By Haroon Habib
February 7, 2014
The ruling Awami League wins an election marred by boycott and violence. But the only solution to a looming political crisis is another round of elections with full political participation sooner rather than later.
AMID unprecedented violence, Bangladesh finally held its much-debated 10th parliamentary elections on January 5, allowing the ruling Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, to form the new government. However, the major opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which boycotted the elections and tried to resist the electoral process, continues to question the legitimacy of the mandate.
The Bangladesh Election Commission has declared the Awami League winner in 139 out of the 147 seats to which elections were held. Having won 127 seats uncontested, the ruling party has 231 of the 300 seats, a clear three-fourths majority in parliament. The Jatiya Party, which won 33 seats, is likely to be the main opposition. The Workers’ Party won six seats, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) five and the Tarikat Federation one. The 13 independent candidates who won are mostly rebels from the ruling party who defeated its official candidates.
In one of the most violent elections Bangladesh has ever had, opposition activists torched hundreds of polling centres, destroyed ballot papers and boxes, killed or injured polling officials and attacked voters. Polling was cancelled at 540 centres out of 18,000, that is 3 per cent of the centres.
In her post-election press conference, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked Khaleda Zia, the leader of the rightist-Islamist opposition alliance, to give up terrorism in the name of democratic movement and discard the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had violently opposed the country’s independence from Pakistan. She said she was ready to go in for a mid-term election that would be fully participatory if the opposition agreed to this.
Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad said the holding of the election against all odds was in itself a big achievement. According to Election Commission figures, around 41.5 million people, or 40 per cent of the electorate, cast their votes. Violence, however, had its impact on the turnout. With their victory assured, even Awami League supporters, except die-hard ones, stayed away from the polling booths.
The turnout was low in the northern and western strongholds of the BNP and the Jamaat, but in many areas, including the Greater Chittagong, Dhaka and Barisal regions, it was remarkably high, according to the Election Commission.
In the highly controversial elections of February 15, 1996, under the Khaleda Zia government, which Awami League, in the opposition then, boycotted, the turnout was only about 20 per cent. However, the question of the legality of that parliament never arose. It was this parliament that passed the 13th Constitution amendment Bill incorporating the “non-party caretaker system”. The BNP demanded that the 2013 parliamentary elections be held under a non-party caretaker government, a system the outgoing parliament reversed. Though the new parliament may be controversial in the eyes of the parties that did not join the election or failed to stop it, observers say in no way can it be termed “illegitimate”. However, its political legitimacy may be questioned because it was not fully participatory.
While the Awami League expressed satisfaction with the election, the BNP and the Jamaat called it “a farce”. However, a South Asian group of electoral management bodies observed that the turnout was “good” in some polling booths while in some others it was “not so high”. Some local observers said the voter turnout was “very low” as many candidates had not tried to encourage voters to exercise their franchise and because of massive violence.
In Bangladesh, holding of the election before January 24 this year had become a constitutional necessity. But the opposition not only boycotted it but also resorted to extreme violence to resist the democratic exercise. As many as 100 people died in election-related violence across the country while more than 500 people died in violent protests organised by the BNP and the Jamaat in 2013 in a bid to dislodge the government.
Bangladesh has seen many violent political upheavals in the past 34 years. But the violence unleashed by the BNP and the Jamaat this time has been the worst. In the most anarchist manner, 531 educational institutions, where polling centres were housed, were either burnt or damaged. These include primary schools, high schools, colleges and madrassas.
The elections also served as a grim reminder to the religious minority of the brutal treatment its members received 43 years ago from marauding Pakistani forces and their local cohorts. Homes and property of Hindus were attacked on the assumption that they had voted for the ruling party or ignored the directive to boycott the elections. Hundreds of houses were burnt or damaged, and a large number of Hindus fled their homes. The attacks were carried out systematically by the activists of the BNP and the Jamaat.
The Jamaat, as also the BNP, was opposed to the landmark war crimes trials conducted to bring to justice the perpetrators of mass murder and rape in the 1971 war of liberation. The judicial process, which a sovereign state cannot relinquish, also alarmed Pakistan, whose National Assembly recently endorsed a resolution condemning the execution of Jamaat leader Quader Mollah, who had been convicted by Bangladesh’s apex court for war crimes in 1971.
The political crisis deepened when the BNP’s demand for a caretaker government to oversee the election was integrated with the Jamaat’s demand to relinquish the war crimes trials. When Khaleda Zia virtually took the leadership of both BNP and the Jamaat, it took the nation by surprise as to why the former Prime Minister had to risk whatever liberal image her party had. Her willing leadership of the entire “anti-liberation forces”, or the “neo-Pakistanis” as they are called, has alarmed a large segment of the population, among them even critics of the Awami League.
The January 5 election was thus seen also as an exercise to check the possible rebirth of religious terrorism and as a deterrent to the growth of “neo-Pakistani extremists” on Bangladeshi soil. The Islamists, through violent means, were apparently trying to capitalise on the election to make a comeback.
There was no guarantee that the Khaleda Zia-led alliance would have joined the election even if it was rescheduled. The ruling party tried to negotiate with the opposition to find common ground which was acceptable to all parties. Sheikh Hasina herself invited Khaleda Zia for discussion, but the latter refused.
The international community led by the United States also tried in vain to mediate between the two leaders to bring them to the negotiating table. Diplomatic efforts were also on by U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco.
The BNP-Jamaat alliance not only refused to participate in the election without a “non-party caretaker government” but vowed to foil it by any means. It declared a countrywide Hartal and blockade, which continued for months. The Jamaat and its militant students’ wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, resorted to wanton destruction and killing.
The Jamaat-Shibir cadre, reportedly in collaboration with the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical groups, struck terror all over. They targeted buses, trucks, cars, rickshaws, auto rickshaws and cargo vehicles using crude bombs, gunpowder, gasoline, petroleum, stones, bricks, batons and other weapons. All modes of public transport, government offices, businesses and industries were attacked indiscriminately. The armed cadre also cut more than 25,000 large trees, set fire to over 10,000 vehicles, and attacked dozens of minority religious institutions. The violence affected the nation’s economy.
Bangladesh has long been divided into two radically opposite political and ideological camps, “pro-liberation” and “anti-liberation” or “neo-Pakistanis”. Though out of power for more than seven years, the BNP and the Jamaat in the meanwhile had won many local elections, including major city corporations, and a few parliamentary byelections.
But Khaleda Zia was hell-bent on reviving the non-party caretaker system to hold the election and on forcing the government to amend the Constitution. The outgoing Parliament had revoked the system following a landmark verdict of the Bangladesh Supreme Court which declared the non-party caretaker system undemocratic and unconstitutional. Having scrapped the caretaker provision through a constitutional amendment, it was impossible for Sheikh Hasina to bring back something that would demoralise her party before a crucial election.
In the midst of the political stand-off, Sheikh Hasina offered an olive branch to the opposition to encourage her opponents to join the election—she offered them Cabinet berths in an “all party government” that would supervise the election. The opposition rejected the offer. Therefore, the government says, it had no other alternative but to go in for the election.
The U.S.-backed international community sided with the anti-election grouping, lending vital support to the Jamaat and the BNP. The E.U. and the U.S. have repeatedly requested everyone to not resort to violence, but without any specifics.
Terming the continuing violence surrounding the elections “unacceptable”, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the political parties to resume “meaningful dialogue” for an inclusive political process. Instead of toeing the U.S. line in debunking the elections as “not at all credible”, the U.N. chose to lambast the unprecedented violence that left at least 22 people dead on the day of polling. Ban Ki-moon also called upon all parties to exercise restraint and ensure an environment conducive to protecting the people’s right of assembly and expression.
Since 1996, when Khaleda Zia was forced to step down barely a few months after a “farcical” election earlier that year, caretaker governments have conducted elections in Bangladesh. (Two general elections were held in Bangladesh in 1996, the first on February 15, which the BNP won following an Awami League boycott. After that parliament was dissolved, another election was held on June 12, in which the Awami League won.)
The U.S. found nothing wrong with the 1996 February elections and, in fact, sent 48 observers to monitor it. But it found this round of elections “not credible enough” to send observers to monitor them. The E.U. and the Commonwealth too did not send observers.
India, which shares a long border with Bangladesh, differed with the U.S. on the understanding of Bangladesh’s problems. It said that the elections were a “constitutional requirement” which shall be left to the people of Bangladesh and that the democratic processes “must be allowed to take their own course”.
The United Kingdom, France and Germany, too, asked the new government and all political parties to engage in a dialogue to find a path forward to holding fresh national elections. They urged the political leadership to do everything to halt the violence and intimidation, especially against the minorities.
Over the years, the Jamaat-e-Islami has organised itself as a cadre force that is inimical to the interests of the Bangladesh state, in line with its philosophy of 1971. It cannot contest elections as it has been deregistered and most of its key leaders are either convicted or being tried in the war crimes tribunals.
The Islamist party has no future unless it ousts the Awami League from power by all means and gets the war crimes trials foiled. The BNP, which emerged from the cantonment, has become fully dependent on the Jamaat, whose support base will come to roughly 4 per cent of the national votes.
There is no indication that the coalition of the BNP and the Jamaat will cease its violent campaign. With powerful supporters such as the U.S. and also Pakistan, it will continue its violence against what it calls an “illegal” government.
Bangladesh will surely get a legitimate parliament and a legal government, but it will possibly have no respite from violence and political turmoil. The only way to avoid instability is a meaningful dialogue among the stakeholders for an inclusive election sooner rather than later.