One-sided elections on Sunday marred by abysmal voter turnout and stark violence in Bangladesh have brought politics to a new low and left democracy hanging by a thread. Volatility has been a hallmark of politics in this nation forged out of war and genocide. But the latest turn of events is a saga of lessons not learnt from the brief history of democracy since 1991 by the two Begums who have dominated the scene.
The just-concluded unilateral election, in which only the ruling Awami League (AL) participated and secured a meaningless landslide victory, has a precedent in 1996. Then, the boot was on the other foot, as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) railroaded the nation into an election without the AL contesting. But the incumbent’s sweep then proved short-lived under the pressure of intensified mass unrest and violence. The BNP was forced in a few months after that fateful election to remit office.
Is prime minister Sheikh Hasina setting up an encore now for herself? 1996 was still relatively new for democracy in Bangladesh, which had been restored after a decade of military rule. The people of Bangladesh could have forgiven the two leading ladies at that time for piloting the country to the brink of disaster due to the absence of maturity and the normal process of trial and error in the early days of post-authoritarian evolution.
But 2014 is a long way from 1996, with regular turnover of power occurring more or less every five years and democracy being seen as deepening in Bangladesh. The mistakes of a newborn democracy should not have been repeated in a maturing one. The AL erred in forcing an election that had no competition. The BNP erred in boycotting an election in which it had reasonable chances of faring well. The bane of “give-no-quarters” and “take-no-prisoners” politics has triumphed and jeopardised positive gains of the last decade.
There used to be a popular thesis that Islam and democracy cannot coexist due to irreconcilable differences in their respective conceptualisations of sovereignty, power and governance. As long as vastly populous Muslim-majority countries—Bangladesh, Indonesia and Turkey—remained under dictatorships, and with the Arab nations of the Middle East languishing under totalitarianism, this theory appeared to be true. Once the former three states underwent transformations towards popular rule through credible elections in the 1990s, Islam and democracy appeared to have made their peace.
Bangladesh is a bellwether in two ways for the future of democracy in Muslim-majority nations. Firstly, it has two women at the helm who have shown remarkable resilience and comeback skills. The message that there can be legitimately elected female leaders in a Muslim country is a revolutionary one that breaks the patriarchal mould that has come to be associated with conservative strains of Islam around the world.
Secondly, unlike the Middle Eastern Arab countries, Bangladesh has a vibrant civil society and students’ and workers’ movements that can wage sustained struggles against injustices and make great sacrifices for fundamental freedoms. It has the vital ingredient called “democratisers”, i.e. passionate and politicised citizen groups that can fight for their rights. The recent youth movement centred on the Shahbag area of Dhaka for justice against Islamist right-wingers, who committed genocide in cahoots with the Pakistani military, exemplified a culture of exemplary political participation in Bangladeshi society.
For such a conscious citizenry to go AWOL en masse in a general election would normally be inconceivable. But the voter turnout in the January 5 polls had to be low as a form of silent protest of the populace against the non-competitive nature on the hustings. It was also an inchoate strategy on the part of the Bangladeshi public to stay at home and wait for a more competitive election. Full-fledged elections with the BNP’s wholehearted participation have to occur and are the only way for normalcy to return.
International observers have downgraded the election that Sheikh Hasina conducted as hollow because of the boycott by BNP and its allies. But the geopolitical calculations of the big three—the US, India and China—are divergent in Bangladesh, leaving no concerted voice of the international community to apply external pressure on the two Begums to restore robust democracy.
Grapevine has it that the Americans are backing the BNP this time because of its supposed tougher line against Chinese infiltration of South Asia. Washington’s contention that the BNP’s principal ally, the hard core fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, is a “moderate party” has set the cat among the pigeons. Meanwhile, we in India are fearful of the BNP-Jamaat combine owing to the rise of Islamist terrorist groups in Bangladesh during their previous tenure.
The China factor and AL’s alleged tilt towards Beijing has found few takers in New Delhi. But besides favouring one party or the other, India has to rejig its Bangladesh policy with a view to prevent two extreme possibilities—anarchy under a deligitimised Sheikh Hasina or dictatorship under a military-backed caretaker regime in a repeat of 2006.
As staunch secularists, we may prefer AL to BNP. But the key is to stop Bangladesh from sliding on its promise as an global model of Islamic democracy. Procedurally and substantively, democracy must be rescued and India should steer the rocky Bangladeshi boat back to stability. Indian elites have been equivocal about the flawed election in Bangladesh because of their abhorrence for Islamist terrorists emerging from the ranks of BNP and Jamaat. The logic of India’s silence is that we feel safer with Sheikh Hasina staying in power and do not wish for a return of Khaleda Zia as PM. It is a parallel to the military coup that overthrew the elected Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt last July, during which many Indians exulted at the president Morsi’s ouster due to their innate fear of political Islam and inborn affinity for secularism.
An uncontested re-election does not tell us what the majority of Bangladeshis want—change of government or continuity with the incumbent. Ultimately, the choice rests with the people of Bangladesh and India must ensure they are being empowered to pick their own rulers.
The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.