By Yaqoob Khan Bangash
January 13, 2014
On January 5, 2014, Bangladesh held its general elections and on January 12, a beaming Sheikh Hasina Wajid took oath for the third time as prime minister. However, behind the smiles was the fact that this election was more or less a sham. A number of opposition parties, including Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP), boycotted the elections, which meant that 153 of the 300 seats — more than half in the Bangladeshi parliament — were won uncontested by the ruling party and its allies. Even in the capital, Dhaka, only nine out of 20 seats were contested. As such, the thumping majority won by Sheikh Hasina has no credibility.
The primary bone of contention, leading to the opposition boycotting the elections, was the 2011 amendment to the Constitution which, among other things, abolished the caretaker government set-up mandated before every general election. The opposition claimed that Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League (AL), will use its incumbent status to win the elections, whereas the AL termed the caretaker government unnecessary. Interestingly, both times the AL has come to power; it had been after a caretaker government had held free and fair elections.
Democratic transitions are never easy and are, at times, more crucial for the country than the completion of term for the incumbent government. It is in the ‘handing over’ of power that the real strength of democracy — and indeed the country — can be measured. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh has had a chequered past relationship with democracy. The importance and role of religious parties (especially after the recent spate of violence) can also not be underestimated. Therefore, a non-partisan caretaker set-up was introduced in the mid-1990s which had since then carried out a fairly successful transition every time (including when the military interfered a few years ago). So why scrap it now? While I am not privy to all quarters, it is clear that the AL was worried that it might lose the general election and therefore wanted to continue governing till the last moment so that it could influence the elections. Arguing that it had the democratic mandate to rule till the last date and had more legitimacy than the unelected caretaker government, the AL wanted to change its slated bad performance at the polls. However, this step has brought Bangladesh to a dangerous crossroads once again.
Bangladesh, in 2014, is going to be a very unstable country. With a government which does not have much legitimacy, a war crimes tribunal which has elicited critical international comment and an existential and real battle between the forces of secularism and religion, 2014 might be the year of the fight for Bangladesh’s soul. More so as compared with Pakistan where there are no secular parties, Bangladesh has a clearly pro-secular AL and a pro-religion BNP and so there is, in effect, a clear ideological choice for the people. Carrying on like this will not only weaken the AL, but also weaken the cause of a secular Bangladesh where people from all communities might live in peace and with equal rights — a provision which was only partially restored in the Bangladesh Constitution in 2011.
What also remains to be seen is the attitude of the military. While it might not want to directly interfere as in 2007, continued unrest (there have already been over 90 days of strikes) and killings (over 20 were killed on Election Day alone) and its adverse effect on the economy and the simple administration of the country, might force its hand.
Pakistan and Bangladesh have developed in different ways since they separated, but Pakistan’s successful experience with the 2013 caretaker government, which was accepted by all sides, should show our Bengali brethren that scrapping the provision was a bad idea. Sheikh Hasina should not look for just the short-term political gain this sham election victory can bring, but save the soul of the country her father gave his life for.
Yaqoob Khan Bangash is the Chairperson of the Department of History, Forman Christian College