Bangladesh's December Elections

Bangladeshi elections continue to be a nightmare for voters in a largely undemocratic political culture that has prevailed since independence, failing to take ethics and human rights into consideration.

The years 2006, 2007 and 2008 ranked among the worst, with factional squabbling between the country’s bitter rivals, the Bangladesh National Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia and the Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina. The two have traded the premiership several times since 1991, when Khaleda became prime minister. Voters during those years witnessed a perfect storm of political fights, including murders of fellow politicians and general mayhem.

With electoral chaos looming in 2006 as the two battling factions came closer to violence, the military intervened to impose a curfew and eventually installed a caretaker government which ruled the country for 15 months, jailing both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. When elections were finally called again in 2008, voters had high hopes that the situation would change. The government introduced voter identification cards with photographs. The arrests of many corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen connected to both factions led to hopes that that it would change the poisonous political culture.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won 230 of the 299 seats in the Bangladesh Parliament in 2008, returning her to the prime ministership she had previously held. After what was thought to be a relatively good start, however, the cycle of oppression and violence has not ended.

The title of the International Crisis Group’s June 13, 2012 report -- “Bangladesh: Back to the Future” was self-explanatory.

“Bangladesh could face a protracted political crisis in the lead–up to the 2013 elections unless Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government changes course and makes a more conciliatory approach towards political opposition and the military,” the report noted. “The hope, both at home and abroad, was that Sheikh Hasina would use her mandate to revitalize democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, ending the pernicious cycle of zero-sum politics between her AL and Bangladesh National Party.”

That was a vain hope The Awami League government has pursued corruption cases against Khaleda Zia and used its security forces to throttle the opposition. The party also scrapped a provision under which previous elections have been held, in which a presumably neutral caretaker system is put in place to administer the general elections. That has undermined the opposition parties’ hopes that the election which is due in December will be anything like either free or fair. The governing party also put a sedition provision into effect and delivered the threat of a death penalty for anyone plotting the overthrow of an elected government, which the military has done four times previously.

Khaleda has sent her followers into the streets repeatedly and has threatened a Bangladesh National Party boycott of the general election. There have also been rumors of military coups. In January apparently mid-level and retired officers sought to take over and install an Islamist government.

Also, a statement of the previous State Minister for Home, Tanjim Ahmed, confirmed that all is not politically well within the ruling party. Taj, as he is known, suddenly resigned from parliament on April 23. Without making clear what prompted him to stand down, Taj said “There is always something to add to what is said. There is lot of hidden truth that should not be made public for the sake of the country, people and party. And it cannot be said in public either. I can tell you that I have had appropriate reasons relinquishing the 0ffices of MP and Minister.” Would accepting his resignation embarrass the Government?

It is interesting to note the relationship of Taj’s statement to the verdict of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. It upheld the abolishment of the caretaker system, but it also mentioned that the so-called void system, in which the courts may void laws inconsistent with fundamental rights may be practiced, for another two parliamentary terms for the sake of the “Safety of the State and the People.”

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have to understand that the seat of power and learning both have shifted to the western countries, the United States and Europe. They would do well to take lessons from the international political situation. Coups in the Maldives and Mali against democratically elected leaders and the continuing political struggle in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, following the Arab Spring are patent reminders that democracy is a fragile institution.

They must realize that democracy as a regime is justified by its ability to deliver public goods to a broad spectrum of citizens and not just to an elite group. They should know their current status in the country. The Daily Star conducted an on-line poll wherein 87.8 percent (total votes 499) voted to express their disagreement that Sheikh Hasina’s government has implemented more than what the party pledged in 2008. They should be aware of the public evaluation of their performance. All of those are likely to be vain hopes.

The former Chief Election Commissioner, Shamsul Huda statement says it all. He said “the type of democracy practiced in Bangladesh is vulgarized by the ruling party, which encourages black money and muscle power in the absence of the rule of law. Instead of building institutions. The ruling party in most cases tries to destroy institutions like the Election Commission and the Judiciary. They also to politicize the bureaucracy, police, administration and dangerously, the military.”

In view of the above, it is imperative that both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition adopt a positive attitude and vow to sit down for a dialogue to discuss and sort out all their personal and political differences. However, they must sit alone, with the objective for finding solutions, be unconditionally constructive, respect the right to differ and be receptive to consider alternatives. Until the dialogue is completed, and an agreement is reached, no information should be given to MPs or media personnel.

During their dialogues all other members of parliament must be instructed not to interfere, conduct themselves professionally and respect other MPs. They should stop all suggestions of undemocratic ideas like conspiracy theory, the third force and blame game between themselves. Conspiracy and third forces operations are only possible with the assistance of the insiders within.

In this modern world of IT technology, the citizens of the country are well informed of the methods the governments of the western countries use to fulfill their election pledges to their citizens and how their oppositions play an effective “check and balance” role. Bangladesh’s citizens demand the same form their elected representatives.

(Badrul Islam is an independent researcher and freelancer. He can be contacted at bislam66@gmail.com)

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