Bangladesh: A long road ahead

To end the deadlock, the two main parties should give all groups a voice in the political process.

The Awami League should bring back the caretaker government to oversee the elections [Reuters]

Bangladesh’s political crisis is not going away anytime soon. On January 5, the country went to the polls in an election that was largely one-sided. Since 1996, Bangladesh has held elections under a neutral caretaker government. However, the ruling Awami League (AL) has now scrapped a constitutional provision for neutral electoral oversight, and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the Tenth Parliamentary Elections without this provision.

One may certainly question the legitimacy of these elections: They were far from representative. The AL was set to win by default, as BNP had not registered for the election by the end of the registration period. AL candidates won 153 of the 300 parliamentary seats without any contestation. In the capital, Dhaka, citizens only voted in nine out of the 20 constituencies.

Nor is an election acceptable, if citizens do not vote. Fewer than 40 percent of the population turned up at the polls according to the government; others report the number as far less. Some voters stayed away from voting booths for fear of violence. CNN reports one polling officer as saying, “Presence of voters today is lower than any other time of voting.”

Members of the international community have also questioned the validity of these elections. Although the United Nations did not formally declare the need for a re-election, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both parties to exercise restraint and urgently address the people’s expectations for an inclusive political process. Australia, Europe, and the United States called for fresh elections to be held.

Political violence a norm

Bangladesh is likely to descend into further violence without new elections. The country is certainly no stranger to political instability. Its violent birth in 1971 was followed by numerous coups and violent strikes as authoritarian governments toppled each other and later gave way to parliamentary democracy in 1991. Electoral violence is not a new phenomenon either. However, the January election is a huge step back after the successful and internationally acclaimed elections of 2008.

The country cannot move forward without a real opposition. AL leader Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as prime minister with the AL-allied Jatiya Party (JP) as the leading opposition in the parliament. The excluded BNP opposition, however, is not likely to stand down.

Insecurity follows disputed Bangladesh vote

BNP demonstrations and strikes have paralysed Bangladesh since last year, and the party has continued its protests after the election. However, BNP is now operating within significant constraints. Opposition leader Khaleda Zia has just been released after two weeks of house arrest. Many opposition members are in hiding after the arrest of dozens of party members and police raids on their homes. However, the BNP movement shows no signs of abating. A key BNP leader has recently called the new AL government immoral, illegal, and autocratic and the party is now calling for a new election.

The BNP may, however, have to detach from its former coalition partner, the country’s main Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). BNP has stood by its ally as JI leaders were tried by a war crimes tribunal for mass atrocities committed against the Bangladeshi population during the 1971 liberation war. A High Court decision has since led the Election Commission to cancel Jamaat’s registration, and on-going JI-instigated violence has even prompted one European diplomat to call the JI a terrorist organisation.  

At the same time, Sheikh Hasina plans to keep the AL in power. She shrugged off all doubts regarding the legitimacy of her victory at a press conference. The New York Times reported that when a journalist asked her whether she believed that the election would bring further instability, she said, “What do you want, that I should start crying, ‘Oh, crisis, we have a crisis!’ Do you want that?” Bangladesh’s newly sworn prime minister appears oblivious to the ongoing violence. However, according to the Times a close aid to the prime minister said that he was certain that new elections would occur, although a new opposition coalition was also expected to fill the power vacuum and attract breakaway factions from the BNP.

Decades of strife 

The irreconcilable differences between the AL and the BNP signal the failure of democratic institutions in Bangladesh. Bangladesh was not simply stuck in an impasse as the parties traded power for two decades. Rather, the political system has gradually disintegrated as institutions have failed to regulate politics and society.  

Bangladesh’s gradual institutional weakening was overshadowed by the country’s remarkable success in economic and human development. And this deadlock may now cost the country its economic and political future; major donors are considering the withdrawal of aid unless the crisis abates. Donor pull-out can have devastating consequences for the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable groups, as the country’s development strategy relies heavily on foreign aid.

The country remains far from the democratic ideal that its constitution enshrines – its multiparty governments can, at best, be labelled electoral authoritarian regimes.

The newly sworn Awami League government may lack legitimacy with the people, but it must be the one to pull Bangladesh out of this mess. The government needs to pursue political stability as its foremost goal. Failing to do so would be disastrous for the country’s growing, but now stalled economy, especially for the informal labour and agrarian workers. A crackdown on the opposition would only worsen the AL’s already declining credibility with the people. Under these circumstances, a credible and representative new election is the only viable option.

The AL should also consider bringing back the caretaker government. A non-elected body has its disadvantages: In 2006, an unelected caretaker government stayed in power for over two years as the country prepared for an election. However, this is the third time in Bangladesh’s history that the opposition’s demand for neutral electoral oversight has brought politics to a standstill. The caretaker government has more credibility with the people than one would expect of an unelected body. Bangladesh experienced its biggest surge in voter turnout during the two elections where a caretaker government supervised the polls after a prolonged period of political unrest (1996, 2008). Electoral turnout rose from 55.5 percent in 1991, to 75.6 percent in 1996; and from 75 percent in 2001, to 85.3 percent in 2008.

New way forward

If the caretaker government is reinstated, its selection mechanism must be reformed. In order to be legitimate, the caretaker government must be selected by representatives of all political groups and through an inclusive process. The government does not have to start from scratch on such an effort. It can draw on the experience and infrastructure of various NGOs and civil society groups that have sufficient experience in creating dialogue across groups.

The government must also review its institutional practices. The current crisis can be traced back to an institutional decay that has silently crept up on politics and society. The parliament needs to be revived; the opposition should refrain from calling hartals and walking out of parliament, and instead, engage in responsible and meaningful dialogue. It is important for all parties to respect existing rules instead of constantly changing them to suit their needs. However, these rules must be created through inclusive processes and not just serve the party in power.

Bangladesh has a long and difficult path ahead. A long-term solution requires more than a new poll. Bangladesh has held elections since its independence in 1971, but ruling parties have monopolised all governing institutions. The country remains far from the democratic ideal that its constitution enshrines – its multiparty governments can, at best, be labelled electoral authoritarian regimes. However, only a genuinely representative political system can bring stability to Bangladesh should the two parties continue to coexist.

Future governments must strengthen governing institutions and give all groups a voice in politics. If not, the two parties may find themselves in another deadlock in five years.

Nayma Qayum is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Follow her on Twitter: @naymaqayum