Monday, January 20, 2014
Bangladesh: A long road ahead
One may certainly question the legitimacy of these elections: They were far from representative. The
was set to win by default, as BNP had not registered for the election by the
end of the registration period. AL candidates won 153
of the 300 parliamentary seats without any contestation. In the capital, AL Dhaka, citizens only voted in nine out of the 20
Nor is an election acceptable, if citizens do not vote. Fewer than 40 percent of the population turned up at the polls according to the government; others report the number as far less. Some voters stayed away from voting booths for fear of violence. CNN reports one polling officer as saying, "Presence of voters today is lower than any other time of voting."
Members of the international community have also questioned the validity of these elections. Although the United Nations did not formally declare the need for a re-election, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both parties to exercise restraint and urgently address the people's expectations for an inclusive political process.
Europe, and the called for
fresh elections to be held. United
Political violence a norm
The country cannot move forward without a real opposition.
leader Sheikh Hasina
was sworn in as
prime minister with the AL-allied Jatiya Party (JP) as the leading opposition
in the parliament. The excluded BNP opposition, however, is not likely to stand
BNP demonstrations and strikes have paralysed
since last year, and the party has continued its protests after the election.
However, BNP is now operating within significant constraints. Opposition leader
Khaleda Zia has just been released after two weeks of house arrest.
Many opposition members are in hiding after the arrest of dozens of party members and police
raids on their homes. However, the BNP movement shows no signs of abating. A
key BNP leader has recently called the new Bangladesh government immoral, illegal, and autocratic and the party is now calling for a new
The BNP may, however, have to detach from its former coalition partner, the country's main Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). BNP has stood by its ally as JI leaders were tried by a war crimes tribunal for mass atrocities committed against the Bangladeshi population during the 1971 liberation war. A High Court decision has since led the Election Commission to cancel Jamaat's registration, and on-going JI-instigated violence has even prompted one European diplomat to call the JI a terrorist organisation.
At the same time, Sheikh Hasina plans to keep the AL in power. She shrugged off all doubts regarding the legitimacy of her victory at a press conference. The New York Times reported that when a journalist asked her whether she believed that the election would bring further instability, she said, "What do you want, that I should start crying, 'Oh, crisis, we have a crisis!' Do you want that?"
's newly sworn prime
minister appears oblivious to the ongoing violence. However, according to the Times a close aid to the prime
minister said that he was certain that new elections would occur, although a
new opposition coalition was also expected to fill the power vacuum and attract
breakaway factions from the BNP. Bangladesh
Decades of strife
The irreconcilable differences between the AL and the BNP signal the failure of democratic institutions in
. Bangladesh was
not simply stuck in an impasse as the parties traded power for two decades.
Rather, the political system has gradually disintegrated as institutions have
failed to regulate politics and society. Bangladesh
The newly sworn Awami League government may lack legitimacy with the people, but it must be the one to pull
out of this mess. The
government needs to pursue political stability as its foremost goal. Failing to
do so would be disastrous for the country's growing, but now stalled economy,
especially for the informal labour and agrarian workers. A crackdown on the
opposition would only worsen the Bangladesh 's
already declining credibility with the people. Under these circumstances, a
credible and representative new election is the only viable option. AL
should also consider bringing back the caretaker government. A non-elected body
has its disadvantages: In 2006, an unelected caretaker government stayed in
power for over two years as the country prepared for an election. However, this
is the third time in AL 's
history that the opposition's demand for neutral electoral oversight has
brought politics to a standstill. The caretaker government has more credibility
with the people than one would expect of an unelected body. Bangladesh
experienced its biggest surge in voter turnout during the two elections where a
caretaker government supervised the polls after a prolonged period of political
unrest (1996, 2008). Electoral turnout rose from 55.5 percent in 1991, to 75.6
percent in 1996; and from 75 percent in 2001, to 85.3 percent in 2008. Bangladesh
New way forward
If the caretaker government is reinstated, its selection mechanism must be reformed. In order to be legitimate, the caretaker government must be selected by representatives of all political groups and through an inclusive process. The government does not have to start from scratch on such an effort. It can draw on the experience and infrastructure of various NGOs and civil society groups that have sufficient experience in creating dialogue across groups.
The government must also review its institutional practices. The current crisis can be traced back to an institutional decay that has silently crept up on politics and society. The parliament needs to be revived; the opposition should refrain from calling hartals and walking out of parliament, and instead, engage in responsible and meaningful dialogue. It is important for all parties to respect existing rules instead of constantly changing them to suit their needs. However, these rules must be created through inclusive processes and not just serve the party in power.
Future governments must strengthen governing institutions and give all groups a voice in politics. If not, the two parties may find themselves in another deadlock in five years.
First appeared in Al Jazeera news portal, 18 January 2014