History is set to repeat itself in Bangladesh. The country goes to the polls in a one-sided election on Jan 5, which has been boycotted by the entire opposition. The ruling Awami League, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has already picked up 153 seats, which is more than half of the 300 parliamentary seats, without a contest and is poised to form the next government.
But if the past is any indication, this government might go the way a previous government headed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Begum Khaleda Zia had gone after the unpopular February 1996 elections. At that time, the opposition, headed by the present prime minister, had boycotted the elections and thereafter crippled the government by enforcing a series of strikes, forcing a re-poll a few months later.
Everything suggests that a similar scenario could be re-enacted. Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the country’s largest selling English daily, The Daily Star, feels that the political agitation and the resulting instability would persist even after the polls.
“Political turmoil in the country will continue”, opined Anam. “The people of Bangladesh always favour the underdog and in this case, the underdog is the opposition BNP, which has been demanding a level playing field in the polls.”
Altamash Kabir, editor of the respected Bengali daily, Sangbad, feels the “Awami League has effectively told half the voters in the country that they cannot vote for their candidate at these elections… The people of Bangladesh feel that the government has hijacked the electoral process to stay on in power; they feel their vote has been stolen and they will not allow it. This is a dynamic that the country’s two top leaders must understand.”
Kabir points out that the genesis of today’s crisis lies in 1996 when Sheikh Hasina, who is now in power, had launched a similar agitation against Begum Khaleda Zia’s government which had pushed through a one-sided elections exactly like the Jan 5 polls. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League had boycotted the Feb 15, 1996, polls alleging that the ruling party was bent on rigging the polls. The Awami League, along with other political parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, had demanded the setting up of a caretaker government to supervise the polls.
At that time, Khaleda Zia had disregarded the demands and gone ahead with the polls where her party won all the 300 parliamentary seats unopposed. The electoral victory proved transient and continued agitation by the opposition forced Khaleda Zia to enact a law introducing a system for the supervision of polls by a neutral caretaker government. A re-poll conducted by a caretaker government June 12, 1996 saw the Awami League emerge as the single largest party with 146 seats. Sheikh Hasina went on to form the government of “national consensus” with support from a couple of other parties.
Five years later, the 2001 general elections, supervised by a caretaker government headed by former chief justice Latifur Rehman, placed Begum Khaleda Zia in power. Before the next elections scheduled for end 2006, Khaleda Zia in October 2006 appointed a caretaker government under the leadership of then president Iajuddin Ahmed, who was considered to be close to the ruling BNP. This led to a political furore and Sheikh Hasina refused to participate in the polls. The polls scheduled for January 2007 were postponed, president Ahmed stepped down reportedly due to army pressure and a former World Bank official, Fakhruddin Ahmed, was appointed chief advisor of the caretaker government. This army-backed arrangement continued till the December 2008 elections which returned Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League to power.
Today, the shoe is on the other foot. In 2011, Sheikh Hasina scrapped the caretaker government system for elections and ever since then her rival Khaleda Zia and her allies have been agitating for its re-introduction. In recent months, Bangladesh has been crippled by opposition sponsored blockades and strikes, which has seen street violence peaking. Sheikh Hasina relented somewhat by inviting Begum Khaleda Zia to join a national government to oversee the polls but this did not satisfy the opposition, which pointed out that any such interim set-up could still be controlled by Sheikh Hasina, who would remain prime minister.
“Sheikh Hasina abolished the caretaker government system unilaterally and without taking the opposition into confidence”, pointed out Mahfuz Anam. “Sheikh Hasina based her decision on a Supreme Court judgement against the system of a caretaker government for elections but that judgement had allowed for the system to be continued for a couple of more elections. Moreover, the caretaker government system was not a legal but a political issue,” Anam explained.
Sheikh Hasina’s refusal to compromise with her political opponents and go ahead with a one-sided poll has surprised many of the Awami League’s traditional supporters. The Jan 5 elections are being viewed as a farce and with neither of the two principal leaders showing any indication of climbing down, analysts fear another interruption in the country’s democratic process in the months to come.
(Indranil Banerjie is a writer and commentator on strategic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])