Violent political rioting on the streets of Bangladesh between supporters of the two main rival political parties?the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and opposition Awami League (AL)–following a political crisis over the selection of the head of a caretaker government charged with running national elections in January has left 27 people dead and hundreds injured. Rioting has paralyzed the country?s transport links and threatened its economy. Figurehead President Iajuddin Ahmed has intervened and, following fruitless talks with the two main political parties on a compromise leader, installed himself as head of the caretaker government.
In Bangladesh?s system of government, outgoing governments are required to transfer power to a nonpartisan caretaker government charged with running free and fair national elections. This mechanism is meant to ensure that the ruling party cannot rig elections. Outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of the ruling BNP sought to hand off power to retired Chief Justice K.M. Hasan, provoking protest from the AL, which claimed he was too close to the Zia government, and sparking the initial rioting.
AL had earlier rejected Ahmed as a potential candidate to head the caretaker government, citing that he had been elected previously as a candidate of the BNP. However, since Ahmed?s ascension, the AL has been muted, but guarded, in its response, calling for protests among its followers and demanding from Ahmed demonstrations of good-faith and neutrality but stopping short of calling for a nation-wide strike that many observers believe would have triggered unrest.
Forecast: Continued Violence and the Potential Strengthening of Jemaat-e-Islami
Bangladesh?s history of political instability and violence has featured political assassinations (including two presidential), violent unrest, three military coups, 19 attempted coups, and 15 years under military rule since its founding in 1971. Further, this instability, violence, and intense rivalry between its major parties has created a climate of insecurity, political divisiveness, government paralysis and neglect, and governmental incompetence.
Jemaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh?s largest religious party, has exploited this environment of government incompetence to cultivate a base of societal support and political power through social welfare initiatives for the needy?similar to methods of Hamas and Hizballah that also wield militant wings. In 2001, the ruling BNP allied with Jemaat to win power, with Jemaat assuming 18 seats in Parliament. While part of the ruling coalition, Jemaat methodically entrenched its power in government and society by placing sympathizers within the civil service, police, intelligence, and military, and, according to The Christian Science Monitor, through the control of a number of powerful ministries, welfare organizations, schools, madrassas, and businesses. Also according to the Monitor, ?Jemaat?s leaders insist their party is committed to democracy and that their aim is to introduce an Islamic state through the ballot box. But many observers say their rise has contributed to an environment of intolerance and, by extension, militancy.? Jemaat is thought to sponsor guerrilla groups with reportedly 15,000 fighters who operate in rural and urban areas and is suspected to be involved in suicide bombings, political assassinations, and the harassment of the Hindu community. Several suspects in the synchronized wave of nearly 500 bombings in Bangladesh in August 2005 and in Bangladesh?s first suicide bombing shortly thereafter were former members of Jemaat?s student wing. Jemaat?s power and positions within governmental security agencies is thought to facilitate the group?s militant activities. Thus, the current political rancor will likely create a permissive and advantageous environment that Jemaat may seek to exploit to showcase their alternative political and societal governance competencies and further expand their power base and/or leverage their governmental and societal faculties, all in an effort to increase their power and capabilities within the country.
Barring the unlikely development that Ahmed quickly demonstrates good faith and neutrality in his stewardship of the caretaker government in a manner appeasing to the AL and its followers, the fundamental grievance of the AL will not be resolved. This grievance, and Bangladesh?s general societal disposition to violent political protest and maneuvering, will continue to drive protest, political rancor, and attendant violent unrest and political instability in the run up to the 2007 elections. The political crisis and violent unrest also increases the likelihood for a spiral of violence between protesters and security forces as the latter begins to crack down more forcefully and raises the potential for military intervention.