By Dr. Abdul Ruff
Bangladesh is set for a government with the biggest parliamentary majority since 1973, following general elections on 29 December, designed to bring an end to two years of military-backed rule. In an election marked by high turnout and few incidents, the centre-left Awami League – headed by former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – and its allies pulled off a stunning victory, winning a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber national assembly. The caretakers hope they can hand over power to a new government expected to be formed when the reconstituted parliament meets in mid-January.
Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League has won a landslide victory in Bangladesh’s election, with almost all results declared. The Awami League “has a clear majority to govern without any other party”, the Election Commission official SM Asaduzzaman announced. The Awami League alliance has won more than 250 of the 300 seats in parliament. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party alliance of Ms Hasina’s arch-rival Khaleda Zia has won just 30. The BNP’s ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, lost most of its seats. No serious violence was reported during the election, and our correspondent says the mood at a polling station he visited was festive. Some 200,000 electoral observers, including 2,500 from abroad, monitored the national vote. More than 11 million false names were purged from the voter roll.
A new dawn beaconed as some eight crore voters walked down to polling centers to elect a new government, a democratic one after seven years — five years in political quandary and two years in a reverse reconnaissance and correction bid that many may find not up to the mark, but a worthwhile try. Election officials say more than 70% of Bangladesh’s 81 million voters are thought to have cast their ballots in a poll intended to return the country to democracy after two years of rule by a military-backed government. Security was tight throughout polling day, with about 50,000 soldiers and 600,000 police deployed to guard against election fraud and violence. Chief election commissioner Shamsul Huda said he had complete confidence in the election process and there was “no scope for fraud of vote rigging”. He added: We expect people will elect a parliament, which even if not a dream parliament, it will be a good one.”
Bangladesh’s army-backed interim government lifted a two-year state of emergency ahead of the general election on 29 December. Voter optimism and a huge security presence throughout the country have resulted in a high turnout for national elections in
Bangladesh. The process seems calm compared to previous elections, but there have been some complications with the new digitized voter identification system.. While there are more than 1,500 candidates from 38 parties, as well as independents, the attention is on two former Prime ministers – Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The bitter rivals traded power over a 15-year period. The last attempt to hold a national election in late 2006 ended in chaos, prompting the military to step in and appoint a caretaker government with emergency powers.
The win for the Awami League is a dramatic reversal in fortunes for the two parties. In 2001, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won the election overwhelmingly. BNP leader Rizvi Ahmed said its supporters were kept from voting in various parts of the country, and it planned to file a complaint. He said there were incidents of fraud and forgery at more than 200 polling stations. But the Election Commission said the vote was “a very free and fair election”. Turnout was high in the first election for seven years, which came after two years of army-backed rule.
Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia – both former prime ministers – were jailed for suspected corruption but released to contest the vote. During campaigning, the two rivals pledged to lower food prices, and to tackle corruption and terrorism in the nation of 144 million people. They also both promised to end the confrontation, strikes and violent street rallies that have marked Bangladeshi politics for years. The two women alternated in power for 15 years until 2006.
Hasina had often been bracketed with her bitter rival Khaleda Zia of the BNP, with both being accused of allowing “guns and goons” to become part of the country’s political fabric. Their rivalry became known as Battle of the Begums, the term for a woman of high social rank. Detractors claimed that Bangladeshi politics could be reformed only if the two ladies stepped aside. The caretaker government in 2007 used its emergency powers to try and force Ms Hasina and Ms Khaleda into exile. The effort failed miserably. Monday’s elections mark not only the triumph of one and the defeat of the other. It also marks the total failure of the Minus Two formula.
The government had already set December 2008 as the target date for general elections, and it stuck to the time-table. But there was a price. Then both were asked to participate in the polls and the rest is already history. In a final throw of the dice, the government sent both the ladies to jail, and slapped a number of corruption charges against them. An impression soon took hold that they would be convicted and thus disqualified from holding office. But by then the government’s failure to halt spiraling food prices had ended the public’s infatuation with the army-backed regime. A sense of drift had gripped the caretaker regime with no clear goal in sight.
The astounding victory has become a surprise even for the Awami leaders. “We were certainly expecting victory, but perhaps not as big as this,” said Abul Mal Abdul Muhith, a senior Awami League leader. ‘Sheikh Hasina’s call to build a digital Bangladesh, with specific goals for economic development, gave the young something to dream about, and they have voted en masse for that dream’. Many point out that the BNP and its alliance won a two-thirds majority in 2001, and produced what many people considered to be the most corrupt government in the country’s history.
The newly-empowered Anti-Corruption Commission sought to prosecute the top politicians and businessmen who had earned Bangladesh its reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. The army-backed caretaker government then tried to root out corruption from the country’s elites. The army cancelled elections due in January 2007 after months of street protests and battles between gangs of rival party supporters spiraled out of control. The army-backed caretaker government then tried to root out corruption from the country’s elites. Corruption, like the price rise, is the most important issue the Hasina’s government has to tackle if she has that will, at least now.
The elections mark a personal triumph for Sheikh Hasina, whose political career seemed at an end last year when she was jailed on charges of corruption. These elections are likely to go down in history as the first universally-credible polls in the country’s history. The defeated BNP has already raised questions about alleged polling irregularities. The sheer scale of the Awami League’s victory has left people searching for an explanation. Even the party’s leaders appear to be taking a pause for thought. But that is not the main issue now, but the future ahead for Bangladesh when the new government assumes office in Dhaka.
The political alliance led by Awami League is walking victorious. But this is only the beginning of a new journey to the searching question of how the body politics wants Bangladesh to be propped on the world map as a piece of land with the proud people who hold their heads high with justifiable cultural, economic and social achievements. It is a difficult time for any political party to take over for many practical reasons of national and international origins. Youth has sided with Awami League one does not if they would sooner than not get disillusioned with the government and feel themselves deceived by the government they chose. The Awami League, which led Bangladesh to independence in 1971, is often accused to living in the past. But this time they surprised everyone with a new-look campaign and softer rhetoric. The party’s manifesto this time as well as its campaign strategy had touches of modernity which appealed to the young. This is clearly a major challenge for Hasina, her party, and government, they have to deliver.
Bangladesh today faces an ever-yawning gap between the rich and the poor, with the top 5 percent of the society taking a stake in 26 percent of the wealth and the bottom 5 percent trying to hold on to their dear 0.77 percent of the pie. A society that splits deeply in wealth and education, in culture and values, in logic and reasoning, poses a high danger of going astray if not led to the right lighthouse. A society of divide and high contempt for pluralism soon finds itself in a dungeon. A country that cannot find its own breadth and depth — that cannot find its treasure trove of history and valour — will only swivel off the road into the wilderness.
World today is passing through a difficult time. It is a time when great economies are in recession and the corporate world is bottoming out. It is a time that the world did not see after the 1930s — a time of great recession when all economies are slumping one after another like a pack of falling cards. It is a time when one can only boast if one is fool enough, and then find the carpet being whisked away from under your feet. It is then a great challenge and also a time for great acumen for leaderships to take over power after a fresh election. Seventeen years into the restoration of democracy, Bangladesh remains pathetically spread-eagled on institutions that could sprout effective good governance, and create infrastructure for development — ports, power stations, communication backbone. Corrupt practices became the name of the game. And power of the powerful created a vicious cobweb of lawlessness.
When the emergency was declared and a new caretaker government came to power, the military took a deeper control and backed the government. A task was initiated to correct the wrong, to stop the rotting. But it could succeed owing to opposition form political parties. The nation today searches for effective tolls to uproot a culture that bred in protecting the killers and murderers by the power holders for handsome bribes, a practice that led to skewing of procurement process to favour the ones that walk the corridors of power, a culture that lived on lies and rhetoric, a sub-culture of vice and protectionism and militancy and false notions.
Testing popularity is an easy task, but that should not the motto of the government but the welfare of the Bangladeshis. Hasina will have the fullest satisfaction of having done her duty and kept her election promises and full filled the mandate the people bestow upon her truthfully. That kind of popular achievement could tell her arduous political journey is all that matters and a task finished.
Bangladesh waits for an honest leadership today. The records are poor for Bangladesh and so are their outcomes. A sharply divided and bickering political leadership could breed in fractious policies and corruption. Despite the over 6 percent GDP growth for a few straight years, the sunshine could not reaped at its best and many more growth numbers just slipped through the fingers.
Whether Bangladesh would head towards cementing the Islamic foundations or prefer to follow the West tailored democratic and anti-Islamic, secular platform remains to be seen. Only a worthy leadership of honest and capable visionaries and doers can see the risks of staying too long on such a perilous edge and value the worth of going forward, pushing away all the inert inwardness of the dragging force. It is truly a time for political correctness. Hasina has to take the risk and pour out her wisdom by taking in the wise men and women under her fold and reel out her job-creating schemes. Bangladesh has the potentials to become a very strong nation in Asia.