Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bangladesh stunned by Awami League's victory

SABIR MUSTAFA

Bangladesh is set for a government with the biggest parliamentary majority since 1973, following Monday's general elections designed to bring an end to two years of military-backed rule.

In an election marked by high turnout and few incidents, the centre-left Awami League - headed by former prime minister Sheikh Hasina - and its allies pulled off a stunning victory, winning a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber national assembly.

The Mohajot (Grand Coalition) alliance practically demolished its rivals, the centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist ally the Jamaat-e-Islami. All top leaders of the Jamaat lost their seats.

The sheer scale of the Awami League's victory has left people searching for an explanation. Even the party's leaders appear to be taking a pause for thought.

"We were certainly expecting victory, but perhaps not as big as this," said Abul Mal Abdul Muhith, a senior Awami League leader from the Sylhet region who is tipped to become the next finance minister.

"This is clearly a major challenge for us, we have to deliver," Mr Muhith told the BBC Bengali service in an interview.

People's will?
As results came through from different parts of the country, pundits and analysts dug deep to construct a plausible cause for the BNP's debacle.

"It is clearly a robust expression of people's will," said Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper.

"First-time voters made up nearly a third of the total, and these young voters rejected the BNP's negative campaign based on religion and fear."

A rejection of the BNP was not the only factor in the result. The Awami League, which led Bangladesh to independence in 1971, is often accused to living in the past. But this time they surprised everyone with a new-look campaign and softer rhetoric.

"The Awami League was seen as an unfashionable, rather rustic party in the 1980s," said Muzammil Hussain, deputy editor of the daily Samakal. "But the party's manifesto this time as well as its campaign strategy had touches of modernity which appealed to the young."

It is rare for Bangladeshi politicians to offer a vision to the young, but veteran journalist Amanullah Kabir agreed that the Awami League leader appeared to have done just that.

''Sheikh Hasina's call to build a digital Bangladesh, with specific goals for economic development, gave the young something to dream about, and they have voted en masse for that dream'', said Mr Kabir.

Such big victories please the party faithful, but the neutral are always a little fearful.

They point out that the BNP and its alliance won a two-thirds majority in 2001, and produced what many people considered to be the most corrupt government in the country's history.

Awami League leaders were quick to calm fears that its overwhelming majority would make it autocratic in power.

''We have a great victory, but no matter how few seats the opposition have, we will make every effort to include them in policy making,'' Hasan Mahmud, a close aide to Sheikh Hasina, told the BBC Bengali service in an interview.

'Guns and goons'
The elections mark a personal triumph for Sheikh Hasina, whose political career seemed at an end last year when she was jailed on charges of corruption.

Ms Hasina had often been bracketed with her bitter rival Khaleda Zia of the BNP, with both being accused of allowing "guns and goons" to become part of the country's political fabric.

Their rivalry became known as Battle of the Begums, the term for a woman of high social rank.

Detractors claimed that Bangladeshi politics could be reformed only if the two ladies stepped aside.

This deliberate policy to remove the the two ladies became known as the Minus Two formula.

The caretaker government in 2007 used its emergency powers to try and force Ms Hasina and Ms Khaleda into exile. The effort failed miserably.

The next attempt was to try and get the two parties themselves to ditch their leaders. They found no takers.

Next came attempts to split the major parties and create "reformist" factions with an aim to effect changes in leadership. It only made reform a dirty word in Bangladeshi politics.

In a final throw of the dice, the government sent both the ladies to jail, and slapped a number of corruption charges against them. An impression soon took hold that they would be convicted and thus disqualified from holding office.

But by then the government's failure to halt spiralling food prices had ended the public's infatuation with the army-backed regime. A sense of drift had gripped the caretaker regime with no clear goal in sight.

Price to pay
It was not long before the caretaker government began searching for a way out.

Elections were seen as the only plausible exit strategy, but such elections would only succeed if the two major parties, led by the two Begums, took part.

The government had already set December 2008 as the target date for general elections, and it stuck to the time-table. But there was a price.

The political reforms they had promised did not materialise. They had to largely soften their their much-trumpeted anti-corruption drive. The two Begums, far from being sidelined, were put back into the equation.

Monday's elections mark not only the triumph of one and the defeat of the other.

It also marks the total failure of the Minus Two formula.

There is one silver lining in the cloud for the men and women who have ruled Bangladesh since a state of emergency was declared on 11 January 2007.

These elections are likely to go down in history as the first universally-credible polls in the country's history.

The defeated BNP has already raised questions about alleged polling irregularities.

But these complaints are unlikely to find any support outside their party offices. #

Sabir Mustafa is chief of BBC Bangla Service and files this report from Bangladesh capital Dhaka


First published by BBC NEWS online, December 30, 2008

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