The scenes on the streets of Bangladesh that the world has been witnessing in the previous months depict the mood of a pseudo-democratic nation that is hanging by a thread. Bangladesh seems to be heading towards a dead end as an anarchic like state of affairs spins the country into total disarray.
The two political dynasties of Bangladesh have forever been fighting a political war to grip power over a country that has been plagued by violence, corruption and poverty. Their fighting is eating up Bangladesh from the inside and even though it is costing the country more than it can afford, their rivalry shows no signs of abating.
Added to this ongoing conundrum is the troublesome history of 1971. The controversial judgments on the 1971 war crimes are not helping the country emerge out of its violent history, even after decades of independence and democracy. Thus what lies ahead for Bangladesh is continued violence amidst uncertain developments and the possibility of external elements exploiting the volatile situation.
General elections were held in Bangladesh on 5 January 2014. Although they were held in accordance with the constitutional requirement that the election must take place within the 90-day period before the expiration of the term of the Jatiyo Sangshad or the parliament (which was to end on 24 January 2014), the elections were nothing less than controversial and violent.
Almost all major opposition parties boycotted the elections. 154 of the total 300 seats remained uncontested, which was a clear signal that democratic attributes had been ignored. In addition, the elections turned out to be the most violent in Bangladesh’s history, with 21 people dying on the day of elections alone, as security forces fired on protesters and opposition activists torched over 100 voting centers.
Through most of 2013, the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its alliance of 18 oppisiton parties led by three times former Prime Minister and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia called for more than 85 days of nationwide general strikes and protests that brought the entire country to a grinding hault.
The opposition demanded that the ruling Awami League party, led by the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina amend the constitution, dissolve parliament after its full five year term end on January 24, 2014 and hand over the power to a non-partisan interim government or a caretaker government of technocrats who would run the country for ninety days. The caretaker government would work in tandem with the Bangladesh election commission to organize and manage the general elections.
As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected the demands, all opposition parties boycotted the polls. Hasina had instead offered an all-party interim election cabinet government which would include opposition parties till the election, but opposition leader Khaleda Zia rejected the proposal.
In fact, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina amended the constitution in 2011 to abolish the system of caretaker government during elections. Interestingly, it was the very same system she fought for when she was sitting in the opposition.
However, the ruling Awami League party was declared the winner of a violence-plagued election in which victory was a foregone conclusion due to an opposition boycott. However, fear of more political violence stalks the country as opposition parties reject the election.
This was one election in which the counting of votes did not matter because more than half the seats were uncontested. Nevertheless, results confirmed that ruling Awami League candidates won more than three quarters (232 according to preliminary counts) of the 300 elected seats, giving it a sweeping majority in parliament. Its allies will control most of the other seats.
Much of the current instability in Bangladesh is happening post war crimes tribunal. Initially, the protests were about the rulings by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), which had begun prosecuting those, responsible for war crimes in 1971. Since major leaders are being prosecuted by the ICT, the Islamist opposition party- the Jamaat-e-Islami, a strong alliance of BNP, led violent protests against the tribunals and the government, leading to a heavy crackdown by the state.
The major opposition leader Khaleda Zia and her party, the BNP, along with their supporters seemed to have seized this opportunity to cause more ruckus and turbulence in the country. However, although the opposition seized the opportunity arising from ongoing protests to severe an anti-government mood in the country, by default, they also let loose the spread of islamization in the country whose people were hoping for a secular nation, free from the ills of the violent history of 1971.
Hence, gradually, the reason of the protests shifted from the controversial war crimes tribunal to the upcoming general elections. However, while the two protests were for separate reasons, they have added to the increasingly tumultuous political environment.
The Awami League won a predictable but shallow victory, which gives them neither a legitimate mandate nor an ethical right to rule. On the other hand, the opposition indeed has the democratic right to protest and boycott elections but using violence and intimidation to thwart an election is completely unacceptable.
Sheikh Hasina has indeed begun the process of cutting the opposition out of the democratic process. However, she needs to realize that such moves will not serve either her or the dreams of her country for a vibrant democracy in the long run.
With such practices, she might secure her victory for a few elections, but very soon, the country will begin to feel insecure under a pseudo-democratic setup, where democracy only exists in name and nothing more. The people will begin to see that she went to extreme extents to ensure that her rival remained out of power, even at the cost of becoming a dictator like leader in a democratic setup, threatening her own future as well the future of Bangladesh’s democracy.
What will happen next is an extremely crucial question.
Even if re-election is back on the agenda, the country shows little signs of shedding violence. The Awami League would want to stretch their period in power during which more violence and instability cannot be ruled out. The Awami League also fears that if the BNP returns to power along with its ally, the Islamist Jamaat-e-islami, its leaders will avenge the executions of its leaders and the war trime trials. Thus, what the BNP makes of its relation with the Jamaat-e-islami will significantly alter the balance of power in Bangladesh’s politics.
It is also unlikely that the Army would step into the political arena to banish the two power hungry women of Bangladesh after their previous political debacle in 2007. In any case, the army seems to be a little more tilted to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s camp after her generous promises of UN peacekeeping duties and imported artillery from Russia and China.
India would also press Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to engage in serious dialogue with the opposition to work out a solution, although cautiously. There is a general impression in Bangladesh that India is closer to PM Sheikh Hasina than the opposition leader Khaleda Zia. But this is expected of India because during Khaleda’s regime, Bangladesh has indeed acted as a safe haven for anti-India elements and pro-Pakistani terrorists. Also, while the Western countries have shown concern and condemned violence, they have fallen short of taking concrete action like sending their teams on ground.
It is a known fact that the biggest stumbling block in trying to resolve the country’s political stalemate is the bitter hostility and personal animosity between the two women who lead the country’s main parties.
This entire scenario reflects that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has some breathing space, for now. But is unclear how she will lead her course from here on, however, it is definite that she cannot rule defiantly and remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing atrocities in her country because sooner or later, it will catch on to her. She should be more accommodative of the opposition and their genuine demands for successful and smooth function of democracy in the country, which at the moment needs peace and stability.