Saturday, July 26, 2008

Govt Plans Local Polls Amid Strong Opposition

Govt Plans Local Polls Amid Strong Opposition
By Farid Ahmed
Source: IPS

DHAKA, Jun 27 (IPS) - Bangladesh is lurching into crisis again as its military-backed interim government insists on holding local government polls amid the strong opposition of all major political parties.

The major parties are loath to accept the government decision and said the interim government should only go ahead with its roadmap for the stalled national elections.

The elections will be the first for the army-backed interim government, which took 
office in January last year and promised to hold national polls within two years.

By law, the local polls are apolitical and the candidates are not directly drawn from the political parties, but parties play a key role and act as a powerbase for candidates in the national polls.

The present interim government are out to conduct the local government polls to "install people of their choice in public offices," said the detained chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia.

Zia, a former prime minister, urged his party to resist the local government polls scheduled to be held on Aug. 4.

The Election Commission announced the schedules for mayoral polls for four major cities and nine small towns, last week. The government also said they would complete all local government polls by October -- before the national polls expected to be held by the end of December.

The national elections were originally scheduled for January last year, but were suspended under a state of emergency following deadly street violence after the polls that brought the military-backed interim government to power.

The Awami League -- the party of detained former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed
-- also opposed the move to hold local government polls before the national polls. Released for eight weeks on a government executive order, Wajed is now in the U.S. for medical treatment.

"If the government can complete the local government polls by October, it means the Election Commission is fully prepared for elections with its updated voters’ rolls, and if it’s so the government should not wait for the national elections until December," said Syed Ashraful Islam, acting general secretary of the Awami League.

Other than a few small political parties that drum up support for the military- backed government, all political parties opposed the government move and many felt the government had a "hidden agenda" with its plan to hold the local government polls before the national elections.

Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, a retired army major general, who has recently formed a political party, supported the move and said the local polls were needed before the national polls for decentralisation of power.

Meanwhile, the police in a fresh drive to maintain law and order arrested over 30,000 people in first three weeks of June and the political parties said that many of their rank-and-file were detained without any specific charges.

"The government owe an explanation as there are allegations of detaining people without any warrant of arrest," Sultana Kamal, a local rights activist, told IPS. "Any person being detained deserves the right to know the reason for detention within 24 hours".

"The country is again at a crossroad," Ataur Rahman, Professor of Political Science at Dhaka University told IPS.

Praful C. Patel, a World Bank vice president who was visiting Dhaka on Tuesday, said the present political crisis is a big challenge for Bangladesh. Patel cautioned that Bangladesh’s state of governance, investment climate and economic development would continue to be affected if the elections were not held in a manner acceptable to all concerned.

The political parties say that the incumbent has a "hidden agenda" in holding the local government polls before the national polls, but Rahman said it was not still clear whether the incumbent would like to continue in power beyond December. "If it’s so, then it’s a power struggle and the incumbent wants to create a power-base by holding the local government elections first," he said.

The BNP, which bitterly opposed the polls, urged the Election Commission not to proceed with the local elections and said, "You [Election Commissioners] will be treated as traitors and conspirators against democracy and politics".

Moeen U. Ahmed, army chief general, and Fakhruddin Ahmed, head of the interim government, have repeatedly made assurances that the incumbent would not continue beyond December. But they have not allayed the fears of the parties and the people. Military dictators have ruled Bangladesh -- born in 1971 -- for more than one and a half decades, according to analysts.

Rahman explained that as the military-backed interim government came to power one and a half years back it earned popularity as people were fed-up with political unrest and uncertainty. Over time its popularity eroded significantly and "its credibility is undermined" for many reasons, he said. "This is really a critical situation… the political parties, which were up the creek because of the anti-graft drive, now try to create pressure over the government," Rahman said, "at the same time, the incumbent will utterly fail… if it cannot impose its will over the political parties."

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