Bangladesh: Democracy in Peril

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Bangladesh: Democracy in Peril

The Hasina-Zia feud threatens to return the country to military rule.

Bangladesh: Democracy in Peril
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The return to power of the Awami League (AL) in a general election that was widely regarded as lacking in credibility is likely to be challenged by an angry opposition in violent street protests in the coming weeks and months.

“It is going to be a period of political uncertainty and chaos,” Smruti Pattanaik, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses told The Diplomat.

Strikes and shutdowns that paralyzed daily life in Bangladesh during the run-up to the election and violence unleashed during the voting are expected to intensify.

On Monday, in her first media interaction after the election, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who is also the leader of the AL, promised “stern action” to stop the violence.  Speculation is rife in Bangladesh that once the new government is formed, she will declare a state of emergency to deal with the unrest.

But fresh elections seem to be around the corner. According to political analyst Hassan Shahriyar, Hasina will have to call for elections again soon. “She has no alternative,” he said, pointing to perception worldwide that the just-concluded election lacked credibility.

The January 5 election was a one-horse race.  It was boycotted by 21 political parties, including an 18-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The only parties of consequence in the fray were the AL and the Jatiya Party, its ally until recently.

As a result of the boycott, 153 of parliament’s 300 elected seats went uncontested. The AL bagged 127 of these seats. Thus, long before the first vote was cast, the AL had neared the half-way mark.

Coupled with the 104 of the 147 seats to which elections were held on Sunday, it has secured a three-fourths majority in the new legislature.

Yet nobody is impressed with its performance and its victory has been described as “politically and morally flawed” and even “hollow.”

Had voter turnout on Sunday been robust, the AL’s win would have had some meaning. While the Election Commission is yet to come out with official figures, it is estimated that turnout was a dismal 22 percent.  In at least 41 polling centers, not a single voter showed up.

Not surprisingly, many Bangladeshis are questioning the legitimacy of the new legislature. Indeed, it does seem that while Hasina was constitutionally correct in holding elections when she did, she may have seriously miscalculated in pressing ahead with the election despite the opposition’s boycott.

The BNP called for the poll boycott over the question of an interim government. Apprehensive that an election under the AL would not be fair, it wanted a non-party caretaker government to oversee elections, a constitutional requirement until 2011 when an AL-dominated parliament amended the Constitution to do away with this provision.

The AL refused to countenance a neutral caretaker government and instead created an all-party interim government, which it headed. With the BNP staying out of that arrangement and persisting with the poll boycott, and the government pressing ahead with elections, the deadlock deepened.

Hasina has often said that she is opposed to non-party caretaker governments overseeing elections as she is against power being vested in “unelected” people. No doubt it is Bangladesh’s experience with a “neutral” caretaker government in 2007-08 that shaped her perception. This  “interim” government remained in power for two years and held elections only when powerful street protests forced it to do so.

A Dhaka university professor pointed out that the 2007-08 non-party caretaker government was hardly neutral, “controlled as it was by the military.” Still, holding elections under a caretaker government has worked in Bangladesh, she said. Given the “extreme mutual suspicion” that characterizes the relationship between the two main political parties, the AL and the BNP, elections under a “neutral caretaker government have become a necessity.” This system enjoys “enormous public confidence,” the professor pointed out, drawing attention to an opinion survey conducted by Daily Star and Asia Foundation in September 2013, which revealed that 77 percent of respondents supported elections being held under a caretaker government.

Neither Hasina nor BNP leader Khaleda Zia has much credibility on caretaker governments overseeing elections. Each has demanded a neutral caretaker when in opposition, only to oppose this when in power.

In the run-up to general elections in February 1996, Hasina, then in opposition, demanded a neutral interim government to oversee elections. Zia, who was prime minister at the time, rejected the demand and held elections despite the entire opposition boycotting it. The BNP went on to win all 300 seats in parliament unopposed.

Following the BNP’s landslide victory, the opposition took to the streets and enforced crippling blockades and strikes, forcing the government to call for fresh elections a few months later and under a neutral caretaker government.  The AL won 146 seats in that election and with the support of some other parties formed a government.

The BNP is hoping that its strategy of continued violent protests will force the AL to call for fresh elections under a neutral caretaker government, which it believes “will go in its favor,” Pattanaik observes.

An important actor in the unfolding drama in Bangladesh is the military, which has not been averse to political intervention in the past.

It has carried out bloody coups several times, ruled Bangladesh with an iron hand for long periods and run governments by remote control as well.  It intervened amidst surging political turmoil in 2007 to install a “neutral” caretaker government and wielded control over it from behind the scenes.

Now as Bangladesh enters a new phase of turmoil, questions are being raised over what role the military will play in the coming months.

The army was called out by the AL government to maintain order during the elections. Will it decide to adopt a more active role in the evolving crisis?

While the military “has remained aloof so far, confining itself to patrolling the streets, the possibility of the military intervening cannot be ruled out if the government fails to restore normalcy,” Shahryar says.

Pattanaik pointed out that while the military “is reluctant to get into the politics at the moment, it could step in if the situation deteriorates” and only if that “has domestic support and international backing.”

Thankfully for Bangladesh, at least for now the military is not keen to step into the quagmire.

But that could change if the country’s “battling Begums” i.e. Hasina and Zia do not reach a compromise solution soon.

There are some glimmers of hope in an otherwise bleak scenario.

In an op-ed piece in the Daily Star, Iftekharuzzaman, Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, draws attention to “candid acknowledgements” by Hasina and her ministers that reveal the AL realizes that the mandate from a flawed election is worthless and that a meaningful mandate must be sought through fresh polls. Apparently in a television talk show, the finance minister spoke of Hasina calling “soon” for “another election on the basis of consultation with the opposition party.”

Hasina took a step in this direction on Monday when she extended Zia an olive branch. “A solution can be reached on the next elections only through talks,” she said, even as she stressed that this required everyone  “to have restraint, tolerance and stop political violence of all sorts.”

According to Shahryar, the AL could order fresh elections in a few months, and while it will not agree to a neutral caretaker government, “a compromise is possible.”

Underscoring the importance of dialogue, Iftekharuzzaman says the government must “take the lead” in engaging in negotiations with the opposition to reach agreement on the “form and content of the election-time government to ensure a fully participatory election.” The government “must, without losing a moment after the election, announce a specific time-bound framework for negotiations,” he says.

Politics in Bangladesh is approached like a zero sum game with the AL and the BNP seeing any ceding of ground to the other as a total loss for themselves. Compromise has become a casualty in the process.

The past year in particular has seen unprecedented unrest and violence, with people resorting to street protests to oppose the ongoing 1971 war crimes trial or in support of execution of the war criminals, demanding elections under a neutral caretaker, or airing other grievances. While the question of the identity of the state – secular or Islamist – underlies several of these struggles, it is the Hasina-Zia feud that fuels the intransigence.

If the two leaders fail to set aside their mutual hatred and personal agendas, and persist with their confrontationist style of politics, democracy will be the loser. Already, the two have done considerable damage.

And all the while, the military is watching from the wings.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected]