Political tensions have increased as the next general election approaches. The election must take place by September 2001 and, under the constitution, the ruling party must hand over power to a caretaker government three months prior to the election. The caretaker government will have the constitutional responsibility to hold the polls in a free and fair manner. The election may well take place at the end of 2000 or in early 2001. The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has hinted at an early election, stressing that this would not be a concession to opposition demands for an early poll, but to prevent the poll from being disrupted during the monsoon season.
The proximity of the election has led to a further deterioration in the political environment. The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) held a two-day strike in May in protest at the appointment of a new chief election commissioner, Mohammad Abu Syed, because it said it had not been consulted by the government. The BNP's leader, Begum Khaleda Zia, had earlier turned down Sheikh Hasina's offer for talks to choose the new commissioner. In June the opposition held a strike in protest at a provision within the government's budget to raise Tk35bn (US$69) from commercial borrowing. This polarisation will increase as the campaign season starts in earnest. Although the opposition returned to parliament in late June for around one hour, this was a move to prevent opposition MPs having their parliamentary membership scrapped for not attending parliament for more than 90 days.
The election result will hinge on whether popular opinion turns against the ruling Awami League (AL), for failing to deliver on its election pledges, or blames the government's shortcomings on the BNP's relentless campaign of unpopular general strikes. Any decision by the BNP to escalate its strike campaign in the run-up to the election may lose it popular support. The AL is unlikely to form an electoral alliance, although it enjoys the support of 11 small left-oriented parties. The BNP-led opposition alliance has not yet indicated whether it will share seats between the opposition parties, or campaign separately. Several sensitive issues, such as the death sentence currently hanging over the killers of Sheikh Mujib, the father of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, relations with India, and the alleged misuse of the recently enacted and controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), may ignite the political situation further. The political situation will stabilise after the election.