Former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia arrives at a court in Dhaka on August 10, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Mehedi Hasan
Former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia arrives at a court in Dhaka on August 10, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Mehedi Hasan

On the day that Dhaka and Naypyidaw signed an agreement to begin repatriating hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who recently fled violence in Myanmar, the political temperature rose substantially in Bangladesh.

Khaleda Zia, an ex-prime minister and chairperson of the country’s leading opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), ruled out contesting the next polls, due by the end of 2018, without substantial changes to election rules, including a return to a neutral caretaker system for overseeing the ballot.

Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wazed scrapped the electoral system in 2008, a move the opposition claims has given her ruling Awami League party an unfair advantage at polls.

“The people of Bangladesh do not believe the government of Prime Minister Hasina, they have lost all credibility,” Zia said after a recent party event. “Only a neutral caretaker can guarantee free and fair polls and we will soon launch a movement for that.”

The Rohingya crisis initially caught the Awawi League on the wrong foot, presenting a political opportunity to BNP to criticize its handling of the massive influx refugees that has teetered towards a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Pope Francis shakes hands with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 1, 2017. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Pope Francis in Dhaka, December 1, 2017. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters 

But those perceptions have since shifted, with Hasina now winning praise both in the West and Islamic countries for her comparatively compassionate approach to a crisis that has hit Myanmar’s global image while lifting Bangladesh’s.

Some analysts believe that shift explains why Zia has dropped the gauntlet again on the caretaker issue. BNP did not contest Bangladesh’s parliamentary polls in January 2014, paving the way for a runaway Awami League win.

The BNP protested the polls as rigged, sparking waves of instability that killed more than 150 people in fire-bombings launched by BNP supporters and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist political party.

Both BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami are both known to maintain links with Islamist radicals, including Rohingya insurgents and extremist elements in Pakistan.

It is not clear, however, that either party has provided any support to the Rohingya insurgent group, known as the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA), that attacked Myanmar security forces on August 25 and precipitated a brutal retaliatory response.

As Bangladesh begins the countdown to next year’s parliamentary polls, analysts and observers fear Zia’s renewed demand for a neutral election observer could threaten new rounds of street chaos and violence.

Activists from the Bangladesh Islamist group take part in a protest in Dhaka on February 24, 2017.Hundreds of supporters of a hardline Bangladesh Islamist group staged protests February 24 calling for the statue of a Greek goddess installed at the Supreme Court to be destroyed or removed. The sculpture of Themis, the blindfolded deity of justice and order, has ruffled feathers in the Muslim-majority nation since it was unveiled late last year on the premises of the country's top court.
Activists from a Bangladesh Islamist group take part in a protest in Dhaka on February 24, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Zia’s decision to oppose polls unless the caretaker system is restored caught the Awami League off guard. Before she left for London in July, Zia had hinted that her party will contest the elections under the present dispensation.

Awami League members, who hold a huge majority in parliament, insist the caretaker system was abused in the past by the military, bureaucrats and others to cling to power and that they will block any bid to restore the system. The BNP’s absence in parliament clearly limits Zia’s options.

She had earlier hoped for the support of Western governments and human rights groups that had questioned Hasina’s rights record, including its heavy-handed tactics in dealing with the political opposition. That record includes the death sentences handed down to Jemmat-e-Islami members for war crimes during the country’s 1971 war that sparked waves of violence in 2013, resulting in 60 deaths.

But those outside perceptions have changed dramatically with Hasina’s deft and sympathetic handling of the Rohingya crisis.

“Bangladesh managed the crisis wonderfully by opening its doors to these hapless Rohingyas and it has closely worked with the UN and other governments,” said US Republican Senator Jeff Merkley during a recent press conference in Yangon.

European and Middle Eastern leaders have also showered praise on Hasina and are now strongly backing her efforts to diplomatically push Myanmar to repatriate as many as 600,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled the country since late August.

Rohingya refugees scuffle as they wait to receive relief aid at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera
Rohingya refugees scuffle as they wait to receive relief aid at Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Susana Vera

Growing global pressure finally pushed Myanmar into signing a repatriation agreement with Bangladesh in November, though no time frame has been agreed. Political analysts are now weighing how the repatriation deal may impact on next year’s polls.

“Whatever the anti-incumbency factor back home, Hasina stands tall in the way she has managed the Rohingya crisis,” says Bangladesh watcher Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury. “If she gets the repatriation process going in the next few months, it will add to her stature.”

Others note there is a near consensus among Asian powers that Hasina and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi are now crucial to regional stability, both in South and Southeast Asia. Many fear a military coup in Myanmar or BNP win in Bangladesh could inflame the situation again.

“China, India, Japan and the Asean countries all seem to agree that solving the Rohingya crisis is a must for regional stability and both Hasina and Suu Kyi are crucial to make that happen,” said Arindam Mukherjee of the Calcutta-based Institute of Social and Cultural Studies (ISCS), a think tank.

“The region has developed a stake in seeing these two regimes survive. We don’t want Rakhine to be another Afghanistan,” said Rajinder Khanna, former chief of India’s external intelligence, speaking at an ISCS seminar held recently in Yangon.

Plain clothes police officers arrest a Bangladesh Jammat-e-Islami activist after a clash in Dhaka February 12, 2013. According to police, at least 50 cars have been vandalized and two police officers injured as Jamaat-e-Islami activists opened fire and clashed with law enforcers in different parts of the capital after police had banned their rally on Tuesday. Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest radical Islamist party in Bangladesh, called for the rally to protest against the Shahbagh demonstration. Thousands of protesters participating in the Shahbagh demonstration demanded capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami leaders awaiting a court verdict for war crimes committed during the 1971 Independence War, as well as for one of the leaders who received a life sentence, local media reported. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH) - RTR3DOHP
Plain clothes police officers arrest a Bangladesh Jammat-e-Islami
activist after a clash in Dhaka in 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj 

Awami League members allege that is precisely why Zia and her BNP allegedly plan to launch disruptive street campaigns in the rundown to the polls.

Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader has even alleged that Zia has conspired with Pakistani intelligence in London to create instability in Myanmar’s Rakhine state by supporting Rohingya insurgents. ”The plan is to create a crisis she and the Pakistanis think we cannot handle,” claimed Quader.

Zia could not be reached for comment on the allegation. “They are trying to start a violent campaign in the country,” said Awami League youth leader Ajay Sarkar. “We are ready to fight them out in the streets and wherever else we are challenged,” he told Asia Times.

The BNP, on the other hand, feels a strong popular movement can bring down the Awami League government even before the next election.

“If the police are neutral for two days, we can bring down this government, the people are with us,” said senior BNP leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi at a recent press conference. “[And] if there is a fair election, they won’t get 30 seats in the 300-member parliament.”

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