The 5-year long tenure of the current (11th) Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) of Bangladesh is scheduled to expire on 29 January 2024. General elections are, thus, expected to be held in January 2024.
With thousands of party members behind the bar or in hiding, the opposition BNP has been effectively neutered by the ruling Awami League (AL). The party wants its leaders to be fully released immediately.
While the AL leadership may feel secure with the demise or choking of opposition forces, it is not a good sign for democracy. Bangladesh is, thus, back to square one, and what we witnessed in the 2018 election does not bode well for the nation.
In this regard, the question that comes to our mind is: did the ruling party need such vote rigging to win the 2018 election? I don’t think so. Despite many flaws, including burgeoning corruption and politicization of all the wings of the administration, the ruling alliance has had many positives that it could have banked upon to cement its win in a fair election, even if held under a care-taker government (CTG).
During the decade-long rule of the AL (2009- 2018), per capita income has increased by nearly 150 percent, while the share of the population living in extreme poverty has shrunk to about 9 percent from 19 percent, according to the World Bank. Some experts had even opined that at the 2018-2019 rate of nearly 8 percent growth, Bangladesh could have crossed the per capita income of India by 2020 and was expected to turn into a middle-income economy by 2024. All these predictions, of course, were made before the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard. Those success stories form an impressive list that should make anyone proud of being a Bangladeshi. I wonder where Bangladesh would be today if there was less of political bickering and plundering!
So, what can justify such a colossal travesty with the election of 2018? Many keen observers blame such an attitude in the DNA of the ruling party that wants to get elected by any means possible. The ruling party’s (irrespective of which party or alliance went to power) exclusionary “winner-takes-all” attitude has not helped to close the serious fissure dividing and polarizing Bangladesh today along the party lines and ideologies, and as a matter of fact, simply has widened it further apart.
It goes without saying that democracy is a farce without a healthy opposition. For an illiberal democracy to transition into liberal democracy it must allow opposing views to be heard and debated. Such a transition cannot happen when there are no takers – neither on the winning side nor on the losing or opposing side. As a result of this impasse, the ultimate losers are the people of Bangladesh whose genuine desires to live in a just society continue to be dashed by disingenuous politicians.
The 2008 election in Bangladesh is seen as a watershed moment in Bangladesh’s recent history. For the first time in Bangladesh’s history voter ID card with pictures were used. The Bangladesh Army, including members of other military forces, were deployed throughout the nation prior to the elections, including the remotest areas, to assist with voter registration and issuance of the new IDs. They were equipped with laptops and small digital cameras in an effort that would result in the most orderly voters’ registration list in Bangladesh’s history. According to most foreign observers, it was considered the fairest election in the nation’s history.
However, many people within the BNP camp claim that the 2008 election was stage managed by the CTG in cahoots with India and its intelligence unit RAW to ensure that the Awami League came to power (see, e.g., former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s autobiographical account “The Coalition Years 1996-2012). There were even accusations from the Economist of the UK, too, that the Awami League had won the election with “bags of Indian cash and advice”.
How true are such “conspiratorial” allegations? Could a foreign government have such an influence to ensure that the AL goes to power when the entire election process was watched by international monitoring groups?
Such accusations of foreign money influencing an election outcome are not new in Bangladesh’s polarized politics. In 1991, it was widely rumored that 50 million (five crore) Pakistani Rupee, provided by the ISI (Inter-service Intelligence), helped Khaleda Zia of BNP to win the election.
I do not believe that voters can be bought by foreign money in a country that has tens of millions of electorates. Bangladeshi voters are more intelligent and mature to fall for such innuendos or suggestions. They are not fools.
Perhaps a more appropriate question is: did the voters make a mistake in 2008 when they voted in favor of the Awami League coalition?
True to Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s remark more than a century ago: “What Bengal (comprising of today’s Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India) thinks today, India thinks tomorrow,” the Bangladeshi people are probably the most politically conscious of all the people living in the entire South Asia. They have never made a mistake when they went to the polls to disrobe a political party and put another in its place.
They were not wrong when in 1946 they overwhelmingly voted for Pakistan in what was then British India. They were not wrong either when they voted for the Jukto (United) Front in 1954 and the Awami League in 1970 as part of what was then East Pakistan. Outside the military-ruled period of 1975-91, nor were they wrong in any election held thereafter in independent Bangladesh.
It is inconceivable that they had made a wrong decision in 2008 when they voted for the coalition led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League.
In their trumped-up charges the “conspiracy” theorists not only insult Bangladeshi people’s intelligence and their desire for better but also ignore the essential history that the voters had not made mistakes in their preference for political parties that they had voted for – something that has defined much of the Bangladeshi character, its sense of intellectual superiority and political correctness. This fact is often forgotten by the new leaders that came to power since 1975. Their detachment from the common masses is responsible for birthing such an illusion.
There is no denying that power is abused in every illiberal democracy, let alone autocratic, repressive, and anti-people regimes of our planet. It is this abuse at the top which leads to unfathomable corruption and crime spreading like a virus in every public sector. And, in this regard, Bangladesh has plenty of examples with filthy rich politicians, their beneficiaries and benefactors. The country has her share of “untouchable” “kings”, “queens” and “princes”, a few “disposable” godfathers, and many sycophants. Thus, when the military-controlled Caretaker government (CTG) came into power in 2007, reportedly with the support of the ambassadors of India, the UK, and the USA, putting some of those bigwigs, former government ministers, leading businessmen, robbers and thugs behind the prison cells, people cheered and dreamt once again (much like the Independence Day celebration of 1971) that their days of sad past living under the thugs and criminals were over. Unfortunately, that hoopla did not last long. It only took few months to have the rude awakening that “whoever goes to Lanka becomes a Ravana.” The CTG was no saint! It was highly corrupt.
Bangladesh’s history is, therefore, a sad tragicomedy played by political actors who come and go through the swing door of politics, never to learn from its bloody past that has witnessed so many assassinations. As my sagacious father would often say if seven layers of soil are excavated and exchanged with new topsoil hoping for anything good to grow out of this bad land that dream may never materialize! It is surely a sad commentary coming from the mouth of a nonagenarian, and yet, it’s a correct evaluation for this unfortunate nation!
There is wide perception among the serious-minded, non-partisan, sincere and honest intellectuals that politics and, more correctly, the political leaders have betrayed the Bangladeshi people too long by choking their legitimate aspirations to live in a crimeless and corruption-less society. These politicians forget about accountability for their misdeeds, which is a corner stone of democracy. Thus, when swept out of power, they cry foul with new government inquiries and ensuing legal actions, which may put them behind the prison walls. When in power, they seem to fancy that the days of hardship would never visit them. What a selective amnesia!
Arguably, there was never a better time in the post-military period to changing Bangladesh’s lingering paradigms than after the election of December 2008, dubbed by most outside experts as one of the two fairest elections in the country’s five-decade history (the other being the 1991 election in which the BNP won). There was that wave of national optimism that the newly sworn Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would use her party’s popularity to strengthen democratic institutions and pursue national reconciliation, putting an end to a vicious cycle of nasty politics between the Awami League and its major rival, the BNP.
But that scant hope was allegedly torpedoed vengefully when Sheikh Hasina used the huge mandate for partisan advantage, especially with the trial of the Pakistani-minded collaborators that belonged to the opposition parties. The columnist Banyan of the Economist, UK, (August 13, 2011 article) accused Sheikh Hasina of “not interested in embedding democracy” and persuading “voters to re-elect her—a first for the country”. “Sadly, judging by her recent behavior,” Banyan writes, “she seems to seek instead to crush the opposition and provoke an election boycott, silencing pesky critics as she goes. The mutual animosity between the prime minister and the opposition leader is legendary. Legal attacks on Khaleda Zia, admittedly an unsympathetic figure, are in full flow: an anti-corruption body charged her on August 8th; the same day a court issued a warrant for her exiled elder son over bribe-taking; in June a younger son was sentenced, in absentia, to six years in another graft case; in November she was evicted from her home. Each of these steps may be legitimate; together they look like vengeance.”
Has Banyan been right all along or are these merely unproven assertions of a highly opinionated columnist? Banyan is not alone in making such allegations though. In 2015, Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations, told the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, United States House of Representatives, 1st Session, 114th Congress, “Finding a way to bridge the chasm between Bangladesh’s two major political parties, and the deep personal enmity that drives their differences, has proven Sisyphean.”
The graft cases against the BNP leader have been proven in the court, or so does the ruling Awami League claim. Mrs. Zia was sent to jail on February 8, 2018 by a local court on charges of embezzling foreign donations meant for an orphanage, named after her slain husband and president Ziaur Rehman, during her premiership between 2001 and 2006. Her conviction on “moral turpitude” charges effectively debarred her from contesting in the polls of 2018. Surely, the AL government could have commuted those sentences given its history of pardoning bigger criminals. But it has not pardoned her yet.
Many in the opposition surely consider Mrs. Zia’s imprisonment as nothing but a vendetta by the sitting prime minister. Mrs. Zia was temporarily released on health ground on March 25, 2020 for six months amid the coronavirus outbreak in the country. The jail term suspension has since been extended a few times by the Law ministry. Nevertheless, the charges of mutual animosity between the two leaders cannot simply be brushed away given their mythical popularity.
Caught in the middle of the bitter rivalry between the two major parties are many nonpartisans, especially the young voters who were born decades after the country had earned her independence. They want a fresh start in the country, with new faces in the parliament and government, because they believe that the old ones are corrupt and dirty.
As the latest election results in 2018 once again demonstrated, the desired changes don’t happen easily in Bangladesh.
Compounding the problem is the mere fact that voters do not like to waste their ballot for any party that has no chance of winning in an election. So, the idea of a viable third party, despite its much-felt need, simply did not (and may not for a foreseeable future) gel in this polarized environment.
Grabbing the power by any means imaginable and remaining there, sadly, has been the raison d’etre or the most important objective of most of the politicians and their political parties in Bangladesh’s dysfunctional “winner-takes-all” democracy.
Will 2024 be any different for Bangladesh?
[Excerpted from the author’s book – Bangladesh: a polarized and divided nation? – available in Amazon.com]