Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Begum on the Backfoot: Controversial parliamentary election plunges Bangladesh into fresh political uncertainty

SALEEM SAMAD

There was something amiss about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina celebrating the Awami League's landslide victory-it took 232 of 300 seats-in the January 5 elections to Parliament. For starters, it was a one-sided contest; the opposition alliance of 18 parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the polls. In Dhaka a day after the results, Hasina was both jubilant and defiant. She dismissed critics who questioned the legitimacy of the polls held amid boycott and bloodshed-24 people were killed on polling day. The next day, she asked her main political rival Begum Khaleda Zia to "shut up and negotiate" an end to the country's political paralysis.

Hasina will find it harder to deal with international opinion. The US said the elections lacked credibility and called for fresh polls. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticised the Awami League and BNP and urged them to resume meaningful dialogue. Britain and Canada expressed dismay that candidates were elected unopposed on more than half of the 300 seats. The estimated 40 per cent voter turnout was the lowest in the country's ten elections. Even Hasina's longtime regional supporter, India, issued a guarded statement, terming the polls a "constitutional requirement" and an "internal process of Bangladesh".

Imtiaz Ahmed, a political scientist at the University of Dhaka, believes fresh polls are critical to satisfy the international donors. "Resource-starved Bangladesh needs annual aid of nearly $3 billion for poverty reduction and development projects," he says.

The loss of international credibility is just one of the worries for Hasina. The crisis caused by the political impasse is expected to intensify after her government's five-year term expires on January 24. Violence that has been unleashed by BNP since the elections were called in November threatens to engulf the entire economy. Sporadic incidents of violence continue. A blockade has crippled highway and railway transport, work and education. Economic activity has ground to a halt and Bangladesh's main export earner, the garment sector which employs nearly six million people, has been severely affected. Factories are running under capacity as 75 days of strikes have disrupted raw material supplies and delivery of finished goods.

Inflation rose by about 0.2 percentage point to touch 7.35 per cent in December last year as a direct result of the violence. "I am eagerly waiting for the deadlock to end. If it doesn't happen, I will be forced to cut costs for my survival," says Nasiruddin Biswas, chairman of Nasir Group of Industries, one of Bangladesh's largest industrial conglomerates valued at $256 million.

Hasina's government has blamed the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), which has long been an ally of Khaleda Zia's BNP, for the terror campaign and militancy in Bangladesh. In 2010, her government began trials of jei leaders who were accused of participating in a genocide that left more than a million Bangladeshis dead during the 1971 war of liberation. On December 13, senior jei leader Abdul Quader Molla was hanged after being sentenced by a war crimes court. In August, the Supreme Court declared jei illegal and banned it from contesting elections.

Political analysts believe Hasina is unlikely to call fresh polls before the war crime trials are completed next year. Election boycotts have been an important tool in Bangladesh's Battle of the Begums. Khaleda Zia boycotted the 1988 general elections held under the autocratic rule of General Husain Muhammad Ershad. Sheikh Hasina boycotted the 1996 elections when Khaleda Zia was prime minister. Khaleda announced a boycott of the 2014 elections in November after the Hasina government rejected her proposal for a neutral caretaker government to supervise the polls. Since then, more than 120 people have been killed and over 900 buses torched. A disturbing trend has been attacks by suspected jei extremists on the minority Hindu community, which makes up about 10 per cent of the country's 180 million population. Attacks, and looting, have been reported from Satkhira, Dinajpur and Jessore districts, forcing thousands of Hindus to flee their homes for temporary shelters.

At her January 6 press conference, Hasina left the door open for dialogue. And Khaleda Zia agreed. "There is no solution other than talks," she told BBC. But Khaleda insists that the dialogue should be held before the government's current term ends. She has also laid other preconditions, including that she be freed from unofficial house arrest. It is now Hasina's move to make. The world is watching.

First published in India Today magazine, January 10, 2014

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA) for trendsetting journalism, he contributes for India Today, The Week, Outlook magazines in India and Karachi, Pakistan based Southasia magazine. You can follow her on Twitter - @saleemsamad