Elections to the Bangladesh parliament were held on January 5 and the results have been declared, barring a few seats where repolling is required. Held amid and following unprecedented levels of violence, the elections were boycotted by the BNP, the main Opposition party. The Jamaat-e-Islami remains unable to contest elections following a court order as the party’s Constitution does not accept the supremacy of the Constitution of the State. As may have been expected, the Awami League has won a large majority of the seats, many uncontested, the number being about the same as in the last fully-contested elections, above 230 in a House of 300. Other participating parties supportive of the elections have won the rest. The turnout has been low due to a combination of voter apathy and the violence to voters, and election officials threatened and practiced by the cadres of the BNP and the Jamaat. According to Western media, many voters did not go to cast their votes after the morning’s television reportage on attacks on the polling booths.
The elections came after months of on-and-off discussions between representatives of the government (Awami League) and the Opposition (BNP). In essence, the BNP demanded that elections be held under a caretaker government (as on the last few occasions). The government maintained that with the amended Constitution as it stands, this was not possible. Hence, elections were held within the time frame required by law. The absence of the main Opposition has deprived the people of choice and, hence, cast shadows on the credibility of the process.
Two separate issues interacted to make the last few months among the most violent in Bangladesh in recent times. Besides the methodology of holding elections, on which there were differences as well in 1996 and 2006-7, the issue of the war crimes trial has been rocking Bangladesh since the Shahbag movement in the spring of 2013. Throughout the country, there continued sporadic acts of violence and sabotage by the cadre of the Jamaat. These reached a crescendo in mid- December after the hanging of Abdul Quader Mollah, the first of the war criminals of 1971 to be executed. Even earlier, on the calls for strikes and blockades by the BNP, the attempts to enforce and the accompanying violence were largely by Jamaat activists. A symbiotic relationship between the BNP and the Jamaat was becomingly increasingly manifest.
In the mayoral elections last year, the BNP had achieved sweeping victories over candidates supported by the ruling Awami League. Even though the record of the government in terms of basic parameters like the economy and law and order had been good over the past years (in terms of most social indicators, Bangladesh remains well ahead of India), charges of corruption and apparent disconnect from the people had placed it well behind the BNP in terms of projected electoral success.
In view of this, it is curious that the BNP should have adopted its uncompromising and rigid stand in discussions with the government, when its victory appeared assured. Though the political establishments have usually decried all results as manipulated if it did not suit them, it is also a fact that the elections of 1996 (June), 2001 and 2008 had been broadly accepted as free and fair. There was no reason to believe that these elections would be any different. In the overall context of Bangladesh politics, it is possible that this was an election that the BNP was unwilling to win. Following the institution of the war crimes trial and, particularly, the Shahbag movement for condign punishment to the guilty, the BNP would have been obliged as an incumbent government to carry on with the trials to their logical conclusion. This would have been unacceptable to many in the top leadership, and more so to their Jamaat allies.
On the other hand, derailing the trials would have gone against strong public sentiment and exposed the party to charges of being soft on the perpetrators of murder and mayhem in 1971. By opting to stay out, the party can now continue to be ambivalent and avoid taking any clear position on the issue of war crimes. It can wait it out till the issue comes to its closure, while flaying the government for being ‘undemocratic’.
The BNP is an established political party and has been twice elected to government. The Awami League and the BNP are seen as, and have been since the restoration of democracy, alternatives before the electorate. Right of centre, its credentials to being committed to the essential spirit of Bangladesh have never been seriously questioned. Recently, however, it is openly tying itself with the Jamaat, which continues to be unapologetic about its role in 1971 and its commitment to an Islamized society. It is noteworthy that the Pakistan National Assembly passed a resolution expressing ‘grief and concern’ at Mollah’s execution and termed him a patriotic Pakistani who had stood by his convictions. How this tactic of the BNP would play itself out in the public consciousness remains to be seen. It is well known that many members of the BNP are uncomfortable with these developments. Also disturbing are the messages emanating from Tarique Rahman, senior vice-chairman of the party and son of Begum Khaleda Zia — in London for several years undergoing medical treatment — strongly advocating an unrelenting confrontation. His latest message describing the 1972 Constitution as having no popular support raises some obvious and uncomfortable questions about the party’s intentions, and has caused a reputed analyst to comment, “When a party has lost its marbles....” The 1972 Constitution remains the foundation of the State, even if tampered with by the military regimes of Zia-ur Rehman and H.M. Ershad, some of the changes made by them removed later by the judiciary.
As in the post-election phase in 2001, the Hindu minority is being targeted by Jamaat and BNP supporters in many areas. Earlier stray incidents have acquired much wider dimensions, and there is outrage in the media both at the attacks as also the government’s inability to afford protection. The chairman of the Bangladesh human rights commission has said that the State must use whatever degree of force necessary to counter the post-election violence, preserve the State and maintain its secular character.
The most critical foreign comments to emerge on the elections have expectedly come from the United States of America, never, since 1971, known for its correct judgement on Bangladesh affairs and incipient antipathy to the Awami League. I recall from my Dhaka days that during the soon-to-be-annulled elections in February, 1996, the US had supported the holding of elections by the BNP as a constitutional requirement, contrary to its views now. Others, including the secretary generals of the United Nations and the Commonwealth, have been more balanced, with due emphasis on the unacceptability of violence as a political tool.
Major powers such as Russia and China have kept their counsel. India described the elections as a constitutional requirement and held that “violence cannot and should not determine the way forward”. It is appropriate that Salman Khurshid should have pointed out that, “While the US is at some distance from Bangladesh, we are right next to it. So, our understanding of the region and understanding of sentiments of the people in the region should be helpful in the positions they want to take.”
Having weathered the storm, the first task of the government should be to restore law and order with firmness, which it has not done effectively over the past months as innocent people were being killed daily and State property wantonly destroyed. Statements from the Awami League leadership indicate that it is aware that, while the elections were a legal requirement, the absence of any opposition detracts from its credibility. Hence, the offer of further negotiations with, it is implied, an out-of-turn election before the full term is over. But this would require both the parties to approach the issue in a spirit of give and take.
Clearly, the unremitting confrontation prescribed from London by the senior vice chairman of the BNP is a road to nowhere. The BNP would also have to assess if its identification with the Jamaat is good for Bangladesh, or even good politics. If the future of the polity of Bangladesh is at stake, then the Awami League may like to cease considering itself the sole custodian of the war of liberation or the spirit of 1971. It may then find supporters from a far broader spectrum of citizens concerned about the future of their country.