the December 2008 parliamentary election. They fear that that the apparent attempt by the AL to marginalise Islamist groups will make the government a prime target for possible terrorist attacks.
Several of the issues that the government has put at the top of its agenda are extremely controversial.

First, the government's decision to pursue better relations with India is a marked departure from the stance of previous administrations. The initiative is likely to prove problematic, given Bangladesh's strong tradition of anti-Indian sentiment.

Second, the government plans to prosecute alleged war criminals. In practice, this means that leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's fourth-largest political party, could stand trial for allegedly committing atrocities during the war of secession from what was then known as West Pakistan in 1971.

Third, the government has expressed a desire to revert to the core values espoused in the 1972 constitution, one of which is the prohibition of religion-based political parties.

Fourth, it has expedited criminal investigations into a grenade attack on an AL rally, which took place in August 2004, left 23 AL leaders dead and injured over 300 people. The AL believes that the perpetrators of the attack wanted to kill the party's leader, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who is now prime minister.

Of the plans outlined thus far, the government's support for a ban on all religion-based political parties could pose the most serious threat to political stability, as such a move would marginalise these parties and their supporters, who might choose to join more extreme groups. Religion-based parties have operated freely in Bangladesh since an amendment to the constitution in 1979.

However, on January 3rd 2010 the Supreme Court lifted the suspension of a four-year-old High Court verdict that had declared illegal and unconstitutional the fifth amendment to the constitution. The amendment legitimised all successive governments after the assassination of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from 1975 until April 1979, and it was in this period that the ban on religion-based parties was lifted.

The government has said that the latest decision will force Islamist parties to drop Islam from their names. However, the latest ruling from the Supreme Court does not affect constitutional amendments that made Islam the country's official religion in 1988 and incorporated a Koranic verse into the preamble of the constitution.

At present, a dozen political parties refer to Islam, including Jamaat-e-Islami, an important ally of the BNP. Bangladesh's Islamist parties have already threatened to launch a movement if the government proceeds with its plans. The issue is at the heart of the AL strategy to reinstate the country's first constitution, which has four fundamental principles: nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.

Befriending India
Perhaps the most visible political change since early 2009 has been the start of a process to strengthen relations with India. This has been made possible by the fact that the ruling Congress party in India, which has long-standing ties to the AL, firmly backs the government led by Sheikh Hasina. At the same time, the government appears committed to addressing one of India's main concerns: that Bangladesh harbours terrorists wanting to launch attacks against India on Indian soil.

The AL has started to tackle this problem to improve bilateral relations. In December 2009 Bangladeshi security forces arrested and handed over to the India authorities Arabinda Rajkhowa, the chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a militant group fighting for an independent homeland for ethnic Assamese in India's north-eastern state of Assam.

For India, the arrest is a big step towards defeating the ULFA, which it has long accused of waging a proxy war in its north-eastern states on behalf of the intelligence services of Pakistan and Bangladesh. India hopes that Bangladesh will hand over other insurgents, as well as suspected members of a group based in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Toiba, which it believes is responsible for the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008.

On January 11th 2010 Sheikh Hasina made a state visit to India. Officials on both sides welcomed a number of agreements made during the visit that aim to strengthen economic and security ties. Economic statistics belie the two countries' shared history and geography. Bangladesh's biggest trading partner is China, and India is not even in the top ten foreign investors in Bangladesh.

The biggest difficulty for the AL may be to explain its new policy of engaging with India to Bangladeshi voters who have a strong tradition of anti-Indian sentiment. The government's new friendship with India has already become a big political issue in Bangladesh, with the BNP accusing the government of "selling out" to India.