Warning vote

Print edition : August 09, 2013

A BNP rally in Dhaka on June 12 demanding elections under a caretaker government. Photo: AFP

Protesters at Shahbagh Square, Dhaka, in February against the killing of their blogger-leader. Photo: ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS

A protest by the Islamists in Dhaka during a nationwide strike on February 24 against the war crimes trials. Photo: A.M. Ahad/A.P.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her Awami League-led alliance is against elections under a caretaker government. Photo: Mark Lennihan/A.P.

Begum Khaleda Zia, BNP chief. Her party supported by the Islamists wants to foil the war crimes trials. Photo: V.V.Krishnan

The ruling Awami League would do well to analyse the drubbing it received in the recent corporation elections and take corrective steps if it wants to best the Islamists in the next general election.

BANGLADESH is only five months away from a general election if the schedule in the Constitution is adhered to. However, the conduct of the election remains uncertain because of the political stand-off between the ruling and opposition alliances over the need for a neutral interim government during the election. While the opposition wants such a government, the ruling alliance rejects the proposition.

The election is crucial for both alliances. For the ruling alliance, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, winning the election is crucial to, among other things, complete the war crimes trials relating to the nation’s liberation war 42 years ago. While some Islamist cohorts of the Pakistan Army have already been convicted for crimes against humanity, some others, mostly belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami, face charges of genocide, rape, arson and kidnapping in the two tribunals.

The trial is viewed as a moral and historical obligation to the nation: in the 1971 war three million people lost their lives and over two million women were raped. The Sheikh Hasina government also wants to return to power to implement its policies to consolidate the secular “pro-liberation” spirit and restore regional cooperation in order to boost amity and cooperation.

For the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat-e-Islami, the fundamentalist party that is desperate to dominate the politics of Bangladesh, whose formation it had violently opposed, the election is perhaps more important. The rightist-fundamentalist combine supported by Islamist groups wants to foil the war crimes trial, understandably for political reasons, and undo the “anti-Islamic” and “anti-Bangladesh” measures of the Sheikh Hasina government.

If the results of the June-July elections to the five city corporations of Gazipur near Dhaka, Rajshahi in the north, Barisal in the south, Sylhet in the north-east and Khulna in the west are any indication, the Awami League-led ruling alliance has reasons to worry. In all the corporations, BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami-backed candidates, supported actively by Hefazat-e-Islam, the madrassa-based new radical organisation, defeated the ruling party-backed incumbent mayors by big margins. The “pro-liberation” alliance has seen a sharp fall in its popularity among the urban populace, a segment that is known to shape the national mood.

The corporation elections showed once again that local elections are no longer local in Bangladesh; the results are seen as an indicator of the government’s performance during the past four and a half years and the people’s perception about their rulers. Analysts believe that the argument of “anti-incumbency” advanced by the losers in these elections will not help salvage the situation for the ruling alliance in the national-level test, especially when it is so close.

The Awami League also lost in recent elections in smaller municipalities across the country, which is surprising for a party that dominated the local bodies even when it was not in power at the Centre. If this trend continues, the “pro-liberation” political forces will have to be ready to face rejection in the general election, say the analysts.

If the corporation elections have come as a morale booster for the opposition, specially the Islamists, political analysts say the situation, where the Islamist partners of Khaleda Zia aspire to dominate the nation’s politics, does not augur well for the country’s future.

The defeat in Gazipur, the largest city corporation in the country, following those in four other major city corporations, is seen to reflect a national trend in urban voter behaviour that the ruling party can ignore at its own peril. Besides other factors, internal feuding and complacency have cost the ruling alliance dear.

All this suggests that the Awami League is in a deep crisis that calls for urgent introspection. The peaceful holding of free and fair civic elections with the wholehearted participation of voters goes to the credit of the Sheikh Hasina government and the Election Commission. During Khaleda Zia’s tenures most elections were marked by violence and malpractice.

However, the worry for the ruling alliance is that the voters who gave them a more-than-two-thirds majority in the December 2008 parliamentary elections did not endorse them after four and a half years. It is generally believed that the government has done a tremendous amount of development work and restored the “pro-liberation” spirit, which the greater population wanted, yet the voters did not endorse it.

Sticky issues

Besides the chronic internal feuding, analysts listed some of the issues they believed worked against the government in the corporation elections and predicted that unless these were sorted out, the ruling alliance would be in trouble in the general election. Among the issues are the alleged corruption in the Padma Bridge project as alleged by the World Bank; the Hallmark scams, through which a few politically connected individuals defrauded banks and public financial institutions of thousands of crores of takas; the allegations of corrupt practices and misuse of power; the hike in the prices of essentials; the unsatisfactory law and order situation and the widely reported “misdeeds” of ruling party-affiliated front organisations.

The ruling party is also seen as having messed up its electoral fortunes by its insensitive handling of the share market scam. The investors who lost included a good number of first-time voters, who were instrumental in bringing the party to power in 2008. Most of them became victims of the scam, in which a few people allegedly siphoned off thousands of crores of takas. And so far no one has been arrested, let alone punished. The number of victims and their families, who have every reason to be upset with the ruling party, runs into several million.

To suggest that the electoral debacle of the ruling party can be attributed only to the vigorous opposition propaganda, particularly the use of religion, is to give little credit to the acuity of the voters. Most independent observers agree that the ruling party’s failure was because of its inability to see the reality and to counter the propaganda.

“Thousands of people” were alleged to have been killed when the law enforcers dispersed tens of thousands of Hefazat-e-Islam supporters in Dhaka on the night of May 5-6. Therefore, voters were implored to vote for opposition candidates “to save Islam”.

Although this was mere Islamist propaganda and a flagrant violation of the election code of conduct, many analysts say the allegation might have worked in terms of the political opposition shaping the mind of the innocent and religious-minded voter. The Awami League failed to come up with an effective strategy to counter the sensitive allegation.

At the height of the Hefazat mayhem in Dhaka, the government had no option but to assert its authority, which the law-enforcing authorities did with minimal use of force. This success in flushing the radicals out had disappointed the propagandists, who then reportedly opened a new front with worse propaganda.

Some political observers believe that although the government won the first round by dispersing the threat that the Hefazat posed, the problem remained. The action by the law-enforcing agencies displeased a good number of religious people. Besides, Hefazat supporters did not just vote but voted with a vengeance against the ruling party.

Religion was always used, albeit unsuccessfully, in the major political events in the country. Even during the historic Bengali language movement of 1952, the propaganda was spread that the Bengali language campaigners had come “from across the border”. Throughout the Bengali nationalist movement in the 1960s, religion was used, again unsuccessfully, to defuse the secular national uprising. During the 1971 war of liberation, too, the Islamist card was used widely, but it did not work. When the war crimes trials began, the Islamists played the same card again, and succeeded, albeit partially.

Shahbagh effect

A new term, “atheist”, was brought into the political discourse to counter the unique youth-awakening of Shahbagh, which marked the revival of national pride and patriotism. The outcome was the crystallisation of Hefazat’s 13-point demand—all of which go against the very ethos of the nation’s independence and the Constitution —to “punish the ‘atheist’ Shahbagh bloggers for making ‘derogatory comments’ about the Prophet Muhammad”. The madrassa-based fundamentalists were organised to come out in the tens of thousands to vent their anger, although most of them did not understand what a “blog” was and who “bloggers” were.

The Shahbagh movement, as it is popularly known, had nothing to do with religion; it was a symbolic outburst of the young generation to see those people who committed crimes against humanity in the liberation war punished. Yet, the Islamists constantly maligned the movement which touched the hearts and souls of Bengalis who believed in the history and spirit of their national independence.

The uncertainty over the next parliamentary election has become acute because of the sharply opposite stands of the Awami League and the BNP. The government insists that the election must be held the way it is held in other parliamentary democracies, while the BNP is firm that there must be a non-party caretaker government to conduct it. The caretaker provision was removed from the Constitution following a High Court verdict that declared such an interim authority undemocratic and unconstitutional. A powerful segment of civil society as well as anti-government politicians are supportive of having a caretaker set-up. If the issue remains unresolved, the resultant crisis may push the country towards civil strife, the consequences of which, many analysts fear, can be dangerous.

The Sheikh Hasina government opened a new front with its criticism of the Nobel laureate Dr Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, for his “political role” and “foreign lobbying”. It is believed that through Yunus’ removal from the Grameen Bank two years ago on the charge of flouting banking rules, and the subsequent tug of war with the World Bank, the government has alienated powerful Western lobbies who favour the microcredit pioneer.

Many political parties, including the BNP, and a significant section of civil society have sided with Yunus and warned the government of “consequences” if it did anything to break up the Grameen Bank. The bank has 8.5 million stakeholders, who also declared that if need be they would bring the government down.

Most analysts have concluded that the corporation elections were a wake-up call for Sheikh Hasina and suggested that the debacle be assessed objectively so as to avoid defeat in the general election.

There is a saying in Bangladesh that when the Awami League wins an election, it is the party that wins, but when it loses, all those who upheld the ideals of the liberation war and everything progressive that they symbolise lose. Despite the shortcomings and criticisms, many of them justified, the Awami League is still the largest political force of “pro-liberation” politics, which symbolises the secular national spirit. It is up to the party to heed the “warning shot” from the voters and do a course-correction to regain the people’s trust.

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