Sheikh Hasina Wajed begins her third term as Bangladesh’s prime minister on a controversial note. The Opposition’s boycott of the elections will continue to cast a shadow over the legitimacy of her government. Countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom have publicly questioned the validity of the polls. It has been suggested that another election, in which the Opposition is persuaded to take part, may become necessary before long. All this makes the tenure of Ms Wajed’s new government rather uncertain. True, the Opposition’s inflexible strategy and violent confrontations with the government deprived Bangladesh of a fully participatory election. Ms Wajed faced two options before the polls — either to surrender to her opponents’ violent campaigns or to uphold the Constitutional process by holding the polls. By choosing the latter course she may have invited widespread rejection of the polls. But the other option threatened the very basis of democratic rule in Bangladesh. Months of violence, in which more than 100 people died and public property was wantonly destroyed, made the threat look very real. Fears of an intervention by the army also clouded the pre-poll scene. The fact that the government could hold the polls despite such great provocations was something of an achievement.
The big question now is not how long Ms Wajed’s new regime will last but how soon she can restore some semblance of governance. There was much in her previous term that could justifiably make her proud. Bangladesh’s recent record in two areas in particular — reduction of poverty and elimination of terrorist groups — has been widely acclaimed. But political unrest during the past one year has posed a serious threat to such gains. The economy has suffered major dislocations owing to repeated spells of strikes and street violence. Also, religious and other extremist groups have used the political instability to try and strike at democratic institutions. How Ms Wajed deals with these groups now may turn out to be the first major test for her new government. It is not an easy challenge because these outfits, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami, could now be desperate to provoke more violence. Ms Wajed will continue to have strong, determined opponents. But, if she manages to check lawlessness, her government’s road ahead may be less tortuous.