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Bangladesh: City Polls Could Help End Blockade-Hartal

By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2015-03-25
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Bangladeshi voters wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Dhaka, Jan. 5, 2014.
Bangladeshi voters wait to cast their ballots at a polling station in Dhaka, Jan. 5, 2014.
AFP

Upcoming municipal elections could offer a way out of the political impasse in Bangladesh by bringing the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) back into the political arena.

That, in turn, could bring an end to an opposition-led economic blockade and work-stoppage, now in its 12th week, which has cost the country some $20 billion and 120 lives.

Polls set to take place in Dhaka and Chittagong on April 28 could end the hartal peacefully, should the BNP and its allies participate, officials from both the BNP and government suggest.

“Hopefully, we will participate in the polls, if the Election Commission takes some confidence-building measures, such as creating a level-playing field for all contenders and no favor is given to the ruling party-backed candidates,” retired Lt. Gen. Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the BNP’s standing committee, told BenarNews.

The opposition party led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia believes in the democratic principle of fair elections, and not in the “politics of violence and killing,” said Rahman, a former army chief of staff.

“Of course, if the government behaves responsibly, the city corporation polls may initiate a healthy political atmosphere,” Rahman added.

His party will announce its slate for the City Corporation polls after holding meetings later this week, he noted.

“The prime minister has given the BNP-Jamaat an opportunity to come to the politics of voting instead of their present politics of blockade-hartal and killing people through petrol bombs. This can be an honorable exit from the politics of violence,” Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan told BenarNews.

The BNP launched the hartal and work-stoppage on Jan. 5, the first anniversary of a controversial general election that kept Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League in power.

The BNP and its allies had refused to participate in those elections, because they were conducted with Hasina in office, and not under a neutral caretaker administration.

What’s at stake

Last week, Bangladesh’s Election Commission (EC) unveiled schedules for voting for the Dhaka North, Dhaka South and Chittagong City Corporations.

City Corporation elections are non-political in nature, but they are still important. Typically, every major party aims to take control of municipal politics in Dhaka, the national capital, and in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s business capital.

The upcoming municipal elections promised to improve Bangladesh’s political climate and pull the country out of its current crisis, said Tofail Ahmed, an expert in local governance.

“The city polls can create a win-win situation for both parties. We see light at the end of the tunnel. A victory can inject new life into the BNP’s ongoing movement by remobilizing the party and the people. In case of defeat, the BNP-led opposition will gain in terms of movement,” Ahmed told BenarNews.

In his view, the Awami League also stands to gain no matter the outcome.

“Its democratic credentials will win even if the ruling party loses,” he said.

So far, the BNP’s blockade and strike have failed in their main objective of forcing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to call early elections.

Evidence of the blockade’s decline can be seen in Dhaka’s traffic-congested thoroughfares.

“Every day, we see more vehicles in the street. The hartal-oborodh is simply not working,” banker Abdur Rashid told BenarNews.

“We pray so that the BNP takes part in the polls,” said Mamunur Rashid, a student majoring in political science at Tejgaon College in Dhaka.

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