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     Volume 6 Issue 1 | January 12, 2007 |

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AL's Catch January 22

A W Khan

The AL has drowned itself deeper into the murky waters of political gambling
The Awami League has come full circle. From no elections, to elections, back to no elections. Along the way, they picked up all and sundry and now find themselves burdened with the ignominy of carrying the motley crew of dissident opponents, a military dictator and little known but well-reported alleged band of militants. All because of the League's central dilemma: How to loosen the double-bind of the BNP and the caretaker government on the elections, while maintaining public and international support for a movement that is crippling the country.

Signs were ominous from the end of 2005 that the electoral process was being set up to improve on preceding attempts to engineer the polls. Regular reports appeared in the media. All of them damning indictments on the state of political control over what is supposed to be an impartial election process. The word around AL's decision-making circles has always been that everything the four-party coalition government would do, it would always remain reversible. Only when they tried to open each door to the election process did they find all of them locked and the keys stored away under the care of someone someplace higher. They came far too late to the game. A number of party insiders say this has been a lesson in advanced power politics that not only took the League by surprise, but one that the party had to learn.

But, the AL couldn't afford to sit on their hands and reflect on a comprehensive psychological defeat. They knew they had the upper hand in an election race despite all of BNP's chicanery. The tangibles were laid bare: rising price of essentials, and constant power cuts. The intangible factor of unprecedented corruption (alleged, of course) and alleged iron-fist rule made an AL victory all the more likely.

The AL's blockade programme has brought about some concessions but has also brought about untold miseries on the public

So, in the esteemed traditions of Bangali politics, the only way to shake the caretaker government's stand was to mount a movement so powerful that some people might not even bring their cars out. Although there has been widespread criticism of the move to call a string of countrywide blockades, any pragmatic political observer of Bangladeshi politics would agree that there is no other way to enforce even a modicum of accountability. Much of what has been gained from the blockades have been subsumed by ever-changing demands, but the ostensible success of the blockades remain. The League was already behind the game and with each blockade they gained a number of significant concessions: preventing KM Hasan from assuming the post of the Caretaker Chief; removal of the Chief Election Commissioner and another election commissioner; and what was thought to be successful at that time, the move to create an updated voter list.

But, in the middle of December the Awami League dived headlong into a stinking whirlpool. There were at least four contradictory statements made by League leaders within the space of four hours on December 17. The general secretary in the morning said they are willing to participate in an election within 90 days of caretaker rule if the interim government was sincere. This comment was followed by three others: first by an AL presidium member who said they reject the notion of an election within the 90 days and require another 45 days, secondly, by another AL presidium member who said they were positive about going to the elections after joining a grand electoral alliance, and finally a AL leader who was more concerned with his election nominations. This very public rift within the party was one of the first fissures of a party that was desperately searching disparate lifelines.

Hasina likened President Iiajuddin to an onion and called him 'Peyajuddin'

These fissures opened into wide-open cracks because of two ill-advised moves. First, a particular faction within the AL pushed the idea that the creation of a grand electoral alliance would outweigh the BNP-Jamaat coalition's legacy in the election process. But when the Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKM) were courted for an electoral alliance, the League leadership didn't and perhaps couldn't quell the anger welling up within its ranks. The clandestine nature of the deal only exacerbated the tenacity of internal protests. Some of the presidium committee members and most other senior leaders were kept in the dark about the deal. AL's supporters, enemies and the indifferent were witness to the vanguard of Bangladeshi secularism fall victim to a poorly-calculated power politics move.

Again, the League came late to the game. Not only had the public mood soured, but some of their own supporters turned their backs. The protests were public and damaging. Most importantly, when time was against them in a race to attain a condition that would allow a semblance of impartiality in the elections, AL had lost crucial negotiation time. All that stood in AL's way was the seemingly endless layers of, in Sheikh Hasina's terms, Iajuddin's onion.

Hasina on December 28 renamed Iajuddin as "Peyajuddin," likening him to an onion that reveals a new 'conspiracy' with every layer that is peeled. The subsequent January 3 announcement to boycott the January 22 elections, has at least made clear that Awami League will not go to the elections unless all of the onion's layers are peeled. The League's job has been made a little easier by the BNP's reluctance to move. If the Chief Adviser's words are to be considered, the caretaker government will also maintain its position unless divinity intervenes.

At least we know the cards are on the table. We finally know who stands where and well, how they will keep on standing there like statues under the wrath of crows over-fed on Dhaka's endless supply of political garbage. It's up to the The Awami League to move.



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