DHAKA, 27 November 2006 — Political crisis deepened in Bangladesh yesterday after the caretaker government said it would investigate reports that important state officials attended a secret late-night meeting hosted by a former ministry adviser.
Leaders of a 14-party alliance locked in a furious struggle with the former ruling coalition ahead of general elections in January accused the participants of plotting to rig the polls.
Friday’s meeting, at an office owned by Mahmudur Rahman, adviser to the Energy Ministry under the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government, was revealed by reporters. Television footage showed participants trying to avoid the cameras but some were identified either as retired or serving state officials.
Rahman, who also served as executive chairman of the Bangladesh Board of Investment, could be seen trying to reason with reporters as his guests fled. He said he had invited them over to visit his new office, but could not say why it had to be late at night.
Rahman told reporters yesterday it was a “private party where guests included government and nongovernment officials.” “There was nothing wrong in that,” he said, accusing the media of “breaching my privacy.”
Among the senior incumbent officials who attended the function was M.A. Matin, Rahman said. He was assistant private secretary to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and is her close relative. Power Secretary A.N.H. Akhter Hossain denied reports carried by some newspapers that he was among those who attended the ‘secret’ meeting.
The television reports said those present included known loyalists of Khaleda, whose five-year term as prime minister expired in October. She is a key contender in the coming election.
Abdul Jalil, general secretary of the Awami League led by Hasina Wajed, another former prime minister, told reporters late on Saturday the meeting had been convened “to work out a formula to rig the coming vote to bring Khaleda back to power.”
He and other leaders of Hasina’s 14-party alliance demanded the state officials be sacked and all at the meeting punished.
The interim government running the country until the election vowed to investigate the “circumstances of the meeting” and take appropriate steps.
Jalil yesterday filed a complaint against President Iajuddin Ahmed at the High Court, saying Iajuddin had taken over as caretaker administration chief on Oct. 29 “bypassing the constitution,” lawyers said.
Jalil also sought a court injunction against announcing an election date and related details before resolving other election-related issues.
The new controversies broke as the caretaker administration was struggling to ensure that all parties took part in the election to make it credible. With the exception of Khaleda’s BNP and three allied parties, all the country’s political groups backed a street blockade campaign earlier this month that eventually forced the temporary departure of Chief Election Commissioner M.A. Aziz, whom they accuse of pro-Khaleda bias.
Aziz agreed to take a three-month leave of absence, but left an equally controversial deputy in charge.
Khaleda’s opponents said they would step up their efforts to force out all the election commissioners, including acting chief Mahfuzur Rahman, who they say is as biased as his chief. The constitution says elections must take place within three months of a government ending its mandate. As Khaleda departed in October, barely two months now remain to complete the process.
Acting election commission chief Rahman yesterday said the election schedules would be announced before the end of this month.
Abdur Rashid Sarkar, secretary of the election commission, said “time is running out. So, we cannot sit on preparations.” At least 40 people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between rival parties since late October.
Past Bangladesh elections were marred by violence and charges of rigging and voter intimidation.