Bangladesh opposition steps up pressure for ‘neutral’ caretaker govt ahead of polls

Ahammad Foyez
2022.11.03
Dhaka
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Bangladesh opposition steps up pressure for ‘neutral’ caretaker govt ahead of polls People attend a rally organized by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) at the Eidgah ground, in the city of Rangpur in Bangladesh, Oct. 29, 2022.
[BenarNews]

Bangladesh’s main opposition party is holding weekly protest rallies drawing tens of thousands of people who are demanding that a “neutral” caretaker administration be set up to oversee the next general election in order to guarantee a free and fair vote.

Headed by Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League government has been in power uninterrupted for almost 14 years. There hasn’t been a fair election in the country since Awami abolished the caretaker government system in 2011, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its supporters say.

According to analysts, the BNP rallies have created new political momentum, which is putting pressure on the government while Bangladesh reels from economic woes such as inflated prices for food and gas.

“The opposition is in the streets with very legitimate demands and a peaceful movement, and the Awami League is becoming concerned,” Tofail Ahmed, a governance expert, told BenarNews.

The BNP has held four public rallies since Oct. 12, and plans six more until Dec. 10, which is observed worldwide as Human Rights Day. The rallies have attracted huge crowds, with the one in Chattogram on Oct. 12 seeing nearly 100,000 participants, party officials say.

The BNP’s demands are the resignation of the Awami League from power, restoring the election-time non-party caretaker government system and dissolving the parliament, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said.

“The parliament should be dissolved after reintroducing the caretaker government, as no election will be free and fair under a partisan government,” Fakhrul told BenarNews.

After the abolishment of the caretaker government system in 2011, most political parties, including the BNP, boycotted the 2014 general election but they participated in the last one in 2018 that, BNP officials allege, was tampered with.

The next national polls are due at the end of 2023 or early in 2024.

“BNP will not participate in any polls without a caretaker government and it will not allow the Election Commission as well as the government to hold any polls without restoring the caretaker government system,” Fakhrul said.

The Awami League government has said that appointing a caretaker government is unconstitutional.

‘Government became nervous’

Meanwhile, the BNP claims that Hasina’s government is rattled by the party’s reportedly successful rallies and has tried to block them by engineering transport strikes as well as using state machinery to organize police raids on opposition leaders’ homes before rallies.

“The ruling Awami League people and government agents forced the transport owners to stop vehicular movements ahead of BNP rallies as the government became nervous after seeing the presence of people in BNP rallies,” the BNP’s Fakhrul said.

According to him and other BNP workers, many transport associations controlled by the Awami League went on strike before the second and third rallies, in and around the cities where they were set to take place. Ahead of the next rally scheduled for Nov. 5, a bus-owners’ group has already called a strike, BNP workers say.

However, a transport association executive denied allegations about deliberately timed strikes.

“There is no relation between BNP rallies and transport strikes,” Shajahan Khan, president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation, told BenarNews. “The BNP is trying to play a blame game,” he said.

Khan, who is also an Awami League member, said transport owners were afraid whenever the BNP announced an event, because supporters of the party had torched and vandalized vehicles before the 2014 polls.

On Thursday, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal denied that the Awami League or the police had tried to block BNP events.

“We are not aware why transport owners are calling strikes during BNP programs. But, there is no government hand behind it,” he said at a press conference.

Despite the strikes the party’s rallies are attracting thousands because “our demands are very legitimate,” the BNP’s Fakhrul said.

“That’s why people are joining our rallies, despite the massive obstacles erected by the Awami League and police. The government should show respect to the demand of the people and go immediately,” he said.

One human rights activist noted that people’s involvement in street protests had changed since the United States imposed sanctions on the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) security force and its seven current and former officials for their allege gross violations of human rights. Dec. 10 will also mark the first anniversary of the action by the U.S.

“Following the U.S. sanctions, people have become courageous about their rights while police have become more careful about the rule of law,” said Nur Khan Liton, executive director of Ain-O-Salish Kendra.

“Opposition parties, including the BNP, are now feeling better to come out on to the streets as the behavior of law enforcers has changed a little bit after the sanctions. People are also joining in street rallies with their demands now.”

The Awami League denies it is running scared.

“The Awami League is not afraid of the movement of the BNP. Our leader, Sheikh Hasina, welcomes all democratic movements,” Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, a party presidium and cabinet member, told BenarNews.

“But if the BNP becomes violent, it will be prevented with an iron hand.”

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