The Pulse

For Bangladesh, Elections Bring Little Relief

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The Pulse

For Bangladesh, Elections Bring Little Relief

The Diplomat‘s Sanjay Kumar reports from Dhaka on the outcome of the Bangladesh election.

For Bangladesh, Elections Bring Little Relief
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“I don’t know what is happening in this country. For more than three months, I have been facing problems travelling, commuting from one place to another. I’m so nervous these days,” says Imran Haque, a daily wage earner in Bangladesh.

“I want to open my shop but every day I have this fear that I will be attacked by protestors if I don’t keep my business shut. Normal life has become difficult for me and I have suffered losses in the last couple of months,” says Amanullah Choudhury, a shopkeeper in the Savar area in Dhaka’s outskirts.

Anger and cynicism best describe the voices on the streets of Dhaka these days.

The mood inside Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s residence is different, however. She and her party, the Awami League, are in a victorious mood and claim to possess the people’s support after having won in the general elections. Maintaining the practice of inviting journalists after the poll results, Hasina appeared confident and pooh-poohed any talk of a political crisis in Bangladesh.

At the press conference, when The Diplomat asked her about the legitimacy of a parliament without an opposition party, she turned the table on her rivals for creating chaos in the country:

“Twelve parties participated in the elections. Since the fundamentalist Jamaat could not participate in the election as they were banned by the High Court, the BNP, its ally, also boycotted the elections. It does not mean that there would be a question of legitimacy. People participated in the elections and this gives legitimacy. Besides, this is our constitutional obligation, to hold elections. So no question of legitimacy arises,” said Hasina.

When asked about the possibility of another election, the chief of the ruling party did not rule out that eventuality, but said it all depends on the attitude of the main opposition party, the BNP.

“The main opposition did not participate in the elections after I offered everything. I told them that if they join I can create a government with the participation of all political parties. I offered any ministry that the Leader of Opposition wanted in return for their participation in elections,” said Hasina. “They also tried to prevent the elections and called [a] general strike and indulged into violence with the help of the terrorist group like the Jamaat,”  the 66-year-old PM asserted.

Hasina further adds that “the BNP does not believe in elections. They have joined hands with the terrorist group. When the elections would be held if at all, it depends on their attitude – what they do and how they behave. Definitely there would be new elections when the time comes.” Hasina’s comments give a broad indication that new elections will not be ruled out if the opposition abjures violence and strikes.

During her press conference, Hasina did not give off a sense of political crisis in Bangladesh. She appears as defiant as before.

But certainly she is not in sync with the mood outside and neither is the BNP.

The BNP demonstrates a disconnect with the people by calling for a shutdown and strike in the country. On Monday, a day after the elections, the BNP called for a nationwide strike, disregarding the reality that in the last three months more than 300 people have lost their lives in violence generally attributed to the highhandedness of the opposition.

Is the Awami League government with its three-fourths majority in parliament stable enough to govern effectively?

In an election boycotted by the main opposition, the ruling alliance won 232 seats out of 300. But this grand success is not a guarantee for stability in the country. The instability that was gripping the nation before the elections remains the same as before. The BNP and its alliance partners are continuing with their general strike, pushing the country into a state of virtual house arrest .

“The election held is meaningless. You have to hold both the government and the opposition accountable of forcing a crisis in the country,” says Nazrul Islam, a Dhaka-based senior journalist.

In an interview with The Diplomat, Islam asserts that “a dialogue between the two main parties can resolve the political impasse in the country” – a fact that even the BNP leaders don’t deny.

Speaking with The Diplomat, a senior BNP leader, Mahbubur Rahman, said that “no doubt we need to engage with the Awami League, but for that to take place, the ruling party will have to show certain flexibility which it is not showing at present. We cannot be blamed for the crisis facing the country.”

The Daily Star holds the premier responsible for the present deadlock. It writes that “the PM is not in sync with the existing political reality. Given her position that this election was a constitutional compulsion, we need to emphasize that it will not by any means resolve the current political instability. It was thus disappointing that the substance and tenor of her comments lacked any direction to resolve the political flux.”

There are, however, political experts who believe that the main reason the Awami League and the BNP could not reach a compromise was due to the ongoing trial of war-time criminals in Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal. The tribunal was set up almost four years ago to prosecute those who were involved in atrocities during the war of liberation in 1971.

The BNP’s main ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, is a fundamentalist group which opposed the war of liberation and supported the Pakistani army in killing its own people. The tribunal has already sentenced to death a senior Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, and there are others who are on trial.

“The Liberation War is a very emotional issue. Millions of Bengalis lost their lives in the war and some of the groups actively supported the Pakistani army. People want them to be punished,” says Shehab Sumon, a political analyst. He further adds that “animosity between the Awami League and the two major opposition parties has gone up after the tribunal was set up. That is the reason that despite so many olive branches the BNP leader, Khaleda Zia, refused to participate in the elections.”

Some of the senior leaders of the BNP The Diplomat spoke to praised Hasina for setting up the tribunal. In an off-the-record conversation, they confided that it suits the interests of the BNP that the Awami League concludes the the work of the war crime tribunal. That way, when the BNP comes to power, it won’t have to work under pressure from Jamaat to disband the tribunal and release the arrested Islamic leaders.

The Daily Star writes that “it would also be unfair, and indeed unwise to draw a broad brush of ‘anti-liberation or antidemocratic’ on all those who did not participate in the election. We do not believe that nearly 70 percent who chose not to vote are anti-liberation.”

The elections were supposed to bring relief to the people of Bangladesh. But an election result without a popular mandate raises more questions than it answers. The people of Bangladesh continue to be under house arrest. The only hope now is a new election which is inclusive and has wider democratic participation.