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Playing with fire

Over the long term, it is unlikely that the caretaker government of Bangladesh will be able to get away with its effort to terminate the political life of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Public protest might have been muted when she was arrested in the early hours of July 16 but could manifest itself more strongly in the days to come. The caretaker government appeared to have realised that it was playing with fire since it took extraordinary measures before taking the Awami League president into custody. Strong police contingents surrounded the leader’s house before daybreak. She was whisked away to a magistrate’s court; charges were filed against her in an extortion case; and, she was remanded to custody in a house hastily designated as a sub-jail well before the people of Dhaka set out for the day’s work. With a state of emergency in force and security measures in place throughout the country, it might be a while before the Awami League cadres are able to mobilise. The military-backed caretaker administration will be deluding itself if it thinks that its effort to break the main political parties has worked. Some middle-rung leaders of the League have called for a reform of the organisation, thereby suggesting that they might go along with the interim government’s plans. However, the rank and file know that the talk of an organisational revamp is merely a cover for an attempt to break the party. The League, which is known to be ideologically coherent and well-structured, cannot easily be written off.

The arrest of Sheikh Hasina and the prospect of similar action being taken soon against Bangladesh National Party President Khaleda Zia and other leaders could have dampened the enthusiasm generated by the announcement of the schedule for parliamentary elections. According to the Election Commission’s estimate, publicised on July 15, the electoral rolls should be ready by September 2008 so that the polls can be held by December. Most of the political parties were critical when the Commission indicated well before the official announcement that the election would be delayed but they had begun to initiate the organisational changes they were required to carry out under the amended legislation. Political forces in Bangladesh are also not at all enthusiastic about the decision to hold polls to the local bodies on a non-party basis ahead of the parliamentary election. In the past, caretaker governments did what they could to pack local bodies with loyalists of the military and other non-elected centres of power. With yet another authoritarian effort under way, democratic forces in Bangladesh have a fight on their hands.

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