Election results can sometimes mean much more than the victory of one party or the defeat of another. The significance of the verdict in the recent elections in four major cities in Bangladesh goes much beyond partisan politics. The ruling Bangladesh Awami League lost all four polls to its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Given the widespread public dissatisfaction with the government’s record, the verdict against the Awami League is hardly surprising. Bangladesh’s opposition parties may have made it their mission to hold the government — and public life — to ransom by organizing strikes and street violence. But the government showed no signs that it was capable of giving the people peace and security, let alone prosperity. The recent political history of Bangladesh thus became one of endless partisan battles on the street and the mindless bleeding of its economy. If Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s government looked clueless about stemming the rot, it was also perceived as corrupt and directionless. True, her government had notable successes in battling terrorist outfits. But the people are clearly unhappy with its inept handling of issues such as law and order, price rise and corruption.
However, the election results point to a far more significant challenge that Bangladesh faces. These were the first elections in the country since the huge protests at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square demanding death sentence for the ‘war criminals’ of 1971. The protests and their ripples across the country were seen as a much-needed popular support to Ms Wajed’s determination to punish the alleged war criminals. But they also provoked Islamist parties and groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hefazat-e-Islami into launching a bloody counter-offensive. The battle over the war crime trials divided the country into two camps — one led by the Awami League and the other by the BNP and its Islamist allies. Credible reports from Dhaka suggest that the civic elections were turned by the BNP-Islamist camp into a battle between ‘believers’ and ‘atheists’. Clearly, the so-called Shahbag effect has not helped the Awami League’s politics as much as it would have liked. It is doubtful if things will be very different when the country holds general elections early next year. Whether the Awami League retains power or loses it, Bangladesh has much to lose by surrendering to the Islamist threat to its democratic politics and society.