It now looks certain that Bangladesh will have its general elections on January 5. Of course, it will be a very flawed poll with the main Opposition party and its allies boycotting it and the ruling party already having won more than half of the seats uncontested. The government that takes charge on the basis of such a poll will have its legitimacy questioned. It may even be possible that a normal election will follow. It happened in Bangladesh in 1996, when there was an election in February which the Awami League, then the main Opposition party, boycotted, and which resulted in another election in June. However, Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, should no more delude herself into thinking that her party’s street violence, in the company of militant cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami, can stall the elections. Her call to her supporters to march to Dhaka has evoked only a mixed response. True, the government had done everything it could to foil the march. But the failure of the march has much to do with the people getting sick and tired of the unending spells of violence.
As the election day approaches, Ms Zia may be ruing her strategy to force her will on the government. She linked all aspects of her strategy to the single demand for the resignation of Sheikh Hasina Wajed as prime minister. That made negotiations between the two sides difficult and forced Ms Zia to depend more on violent street shows than on a political dialogue. This eventually turned out to be a suicidal strategy that kept the BNP out of the elections and also pushed it into the arms of the Jamaat. Ms Wajed, on the other hand, found her options narrowing. She had to stick to the constitutional mandate of holding the elections by the middle of January. She sought to placate Ms Zia by having an all-party government, but that did not work. For Ms Zia, it was her resignation as prime minister or nothing. This was surely no way to conduct a political dialogue. More important, Ms Wajed had to keep her promise to push through the trials of the “war crimes” of 1971. It became increasingly clear that the BNP was not interested in the elections once the Jamaat was de-recognized as a political party and banned from participating in the polls. Bangladesh could see more violence before and after the elections. But Ms Wajed’s priority should be obvious — she must not allow the Jamaat and its allies to destabilize Bangladesh’s fragile democracy.