Bangladeshis are currently basking in the rays of a finally-held election, with many breathing a sigh of relief at the defeat of the centre-right four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its Islamist crony, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The alliance was overpowered by the Awami League, the traditional party of the centre-left. While the Awami League-led Grand Alliance took 262 seats, the BNP-led coalition suffered its worst performance ever with a mere 32 seats. The Jamaat-e-Islami, meanwhile, won no more than two seats. Even more importantly, the Jamaat has lost the clout it enjoyed as the BNP’s ruling partner during the last elected administration, and all of its senior leaders were routed. Accusations of war crimes during the Bangladesh War of Liberation of 1971 became an election issue for many, and the Awami League has now promised to hold trials, even seeking United Nations help to do so.
Voter turnout at the elections was significant, as high as 80 percent or more in places. While such a turnout is unusual for Bangladesh, no election observer, either national or local, has yet cited instances of rigging. Both the BNP and Jamaat did cry foul immediately after the polls closed, but even this was done so mildly that it caused few ripples. The European Union election observer summed it up best when he said that the high turnout was “unusual”, but that the verdict reflected the will of the people.
Not only was this election the most ‘positive’ since 1973, when Bangladesh’s first polls were held; it has also seen the most positive post-election scenarios. In general, Bangladeshi elections are followed by violence, acrimonious accusations of rigging and renewal of hostility. This time around, however, the losing alliance made the required post-election noises and then quickly made a public acceptance of the results, agreeing also to join the Parliament, which was hardly a given. It was as if something was going right, at last with Bangladeshi politics.
Elections in Bangladesh are held under a non-partisan ‘caretaker’ government system, an administration that comes in for a few months in order to supervise an election and thereafter depart. In 2006, this arrangement ran into trouble. At that time, the BNP was accused of manipulating the situation and, after a bizarre twist of events, the head of state, President Iajuddin Ahmed, a retired university don and BNP supporter, ended up as the head of the government as well.
Meanwhile, street protests led to extreme anarchy and, on 11 January 2007, a military-backed civilian government stepped in, headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former civil servant and World Bank economist. The announced three months of emergency rule eventually stretched to two years. The government of military-backed civil-society members known as ‘advisors’ launched a high-profile scheme of arresting and trying politicians and officials on corruption charges, and the list included the leaders of both the Awami League and the BNP leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, respectively. But even from inside, these two powerful women were able to mount a political challenge that forced the caretaker government to back down and negotiate with them.
With pressures mounting on all parties to hold elections, the three major players – the Awami League, the BNP and the army brass – agreed to do so. Not only did the politicians want back in, but the caretaker clearly had had enough. The pressure was certainly more on the BNP, as both of Khaleda’s sons were by this point in jail, and mounting evidence of stashed millions had reduced the party’s negotiating capacity. Both sons have since been allowed to leave Bangladesh on ‘medical grounds’, but the cases remain.
A short honeymoon?
The triumphant Awami League has offered the post of deputy speaker to the opposition, and the BNP has also accepted and promised to play the role of a ‘positive opposition’. But even if Bangladeshi politics seem to have reverted to the former status quo, the old guards have in fact been left out. Fresh faces, especially those of women, have appeared in the cabinet, reflecting perhaps a bow in the direction of new voters – largely the young and women voters – who held the key to the Awami League landslide. These voters want an end to the country’s traditional rivalry-based politics, which has time and again been proven to generate little more than patronage and crime. The revamped and independent Election Commission kept most convicted and corrupt politicians out of the running, and the parties were restrained from nominating such figures as well. Of course, there are still many holes in the cheese, so to speak, but things are looking better.
Observers state that, while the post-election stability and evident single-mindedness of the Hasina government is to be welcomed, tomorrow may bring different tidings. Violence on campuses, fights between and within parties, attacks on public buildings, extortion and the like – all potential conflagrations that are very much still there, simmering beneath the surface, some of which came out during the subsequent local elections, held in late-January. After the elections, it took almost an entire week before action was taken to open the universities, and for party cadres to be sternly told that violence would not be tolerated. This was a timely reminder that a good election does not automatically bring good governance, at least not immediately. Both parties are now considering internal reforms; but where individual charisma is stronger than party power, this will not be easy.
The nationwide sub-district (Upazilla) polls saw another Awami League landslide, but in what has also been described by all as a ‘marred’ election. At least two Awami League MPs have been charged with interference – showing again how legal political habits will take time to be born.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the new government seems to be trying. It has already reduced the price of fertiliser, rice and other goods by introducing significant subsidies. It also enjoys the confidence of the international community, which feels that making Bangladesh work is in everyone’s interest, granted that the international support for stability is increasingly predicted on the need to control ‘terrorism’. Incidentally, this was why the big powers supported the military takeover of 2007 in the first place.
Curiously, the military too has a stake in political stability, because the soldiers do not want civil politicians to mess with their pensions, as upgraded through UN peacekeeping duties. It is no secret that the military was pushing for an Awami League win, because the BNP remains so mired in corruption that its victory could mean a return to the situation prior to the takeover. In so doing, this time around the military broke the tradition of supporting the cantonment-spawned BNP. In this way, the current situation can be seen as something of an agreement between the Awami League, BNP and army to have a spell of stable government – and they all need each other for that, at least for now.