An event that many hoped would bring Bangladesh’s ailing democracy to life turned out to do the exact opposite.
Residents of the country’s two largest cities went to the polls recently to elect their mayors along with a legion of council members. The candidates backed by the ruling party, the Awami League, won by large margins. Post-election statistics were too neat to fool anyone into believing the prime minister’s claims of a free and fair election. Indeed, the reality was very different.
Shortly after the vote began, party cadres of Awami League took control of a majority of the polling centers in both cities. Polling agents from the opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were warned not to come to their assigned centers. Those who came were forcefully expelled by League thugs. BNP candidates boycotted the election around noon.
Reporters and journalists did a great job covering the election, although they themselves were subject to harassment and attacks. Even the Swedish envoy to Bangladesh, who was visiting a center, was caught in an altercation among the League cadres. The ambassador was later rescued by the security forces.
Democracy, unfortunately, was not.
Vote-rigging, violence, and intimidation is nothing new in Bangladesh. That said, the scale seen in the elections at the end of April was unprecedented. In particular, the way local administration officials and police were made to work in tandem with the thugs of the ruling party shows the election was anything but an exercise of institutional democracy. The international community, including the United Nation, the United States, and Britain, was quick to express its dismay.
Foreign diplomats stationed in Dhaka had been working for months to get the two rival parties to the negotiation table. So was Ban Ki-moon, the UN chief, with his own ongoing pleas. Parties involved in the mission to find a solution to overcome the political impasse agreed on one point: Democracy must be given a shot. The city government election, therefore, became a litmus test for the future of Bangladesh’s democracy.
For the Awami League, it was a chance to disprove the notion that Sheikh Hasina’s government wants to cling to power by any means. Hasina formed her present coalition government through an election in 2014 that was widely considered a farce. Since then, the BNP-led opposition bloc has been demanding fresh elections under a non-partisan, neutral caretaker government. The city elections only bolstered BNP’s claim that the Hasina government cannot be entrusted with arranging a transparent election.
Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the founding father of Bangladesh, fought for decades to rehabilitate democracy. So did her nemesis, BNP leader Khaleda Zia, who took the helm of the party after she lost her husband, then president, in a military coup. In the new democracy, both leaders ceded power to each other in alternate elections for better half of the last two decades.
Yet there is personal animosity between the two that goes beyond politics. The roots of the dislike are unclear. The two women detest holding direct talks with each other, something that most people in Bangladesh believe to be the only solution to the deadly political stalemate. Any possibility of such face-to-face dialogue appears gone after this latest election.
A cloud of uncertainty is yet again hovering over Bangladesh. Zia may go hardline again and call nationwide general strikes, which come at the cost of disrupting everyday life. During a general strike, activists regardless of their political affiliation follow the same method: terror tactics. Vandalizing public and private property is the most common approach. Worse, hurling crude petrol bombs at moving vehicles appears to be the new way for the opposition to express its democratic rights. It is brutal, and almost certain to persuade people to stay in their homes. The empty streets convince the political parties that their strikes and blockades are working.
When it comes to pressuring the government and demonstrating its own strength, the BNP prefers to remain old school. Although the party is suffering from manpower shortages, with a large number of its most influential figures behind bars, it still managed to carry on a campaign of strikes and blockades for weeks beginning in January this year.
Zia was locked in her office for three months as she sought to mount anti-government protests. The authorities cut her utilities, jammed her mobile phone network, and blocked the supply of food to her office in an attempt to force her to come out and call off the strikes. Still the BNP leader vowed to continue the campaign, as she considered it the only means to revive democracy in Bangladesh. The government was perfectly willing to accept the challenge. The impasse came at a heavy cost: As many as 120 people have been killed in political violence this year alone, making it the worst in the history of Bangladeshi politics.
In the meantime, the economy is languishing. The projected growth rate has been slashed by 0.5 percent. The readymade garment industry is among the sectors that have been badly affected. Customers are seeking alternative markets since production in Bangladeshi factories has become a slave to the political situation. An estimate by the World Bank suggests this year’s political turmoil has generated $2.2 billion in losses.
Further volatility in Bangladesh’s political arena will only traumatize the economy and claim the lives of more innocent people. Whether it is to maintain law and order or clamp down on opposition movements, the government will continue to use state force for political gain. Government influence in some key institutions like the judiciary and anti-corruption bureau are weakening those institutions. Politicization and nepotism is rampant among the bureaucracies. Law enforcement stands accused of extrajudicial killings and terror. In short, state institutions are becoming ineffective. The government is hardly concerned: Toothless institutions cannot challenge the government’s total power.
The public is already showing signs of frustration with political leadership that is preoccupied with political mud-slinging. Now Bangladeshis are losing trust in state institutions. Stuck in political limbo, they have no higher authority to which they can turn. This in turn encourages third parties to fish in troubled waters. Neither Hasina nor Khaleda wants this to happen. Unfortunately, if the recent city government elections are anything to go by, it is difficult to see a change for the better occurring anytime soon.
Arafat Kabir is a global and regional affairs commentator and analyst. A regular contributor to International Policy Digest, his articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and The National Interest. Currently, he is pursuing a Masters degree in global politics and culture at Illinois State University.