Sunday’s elections may not end the current spell of political unrest and violence in Bangladesh. The Opposition, which boycotted the polls, will not recognize the government that will now be formed. It has announced fresh agitation plans to force the government to annul the polls. The new government will lack legitimacy in the eyes of a large section of the people as well. It is safe to assume that governments of many countries may hesitate to do normal business with the new government. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, cannot have been unaware of the possible reactions to the polls. If she had still stuck to her resolve to hold the elections, she had valid reasons. She had two choices to make — to hold the elections on schedule and, thereby, uphold the Constitutional provisions or to surrender to street violence. By choosing to follow the first option, she has made the point that the rule of law, and not street power, must prevail in a democracy. It was not an easy choice to make, but Ms Wajed would have set a dangerous precedent if she had allowed the street violence to set the agenda for her. The way the militant cadres of the Jamaat-e-Islami turned street protests into a reckless campaign to burn and kill suggested an ominous design to strike at political and other freedoms. No responsible government could afford to allow such forces to have their way.
However, Ms Wajed now faces an even more difficult challenge. She has to try and achieve two things simultaneously. She has to start a new initiative to involve the mainstream Opposition parties in yet another reconciliation process. It may even be necessary for her to hold another election in the near future in which the Opposition will take part. But the success of such an initiative will depend largely on whether Khaleda Zia, the Opposition leader, can be somewhat more flexible than she has been so far. But, at the same time, Ms Wajed must carry on with her battle against the Jamaat and other anti-democratic forces. Much of the current political unrest in Bangladesh, especially the Jamaat’s violence, is linked to the trial of the alleged war criminals of 1971. Ms Wajed must stay firm in taking the trials to their logical conclusion. If the battle against the Jamaat is lost, the future of political and other freedoms in Bangladesh could be very uncertain. Ms Zia too should realize that the Jamaat will eventually prove more a liability than an asset for her.