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'A blow to democracy'

Thomas Latschan / gdJanuary 7, 2014

After holding elections, Bangladesh is facing a political deadlock. A military intervention seems possible, but it would deal a heavy blow to democracy in the South Asian nation, says expert Jasmin Lorch.

Soldiers of Bangladeshi army petrol on the streets in Dhaka during the 10th Parliament election on Sunday. (Photo: DW/Mustafiz Mamun)
Image: DW/M. Mamun

DW: The ruling Awami League (AL) won a two-thirds majority in the January 5 general election. It looks nice on paper, but the country is descending into political chaos at the same time. So what is this electoral victory really worth?

Jasmin Lorch: Not much, as the government now has a legitimacy problem. The opposition [led by] Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted the poll, so the electorate had very little choice. Moreover, voter turnout was very low.

In the meantime, the situation has become increasingly volatile. There have been rioting and deadly clashes. Why did Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina want to go ahead with elections?

Jasmin Lorch, a Bangladesh expert and research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute for Asia Studies (Photo: SWP)
Lorch: 'There is deep mistrust between political parties in Bangladesh'Image: SWP

The government argues it would have been constitutionally impossible to postpone the vote. But the decision to stick to the election date also made a compromise with the BNP almost impossible. On the other hand, the opposition was very willing to resort to violence. Its supporters torched poll stations and general strikes were held.

Elections in Bangladesh generally follow what can be described as a "winner-take-all" pattern. Usually the opposition is discriminated against and marginalized by the ruling party. Furthermore, corruption is widespread in Bangladesh. When the Awami League is in power, the BNP is prosecuted for corruption and vice versa. The party in power is always reluctant to step down because it fears its member will face corruption charges or reprisals.

Prior to the election, sentences passed by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) had strongly polarized the country. What role have the trials played?

The Awami League set up the war crimes tribunal in 2010 to mete out justice for the crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. The court has convicted several alleged leaders of Islamist groups charged with committing massacres during the war. Most of the accused belong to Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the largest Islamist party in the country.

One of those convicted was recently executed, triggering violent riots both by JI supporters and its student wing. There are many indications that the Awami League is playing for time - time to bring the trials to a close and carry out the pending death sentences passed by the court.

Moreover, the AL wants to induce the BNP into severing ties with Jamaat-e-Islami, which over the past years has become the BNP's main coalition partner.

Some are already speculating about new elections in Bangladesh. But why should the opposition parties give up their blockade?

This is very difficult indeed, as there is deep mistrust among the parties. There must be some sort of guarantee that there will be no political discrimination and that every party will be allowed to take part in the political process. The BNP's main demand is that elections should be overseen by an independent interim government, as was the case is the past.

However, a majority in parliament enabled the Awami League in 2011 to amend the constitution and scrap the provision for a caretaker government (CTG). The party argued that in 2007 a CTG was established which allowed the military to rule the country for two years.

What role does the military play in this? If no solution to the present political deadlock is found, could this lead to a military intervention?

It is possible. There was a similar situation in 2007 when the BNP was in power. Back then, the Awami League had threatened to boycott the elections because it believed they weren't going to be free and fair. There were also riots and violent clashes between supporters of both parties. The military intervened and ruled the country behind the scenes for two years.

Abdul Quader Mollah - Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah gestures as he talks from a police van after a war crimes tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment in Dhaka, in this February 5, 2013 file photo. (Photo: Reuters)
The execution of JI's Abdul Quader Mollah triggered protests accross the countryImage: Reuters

To some extent, the military sees itself both as the "guardian of the nation's welfare" and as an "arbitrator" between the parties. This is how the military justifies its right to intervene in the political process.

But the fact of the matter is that by doing so it would only inflict further damage on the country's democracy. One only needs to look back at the military-backed 2007-2008 caretaker government which failed to end the political polarization. Five years on, the country is faced with a similar, partly more volatile situation.

Jasmin Lorch is a Bangladesh expert and research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute for Asia Studies.