Daunting challenges

Print edition : February 01, 2019

Sheikh Hasina taking the oath as Prime Minister in Dhaka on January 7. Photo: MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN/REUTERS

The police stand guard next to left-wing activists protesting against the allegedly fraudulent victory of the ruling Awami League, in Dhaka on January 3. Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson. A file picture. Photo: ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS

Kamal Hossain, leader of Bangladesh’s opposition coalition. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

Sheikh Hasina returns to power with a landslide victory in the parliamentary election in Bangladesh, but the challenges before her are manifold.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has returned to power for a third consecutive term in an election that was seen as a crucial test for the Mohajote (Grand Alliance), which has ruled the country for 10 years since 2008.

In the election, held on December 30, 2018, the Awami League-led Mohajote secured a two-thirds majority in the 300-member Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament). The achievement is unprecedented in the country’s 47-year-old political history except for the election results of 1973 when the party was led by Sheikh Hasina’s father and the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The Awami League alone won 259 of the Mohajote’s 288 seats. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Jatiya Oikya Front, the opposition, won seven seats and independents three. The Jatiya Party led by General H.M. Ershad, an ally of the ruling party, won 20 seats.

The civil administration brought in the army to maintain order during the election. The campaign was intense. However, enthusiasm was low among BNP supporters, and they alleged threats and intimidation against them. Nearly 40 opposition and a few independent candidates withdrew from the race in the last minute alleging “vote rigging” and intimidation.

Opposition rejects results

The election results, which the opposition parties rejected almost instantly after they were declared, have frustrated political pundits, especially those who looked forward to a regime change through the ballot. The opposition parties had campaigned on the planks of authoritarian rule, lack of governance, human rights abuses and corruption in the past 10 years.

The notable absentee in the electoral race was Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister and chairperson of the BNP. Serving a jail term for corruption, she was barred from contesting the election. The Jatiya Oikya Front, the new opposition combine led by Dr Kamal Hossain, a former Foreign Minister, has demanded a fresh election. He alleged massive rigging and the absence of a level playing field. Chief Election Commissioner K.M. Nurul Huda has, however, rejected the demand.

None of the observers from at least 30 different countries who monitored the election has rejected the outcome. Sheikh Hasina told foreign observers that the people had returned her party to power after evaluating the “fruits of development” in her previous tenures.

The BNP’s secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who is among the few candidates of his party to have won, alleged that the government had used state machinery to organise a “well-planned” election. The anti-graft watchdog Transparency International has demanded a “judicial probe” into the reported violations during the election.

The voting was largely peaceful, although it was not fully free from violence. A total of 19 people were killed and at least 200 injured in the run-up to the elections or on polling day. The Election Commission put the overall turnout at 80 per cent.

Anti-government civil society organisations and their media backers described the election as “one-sided”, citing examples of the ruling party’s dominance in the campaign, threats and the alleged use of state machinery. They also questioned the general absence of polling agents from the opposition parties.

Clear indications

In a sharply polarised society where “pro”- and “anti”-liberation labelling is still rife, the December 30 election has given some clear indications. The most significant among them is the revival of the nation’s secular, pro-liberation spirit that inspired Bengalis to fight a decisive war against Pakistan 47 years ago. The mood got reinforced against the backdrop of the BNP’s growing proximity with the Jamaat-e-Islami and heirs of convicted war criminals. The Jamaat, which took up arms to defend Pakistan in 1971, is not a registered party, but it fielded candidates under the BNP’s election symbol. The veterans of the 1971 liberation war and the “pro”-liberation civil society found this a great challenge and involved themselves in the campaign in support of the Awami League. Notably, none of the Jamaat’s candidates, who contested 22 seats on the BNP’s symbol or as independents, won. Close relatives of convicted war criminals who fought the election on the BNP symbol also lost by huge margins. The deposits of 161 BNP-Jatiya Oikya Front candidates were forfeited.

In another notable aspect of this election, the India factor was totally absent in the campaign; it was not even raised by those who drag India into the debate for political gain. However, the involvement of Pakistan or its Inter-Services Intelligence was very much evident in the campaign.

The worst-ever performance by the BNP and the Jamaat combine in the nation’s parliamentary history has surprised many observers. Their surmise would be that the BNP, which ruled Bangladesh after 1979 and, with the support of the Jamaat, emerged as a powerful platform to challenge the nation’s secular polity, may be meeting the fate of the once-powerful Muslim League, which was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Democracy and development

There is a debate is on whether elections in Bangladesh, where terrorist and anti-independence elements have often regrouped and posed threats to the polity even decades after the country attained freedom, and where Islamist militancy is still a major concern, should be judged on the basis of traditional democratic norms. Another point that is raised is whether stability and development should precede democracy and development in a country like Bangladesh. The election results are an apparent pointer towards a mandate in favour of stability and development and also in support of the nation’s quest to defeat communal outfits.

It is believed that the Mohajote was set to win the elections for obvious reasons. The BNP’s organisational strengths have reduced considerably in the last five years, whereas under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership there has been a generational reawakening. Moreover, the governments under her have made great strides in economic development, poverty reduction, food security, combating of militancy, digitalisation and universal primary education, among others. Besides, her governments have achieved notable growth in vital social indicators. From being a least developed country, under her watch Bangladesh has graduated into the group of developing countries and has become an emerging regional entity. She is also credited with conducting, in the face of many odds, the landmark trials of the killers of Mujibur Rahman and the war criminals of the 1971 liberation war.

Observers from India, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) praised the election as inclusive. World leaders, including those from neighbouring countries, congratulated Sheikh Hasina on her landslide victory. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first leader to make a phone call to Sheikh Hasina, pledging to maintain the ties between the two neighbours. Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), too, congratulated Hasina on this victory. Among leaders who acclaimed her victory were Chief Ministers Mamata Banerjee and Biplab Kumar Deb of West Bengal and Tripura respectively.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud were among the world leaders who felicitated Sheikh Hasina. The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom also welcomed the election results and assured their support for the next government. However, most of these countries have asked Bangladesh to investigate the reports of poll irregularities.

Election 2018 has bestowed on Sheikh Hasina a bigger responsibility and placed bigger challenges before her. She led the country from 1996 to 2001 and later from 2008 to 2018. With the opposition parties and their coalition demanding a fresh election and their civil society backers supporting the claims, it is likely that a deeper division will develop in national politics.

Less trenchant critics and well-wishers want the new government to concentrate more on good governance, the rule of law and improvement of human rights conditions along with the laudable development that Bangladesh has witnessed in the last 10 years. Many who believe that Sheikh Hasina had failed to rein in corrupt and vested interest groups, especially in the banking sector, want the new government to address their concerns.

There was great euphoria when 39 parties joined the electoral fray this time; all the major opposition parties had boycotted the 2014 election. But it has worn off, and if the opposition’s threat, if any, is not contained, the government may find it difficult to have a smooth course.

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