The 10th Parliamentary elections were held in Bangladesh on 5 January 2014 against the backdrop of the opposition alliance’s boycott and blockade programme, amidst a whirl of apprehensions, tension and violence. The boycott of the major opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies, particularly Jamaat-e-Islami, has emerged as the key determinant of election outcomes and its aftermath.
Three views are particularly discernible about this boycott. According to one view, this boycott was self-imposed and was part of a larger strategic move by the opposition parties. Riding on popular support and ascendancy of hard-line leadership in parties, they took an unyielding stance on elections. Another view is that it was inevitable due to the lack of a conducive environment for participation since the caretaker government (CTG) system was scrapped by the 15th amendment of the Constitution of Bangladesh. They believe that no elections could be acceptable to them without CTG. The third view is focused on the process of holding elections under the current system, but with a new poll-time administration and a bigger and more substantive role of the Election Commission. Of course, this has to be based on political settlement by the two major political parties – the Awami League (AL) and BNP. The United Nations-brokered initiative led by Oscar Fernandez Taranco emphasised the third view to resolve the impasse. Ironically, no political settlement was reached. Both the ruling and opposition alliances opted for absolute gains.
Having no option as per the constitutional provision as well as political ‘common sense’, the government and the Election Commission organised the elections. In fact, the unique political environment in the country has produced an unprecedented election both in its process and outcome. A total number of 153 members of Parliament were elected uncontested and the remaining 147 were up for voting. With a poor voter turnout (40 per cent by the Election Commission) by Bangladesh standards (87 per cent in the December 2008 elections), the ruling Awami League bagged 232 seats. The Jatiya Party, made up of former military dictator Ershad, won 33 seats, becoming the second largest party in Parliament. Members of Parliament have already sworn in and a new Cabinet has been formed with Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Despite some reservations, the international community has recognised the government. The US and EU are continuing their diplomatic parleys to bring all political parties to a dialogue, and are working on the possibility of a mid-term election.
Although the elections have been questioned by various quarters in Bangladesh and beyond due to non-participation of the main opposition parties, a critical aspect of this election is the unleashing of widespread violence before, during, and after the polls. Since the early 1990s Bangladesh witnessed four general elections held under a caretaker (CTG) system. Interestingly, all defeated political parties and alliances seriously questioned the credibility of these elections too. A short-lived election was held in February 1996 under the party-run administration which lasted for about forty five days. In 2014, for the second time, an election was held under a non-caretaker government (officially known as an all-party government) in the post-mass upsurge era. Unlike the past, the main opposition party was invited to join the poll-time government, but it was rejected. It became clear at the end of 2011 that politics in Bangladesh was turning into a ‘zero-sum-game’ primarily on the question of ‘election administration’, which was changed by the ruling alliance with their brute majority in the national Parliament.
While the quality of the 10th Parliamentary elections has been questioned in terms of credibility, inclusivity and participation, domestic politics demands special mention to understand the elections and its outcome. Domestic politics in Bangladesh started to transform into a new and difficult shape when the ruling alliance announced the trial of war criminals. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was set up in 2009 as a war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh to investigate and prosecute suspects for the genocide and crimes against humanity committed in 1971 by the Pakistani Army and their local collaborators, Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams. The formation of ICT jolted the opposition camp. The second largest party in the opposition camp, Jamaat-e-Islam is directly linked with war crimes during the Liberation War in 1971. Top leaders of Jamaat have been charged with war crimes over the past four decades. The triggering incident was the verdict against a central leader of Jamaat, Moulana Delwar Hossain Sayedee. Following the verdict in February 2013, the Party unleashed massive violence throughout the country especially in their strongholds – mainly border districts.
Violence has become a political weapon of opposition politics, spearheaded by the war crimes-charged party. The subsequent Hefazat phenomenon has added impetus to this rising spree of political violence. The intermingling of extremist violence and the political movement led by the opposition alliance has emerged as the body blow to Bangladesh’s nascent democracy. With capital punishment being awarded to to one of the leading war criminals – Abdul Kader Mollah - politics in Bangladesh needs to be redefined and re-conceptualised. The 10th Parliamentary elections were held in the evolving parameters of Bangladeshi politics, where political stability and democratic governance have been traded with violence and extremism for absolute political gains.