In the Bangladesh general elections of 2008, Sheikh Hasina Wajed led the Awami League to a handsome victory. She used this majority to amend the constitution in 2011, doing away with the device of the interim neutral caretaker government, whereby a group of non-political technicians ran the country between elections to ensure a free and fair poll. It was the removal of this neutral body that was the proximate cause of the boycott of this year’s election by Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and her allied parties. Earlier, the Jamaat-e-Islami, also an ally of the BNP, had been declared by the courts as ineligible to contest the elections since religion-based parties were banned by the constitution.
The weeks leading up to the election on January 5 were marked by hartals and violence on a major scale by the BNP and the Jamaat in order to make the government concede the demand for a caretaker authority for the polls; otherwise, they alleged, the election would be rigged in favour of the ruling party. The Awami League government and the security forces found it impossible to contain the chaos that ensued. Road and rail transport vehicles were attacked and set on fire. Blockades and lock-downs took place for days on end, and the economy was brought to a halt. Since October 2013, 130 persons have died in the violence.
Negotiations between the two main parties and mediation by the European Union, the United States of America and India failed to produce any compromise: the detention of several opposition leaders and the confinement of Khaleda Zia to her residence did not curb the violence. The elections were held as scheduled and the Awami League won an overwhelming victory with about half the seats uncontested. The turn-out of the electorate was low, believed by observers to be about 20 per cent. Nearly 22 persons were murdered on the day itself, some 500 schools were torched and 200 polling booths in seven constituencies set on fire. The Hindu minority, representing 10 per cent of the electorate, was singled out as targets for extreme violence. The election was described as a farce by the BNP and as not representing the wishes of the people by the US and Europe. The Indian government, however, endorsed the election results and with good reason.
Leaving aside the excellent relationship that India enjoys with the Awami League, which has taken effective steps to curb terrorist violence against India, the election cannot be dismissed as illegal because it was not conducted by a neutral authority or because of a low turn-out. The interim neutral mechanism was introduced in the unique circumstances of the overthrow of army rule in 1991 when the first multi-party elections were held under an election commission, which was inexperienced and untested. No country in the world holds elections under any neutral machinery; neither is it held as the ‘best practice’ by the United Nations or any other international organization. Therefore, to demand its restitution was unrealistic, and Wajed was right, and in line with international practice, to consider that it had outlived its purpose. Zia’s refusal to accept Wajed’s offer to join an all-party cabinet for the polls, on the grounds that Wajed herself should step down from the premiership, was equally spurious.
Much has been made of the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth not observing the elections. They did not do so because observation guidelines prescribe that the polls should be contested; if they were not, there would be nothing to observe. The absence of election observation cannot be an a priori judgment on the legality of the election.
Intimidation was the weapon used by the boycotters and the low voter turn-out was due as much to the violence and arson perpetrated by the BNP and the Jamaat as to the absence of choice. Therefore, little can be read into the turn-out. The voter turn-out in elections for the European parliament rarely exceeds 25 per cent of the electorate. The Bangladesh election was held according to the constitution and conducted by the authorized body, and was thus legal and constitutional.
In the same way that nothing obliged Zia’s BNP to boycott the election, nothing can oblige Wajed to take steps for an early new election by persuading Zia to participate. Provided the army, the police and the paramilitary, like the Rapid Action Battalion and the Border Guards Bangladesh, continue to support Wajed, as they have done so far, she should be able to serve her full term. Zia and the Jamaat’s violence-based non-cooperation has certain physical and temporal limits. The BNP faces a split, with many in Zia’s party not reconciled to the boycott that consigned the party to five years in the political wilderness whereas opinion polls suggested that the BNP would have won had it participated. International pressure can have little traction: the UN supervised Afghan elections of 2009 were a mess, and the US has yet to live down its scarcely credible presidential election of 2000.
The US has harboured reservations about the Awami League ever since Nixon and Kissinger’s well-documented blunders of 1971, and these have been fortified by disagreements with Wajed over the status of the Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, and the trials of the murderers of fellow Bangladeshis during the Liberation War. But it cannot remain unnoted by the EU and the US that the BNP’s storm troopers are the cadre of Jamaat, known for militant Islamist tendencies and affinities with international terrorism, and whose agenda has more to do with rescuing the pro-Pakistani agents of terror from justice than with upholding the democratic principle.
In supporting Wajed after this deficient but by no means illegitimate election, India is on the right side of history. It is now for Wajed to consolidate her strength, not by fruitlessly reaching out to an irreconcilable Zia, but by maintaining law and order, arresting those who perpetrate violence, pressing ahead with the widely popular trials and sentences of the 1971 razakars, and concentrating on her development agenda. The prime minister deserves India’s full support on all these counts.
A wider issue is the trend from Ukraine to Egypt and Thailand of street mobs challenging and seeking to overthrow elected governments. These demonstrations attract instinctive sympathy, and usually material support, from the West. The international community needs urgently to reflect on the consequences of such actions for the future of democracy and the legitimacy of electoral representation.