For more than a fortnight, a dozen large trucks blocked the approach road to the residence of Bangladesh’s opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia. The trucks were sent by her bitter rival and prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to confine Zia to her home, virtually keeping her under house arrest. The government, however, said the trucks, accompanied by water cannons and a large posse of policemen, were sent to provide the opposition leader “enhanced security”.
Bangladesh has been on the edge for the past one month. January 5 marked the first anniversary of the last round of parliamentary elections, which consolidated the grip of the ruling Awami League. The election was marked by widespread violence, with popular participation falling below 25 per cent. The Awami League won more than half of the 300 seats unopposed, after Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the polls alleging electoral malpractices.
Zia had called for demonstrations and rallies to mark the first anniversary of the elections and designated January 5 as death of democracy day, while the Awami League was planning to commemorate it as a victory for democracy day. Following a vicious crackdown by the government forces, which included putting Zia under virtual house arrest, the BNP called for a nationwide transport strike and her supporters responded by targeting vehicles and communication networks. So far, at least 25 people have lost their lives and hundreds have suffered injuries.
Although the police have eased upon the confinement of Zia, other senior opposition leaders continue to languish in prisons. On January 18, the government announced a ban on smartphone messaging apps Viber and Tango, which were popular among protesters. After she was released from confinement, Zia said the government was behind the attacks on the transport and communication networks. “The government agents are carrying out attacks to discredit the opposition at home and abroad,” she said. Hasina responded with a blistering attack on Zia, called her a killer and threatened that she would be charged with murder for being responsible for the deaths of those who were killed in the blockade. Speaking in parliament, Hasina equated the blockade with terrorism and requested her party functionaries and the public to identify and detain BNP activists involved in the strike. “It’s not a big deal to find out those who are involved in terror acts in a country like Bangladesh,” said Hasina, offering rewards to those who helped the police. “As long as I am alive, I will not allow militancy in the country,” she said.
Zia, meanwhile, seems unrelenting. After her confinement was lifted by the government, many observers expected that she would go easy on the blockade. She, however, said her party would continue to protest until the government accepted all her demands. “We want a dialogue towards free, fair and inclusive elections and an end to government repression,” she said. She warned that the blockade would continue until “the people’s right to vote is restored”. As this involves Hasina’s resignation, it seems Zia is looking forward to a confrontation without end. Hasina has already made it clear that under no circumstances would the government hold a general election before 2019 and ruled out the return of the caretaker system.
Analysts say Zia is unlikely to back down as the BNP is fighting for its survival. Henrik Maihack, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s office in Dhaka, said Zia is looking to make amends for her strategic mistake of boycotting last year’s national elections. “The BNP is slowly losing its relevance in the eyes of many people after being unable to reorganise its rank and file following the boycott of the elections,” said Maihack. Hasina, on the other hand, initiated a number of populist measures in an attempt to win back public support. Maihack warns that if the blockade continues, it will further alienate Bangladesh’s ordinary citizens who are getting increasingly frustrated with the law and order crisis and they are likely to hold Zia responsible. The ongoing protests have brought the government to a virtual standstill, diverting the attention away from the socioeconomic crisis facing the country. Bangladesh is among the most corrupt countries in the world and it languishes at the bottom in a number of welfare indices.
Another worrying factor for Zia is her alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the principal Islamist group in the state. Many of the senior leaders of the Jamaat have been convicted for war crimes for perpetuating atrocities in support of Pakistan during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. While the Jamaat can boast of an active and committed cadre, its image among a majority of ordinary Bangladeshis is far from perfect and it could prove to be a liability for Zia.
By unleashing her supporters to take on the Awami League government, Zia may have got herself a Faustian bargain. Yet, it will be ordinary citizens of the country who are likely to bear the brunt of the game of political oneupmanship played by the two ladies, who have ruled the country between themselves, over the past two and a half decades.