With Bangladeshi voters having delivered a resounding victory to the coalition led by Sheik Hasina Wajed of the Awami League Monday, apprehension remains over whether the vote can ensure a stable democratic regime, or whether the poverty-stricken country will slip back into the vitriolic infighting that has paralyzed it for more than a decade, providing fertile ground for a burgeoning Islamic fundamentalist movement.
On Tuesday morning, a Bangladesh election official said the Awami League coalition had won a resounding 255 seats in the 300-member Jatiya Sangsad, or national parliament, far ahead of Hasina's arch-rival, former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, with just 32. Independents and small parties reportedly won five, and Hasina's alliance is said to be leading in the remainder.
The election was largely peaceful, with few clashes. It remains to be seen, however, whether Khaleda will accede to the election results, or take her followers to the streets.
The military-backed caretaker government on December 17 lifted a two-year state of emergency that separated the two warring factions in an attempt to enhance the political ambiance for a free and fair election, allowing voters to go to the polls for the first time in seven years. The election took place amid unprecedented security arrangements, with as many as 50,000 police and 75,000 soldiers and another 6,000 members of the country’s Rapid Action Battalion on the streets. As many as 200,000 poll-watchers, including 20,000 from India, were deployed across the country in an effort to keep the elections clean. Television repeatedly showed chaotic scenes of thousands of supporters of both sides on the streets.
Although thousands of people were jailed for corruption by the caretaker government, including Hasina Khaleda, the two-year interregnum represents a failure to sort out the country's faction-ridden politics once and for all. Despite the crackdown, concerns remain over the country’s endemic corruption. And, despite voluminous manifestoes by both sides, observers question whether either party is interested in anything beyond taking power and the spoils that go with it, or will implement effective programs to steer the country out of its endemic poverty.
Stints in jail for both women, during which the caretaker government attempted vainly to exile them, did little to cool their jets. To crowds of as many as 100,000 people on both sides, Khaleda accused Hasina of systematically pushing the country into chaos and ruin, while Hasina reposted by charging Khaleda with a corrupt legacy characterized by a slogan of “kill the people, grab the money.”
Even after considerable maneuvering to ensure an honest poll, there is concern on the part of local political analysts, advocacy groups and international research institutions over whether the election will lead to a constitutional regime in the Muslim-dominated country of 140 million people.
Prior to the election, Khaleda charged that neither the caretaker government nor the election commission was actually neutral, raising concerns that her followers would defy the mandate of the people and resort to violence despite the thousands of police and army on the streets. That and other comments have raised fears that the armed forces might not be ready to hand over power to an elected government. Certainly, the army is expected to remain on alert to make sure that violence won’t break out.
After 15 years during which the two women traded insults, accusations and the prime ministry between them, democracy stalled completely in October of 2006 when the members of the two parties came to the streets in fierce combat. Violence erupted in Dhaka and other cities when Awami League demonstrators opposed the leadership of Dr Iajuddin Ahmed, the president of Bangladesh, as the head of the caretaker administration after Zia stepped down after completing her five year term as premier.
Following increasing protests by the then-14-party opposition alliance led by Sheikh Hasina, President Dr Iajuddin gave up and stepped down as the caretaker government head and postponed the general election, which had been scheduled on January 22, 2007. The present caretaker government, backed by the army, took charge next day and the former central bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed was sworn in as the chief advisor and head of the interim government.
The interim administration soon launched the massive anti-corruption drive, in which more than 200 heavyweight politicians including both Khaleda and Hasina going behind bars, along with thousands of lesser figures. The interim administration led by Fakhruddin completed 23 months in office, slowly losing its popularity after first being endorsed by a majority of society.
Other political parties also flexing their muscle include splinter parties such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh, United Front of Gano Forum, Bikalpa Dhara, Bangladesh Kalyan Party, Progressive Democratic Party, and Bangladesher Samajtantrik Party.
The Bangladesh Election Commission disclosed that over 80 million voters were expected to exercise their franchise, witnessing the participation of over 1,500 candidates, 55 of them women "The massive political campaign by the grand alliance that attracted huge gatherings and the personal influence of Ms Hasina and Ershad might result in the Awami League victory," predicted a Dhaka based political analyst yesterday.
"Even if the AL led grand alliance win the polls with the magic number (151 seats), the BNP may not accept their defeat. They might go boycotting the Parliament and even their supporters could come to the streets to defy the government," he added.
Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights organization, said in a recent briefing that election was the only option to restore a democratic government at Dhaka. It insisted that 'a popularly elected parliament can only constitute a legitimate government'. The group also appealed the political parties to respect the verdict.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called on all political parties “to continue to demonstrate responsibility, participate fully and honor the will of the Bangladeshi people.” The UN chief also added that the political parties, irrespective of their performance in the elections, should work together in a spirit of dialogue and compromise to address the challenges facing by the nation, described his representative in Dhaka during a recent press meet.
But even if the political parties abide the norms of democracy, there is doubt whether the Bangladesh Army will amicably hand over power. The International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based research forum, warned recently that the country's powerful military might not be ready to bow out of politics easily. The group said in its latest briefing that the challenges (for the political parties) will not end on polling day; rather 'managing a smooth transition to democratic functioning will require resisting the winner-takes-all approach and cooperating to tackle the serious difficulties the country faces', it added.
"The political situation (in Bangladesh) is complex and fragile. Regardless of who wins the election, the next government and the opposition parties will face the challenges of making parliament work and contending with an army that wants a greater say in politics," Michael Shaikh, the Asia senior analyst of International Crisis Group, said in a media briefing.