Bangladesh Elections 2013: Fate of a Nation

07 Jan, 2014    ·   4240

Chiranjib Haldar comments on the challenges that are likely to emerge

The outcome was never in doubt. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League ended with more than two-thirds of seats in a hustings shunned by international observers as flawed and derided as a ‘farce’ by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). When the Shahbag unrest intensified in February 2013, some called it an upheaval, some an awakening of sorts. Most analysts termed it a display of pent up feelings and expression that had been stifled for years. The representative reality may be mired in illusion as many sceptics would say, but in this case, a visible spontaneous movement was sustained despite attempts to stifle it by two major opposition parties in Bangladesh.

The Awami League regime doggedly pushed through the polls on schedule despite the opposition boycott with BNP and 17 smaller parties simply refusing to file nomination papers. The supreme questions confronting the average Bangladeshi at this crucial juncture is whether this resilience can be combined with wisdom to assimilate internal contrasts and divisions rather than to intensify hatred even in select segments of the populace. A question that obviously crops up is will one of Asia's youngest nations be able to preserve its secular fabric. With over 154 Members of Parliament elected unopposed to the 300-member Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament) from the ruling Awami League, the elections were largely be a formality with the party easily garnering two-thirds majority.

While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia has termed the inevitability of MPs getting elected unopposed as ultimate treachery and deceit, Awami League has termed it as a final frontier between forces who favoured the creation of Bangladesh and those who opposed it. And BNP chairperson and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has reiterated umpteen times that elections cannot be free and fair with her rival Awami League in power. If one objectively analyses the Hasina and Khaleda regimes in totality, forces both of cohesion and disunity have coexisted in a precarious balance, as it has since the nation felt its pangs of birth. Even the Shahbag protests have not led to complete integration and so fulfilment may have extracted its pound of flesh.

So, there is much more at stake than discontent and support both in favour and against the war crimes tribunal sentencing anti-liberation satraps. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was sworn in 2008, she may not have anticipated this offshoot in the next general elections. What we are witnessing may be the churning of a nation in the 43rd year of its liberation.

If we rewind for a moment, the last Bangla hustings in December 2008 saw Awami League securing a landslide victory with 230 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad and subsequently forming a Grand Alliance with Ershad’s Jatiya Party and splinter groups. The BNP was decimated from 193 seats in the 2001 polls to just 29 while its principal ally, Jamaat-e-Islami reduced to 2. Many commentators have opined that behind Khaleda Zia’s incessant braggadocio is a premonition that under a neutral caretaker regime, January 2014 could be a repeat of 2001 in heavily polarised Bangladesh when she sprang back to power despite plenty of projections to the contrary. On top of it, the BNP secured convincing victories in the last mayoral polls in four urban hotspots. 

A crucial diplomatic shove by India over the past two years to pragmatically engage with Sheikh Hasina, seen by many in Dhaka as pro-India, and her bete noire Khaleda Zia is because New Delhi feels Indo-Bangladeshi ties are better insulated from upheavals in domestic Bangla politics. For the Shahbag movement to happen around ekushe February (21 February) was indeed reinforcing the win of linguistic nationalism over religious nationalism. Even if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Bangabandhu had gone to Pakistan in 1974 to attend an Islamic brotherhood conference, for Bangladeshis, the liberation war and ekushe February can’t be claptrap. Bangladesh must look inwards. The West did not stop Bangladesh from bringing the perpetrators of rapes and murders during the 1971 liberation movement to justice for 42 long years.  

For the Awami League, keeping up the division between pro and anti-liberation forces is critical for sustaining its political grip. The bridge on the river Padma may definitely boost Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s chances and shed Bangladesh’s basket case tag. But along with the anti-incumbency factor, there are other worries for the ruling Awami League alliance even if it piggybacked to power on a boycott bandwagon. The Teesta Water sharing and the Indo-Bangladeshi land boundary agreements are yet to fructify. If these don’t materialise after the polls in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed will face a demanding electorate and risk accusations that she has not been reciprocated by India. And this failure is where BNP supremo Khaleda Zia could derive her nationalist springboard from in future.

Perhaps the editorial in Dhaka’s Daily Star correctly sums up the polls as the deadliest in the country’s history, asserting that the Awami League won ‘a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively.’