Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her leftist Awami League won the elections in Bangladesh by a landslide. The polls took place amid tight security with 650,000 security personnel deployed. The election commission declared on Tuesday that the Awami League had won 229 seats out of 295. Hasina’s alliance of 14 had won 263 seats in total. Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance won only 31 seats.
The army-backed interim government in Dhaka kept its promise and allowed a return to democracy in Bangladesh after two years. This is the most important message of this election. The second is that the election campaign and the polls took place peacefully and without rigging, delivering one clear winner. This was not so clear when the state of emergency was lifted on Dec. 17 2008. Now, the South Asian state has a new chance to show whether democratically-elected leaders can determine the long-term fate of the country in a peaceful and non-corrupt manner.
However, it remains to be seen whether the country will use this chance in the coming weeks and months. The country’s history of the country and past experience are not good omens. Traditionally, election winners in Bangladesh have seized all power for themselves by occupying all posts and trying to block out all political opponents mercilessly. This happened for example two years ago. In the run up to the planned elections of January 2007, the government and opposition clashed so violently and were so irreconcilable that the army felt compelled to impose emergency rule and put an interim government in place.
The interim government has done a lot since then to combat corruption. But despite 100,000 arrests, only a handful of corrupt politicians were put on trial and the political parties were not purged of corruption. Moreover, in the course of the anti-graft campaign, there were countless human rights violations and about 300 unexplained deaths. Religious and ethnic minorities were persecuted for no other reason than that of having campaigned for their rights in the largely Muslim country. Because freedom of the press had been curtailed, the victims and their relatives could not express themselves. Legal proceedings against the bitter rivals Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia bore no result. Both took refuge in their poor states of health, which were confirmed by doctors. The attempt to put different people in the top positions of the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party failed. Party functionaries closed ranks about their leaders. In the end, the powerful family clans had survived the interim government.
But on balance, the interim government can also boast of several successes, which call forth hope for the future. The examination of the electoral roll led to the names of over twelve million voters, which no longer existed, being erased from the list. This was only made possible thanks to the strengthened Election Commission. Some politicians were even excluded from taking part in the elections because of corruption. The successful separation of the government apparatus and the judiciary will also allow the anti-corruption drive to continue in future. The establishment of a human rights commission will help to prevent future attacks on political opponents and minorities. Last but not least, the interim government was able to strengthen civil society in several significant ways.
Now, the demands on the country’s new leaders who are taking responsibility without there being any great changes in personnel are greater than ever before. The extremely high turnout shows that the people have great expectations. A repetition of previous sins -- committed in favour of family clans -- will not be tolerated and the military will surely re-enter the scene if this occurs. Democracy would not survive.
Bangladesh now needs a political culture which respects political opponents and which puts the country’s needs first. This is a beginning but no more. Western development aid can only be implemented effectively and mass poverty can only be defeated and climate change tackled if there is political stability in Bangladesh. With the overwhelming confidence of the voters behind them, the election winners must now live up to the moral and political responsibility they have been handed. Europe should make sure this happens and give the necessary support.