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Worrying situation

Grahame LucasJanuary 6, 2014

The situation after the general election in Bangladesh is deeply worrying and casts a long shadow over the future of the country, writes DW expert Grahame Lucas.


After an election campaign characterized by violent protests by the opposition and a crackdown by security forces, the ruling Awami League under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has won the vote with a two-thirds majority. The tenth general election to be held in the country since the war of independence in 1971 has revealed the deep divisions in Bangladeshi society and scant regard for the basic principles of democracy on both sides of the political divide.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have alternated in the office of prime minister for some 20 years. But the two grand old women of Bangladeshi politics do not respect each other as players in the political system. Instead they have allowed their political rivalry to mushroom into a bitter personal feud, illustrated by an acrimonious telephone call just before the election campaign. This feud has blinded them to the needs of their country. Neither of them is willing to compromise for the sake of national interest. This is illustrated by the decision the Awami League-led government to go ahead with the poll, although the BNP had declared beforehand that it would not participate. Thus both sides have denied the Bangladeshi people their right to a free and fair election.

DW Bengali Grahame Lucas
Image: DW/Matthias Müller

Both Hasina and Zia head family dynasties with subservient political parties. These two parties do not serve to shape and formulate public opinion in a democratic fashion, but as instruments of the ruling cliques and their economic interests. Corruption in the highest places remains rampant, as Transparency International testifies. This has been the case for decades.

The latest crisis has three underlying causes: Firstly, the refusal of the Awami League to resign ahead of the poll and make way for a caretaker government to oversee the elections. The Awami League can argue quite legitimately that such an arrangement is not common practice in a functioning democracy where the government in power ensures the fairness of an election. But Bangladesh, as we have seen in the past few months, is not a functioning democracy because the parties do not trust each other to conduct a free and fair election. A caretaker arrangement would have averted most of the protests.

Secondly, the so-called International Crimes Tribunal set up ostensibly to lay to rest the terrible opening chapter of the history of Bangladesh: the war of independence against Pakistan, which saw millions killed and some 300,000 women raped. The government could have followed the Truth Commission model used by Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela in South Africa to heal the wounds of apartheid. But it did not. Instead it chose to seek punishment for the accused, including the death penalty. To achieve this goal it amended legal procedures retroactively, steps condemned by western human rights organizations and the UN. The fact that the accused were all senior members of Jamaat-e-Islami, the junior partners in government of the BNP on several occasions, and top BNP officials, meant that there could only be one outcome: Massive street protests and violence by their supporters, who saw evidence in the trial for the partisan stance of the government.

Thirdly, the decision by the High Court to bar Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical Islamist party, from the poll was a serious mistake. Since the government was seen to be behind the decision to bar Jamaat from the poll and behind the trial of its leadership at the war crimes tribunal, the party, which has never scored more than 10 percent in national elections, has mutated into a movement of self-styled martyrs, who no longer need to win the political argument. This ignores the fact that although 90 percent of Bangladeshis are Muslim, radical Islamism has never taken hold. The state is secular, something guaranteed in the constitution, not an Islamic Republic like Pakistan. For its part, the Awami League argues that Jamaat plans a theocracy based on sharia law. The concern about Jamaat's goals is without a shadow of doubt justified. But was this fear really behind the decision? In reality, it appears that the Awami League was more interested in depriving the BNP of a potential coalition partner.

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Reactions to the result give little sign of hope that Bangladesh can find its way out of this crisis soon as neither side shows any sign of a willingness to compromise. International pressure will now mount, that is certain. After all, neither the USA, nor the European Union nor the Commonwealth was willing to send monitors to observe the election.

Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League may have won, but it is a pyrrhic victory secured at the expense of the country's democratic stability. And the army, which has already seized power on several occasions in the past, is waiting in the wings.