By Zafar Sobhan
August 26, 2013
Who would have thought that the war crimes trials, mired in controversy and facing serious questions of credibility, would have turned into such a big winner for the ruling Awami League (AL)?
And how ironic that what was widely perceived as persuasive evidence of government perfidy (the life sentence for Abdul Quader Molla) should be the catalyst for completely turning around the ruling party's political fortunes.
Right now, the country hunkers down in fear in the wake of Thursday's death sentence for senior Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee. The Jamaat have struck all over the country in response, including targeting religious minorities and burning temples, and engaged in pitched battles with the police that have left up to as many as 44 dead at last count.
Yet, at the same time, this looks very much like the death throes of a once-formidable force. They will do much damage before they are subdued for good, but the Jamaat will never again enjoy the outsize influence the party once held over Bangladeshi politics and society, far in excess of their numbers, as they have done in the past. Their hold over the country is broken for good.
The Shahbagh movement has done it for them. It has shown the levels of antipathy that exist against the party and those opposed to the Jamaat have been emboldened by the experience of coming together in solidarity, and will never again allow a small minority to maintain a stranglehold over the nation's body politic. They won't go down without a fight, but the Jamaat are finished as a serious force in Bangladeshi politics.
It is almost impossible to overstate how well the ruling AL has played its hand since the Shahbagh movement started. Not one month ago, the government was in serious trouble. While it had done a creditable job economically, its record in office had picked up its fair share of black marks, and its popularity was low. Even though the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wasn't in much good shape itself, the upcoming elections spelled trouble.
Today, no one cares about any of these other issues and the entire political calculus has boiled down to a single issue. Nor can there be any doubt that the AL is in total control of the single issue that matters: the war crimes trials.
People might argue that there is no systematic polling evidence proving that the war crimes trials are a key concern of voters at large, but that misses the point. The point is that even if the trials had not been a voting issue, after the last month, they are now.
And with seven more verdicts plus the appeals and finally the executions ahead of us, it is easy to see how the government can continue to keep the fires stoked and continue to keep its base and allies fired up and energized. The government has the momentum and it is hard to see how they can possibly lose it to the BNP in the next year.
There is still a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty in the air. The Jamaat has called for 48 hours of Hartal, starting today, and seem to be preparing for yet another pitched street battle. The Economist called Thursday "The worst single day of political violence in the history of modern Bangladesh" and the Wall Street Journal reports it as "The deadliest riots since independence."
But, for all that, paradoxically, the government has succeeded in taking almost full control over the movement, and, for now at least, appears to be very much in control of the situation. If they are smart they can ride this all the way to another five years in office.
It's not over yet. There are seven verdicts remaining, plus the appeals process, plus the actual executions to come. The Jamaat will not go quietly. But with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to oppose them, and with the national mood swinging against them and behind the government, their hold over the country could be broken for good.
Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.