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Sham election sets dangerous standard for Bangladesh February 17, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : Bangladesh, Guest authors , trackback

Tom Felix Joehnk

For more than two decades Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have ruled Bangladesh. They hate each other viscerally and refuse to communicate, much less negotiate. Both women inherited their political followings from relatives who were assassinated. They have since turned the country’s two largest parties into patronage-based personality cults that specialise in looking backwards.

Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populous country. It has made tremendous progress in recent years — very much despite its appalling leaders. Their greatest feat might have been when they joined hands in 1990 to oust Mohammad Ershad, a dictator. Ever since, the two autocratically inclined ‘begums’ have given Bangladeshis no choice but the choice between the two of them.

The incumbent prime minister has always lost — until now. But now Bangladesh is entering a new phase. In a farce of an election on 5 January Sheikh Hasina won a second consecutive term as prime minister. She laid the ground for this victory in 2011, by junking a provision added to the constitution in 1996 which had called for neutral, ‘caretaker’ governments to oversee elections.

So Zia’s BNP, sitting in opposition, boycotted the poll. They might or might not have won a fair election, had they contested. In either case they convinced a majority of Bangladeshis that the election would be unfair without a caretaker to supervise it. For the 20 million-odd voters who showed up (out of 92 million eligible) the choice was even more limited than usual: the only candidates were either in the ruling party or beholden to it. In the majority of seats no voting took place at all. There is a big difference between two lousy candidates and just one.

Nor was the boycott the only problem. Before the polling, the government had put Zia under house arrest. Ershad, who now leads the country’s third-largest party, was held at an army hospital. The next-biggest party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, had been banned from taking part on the ground that its overtly Islamic charter is in breach of Bangladesh’s secular constitution.

On the world stage Sheikh Hasina has joined a short list of leaders who have been elected technically but without an electoral mandate. Like the rest, she has silenced critics in the media, captured the courts and ensured that only her supporters are entitled to a fair hearing. Her government has branded the opposition, the BNP and its Islamist allies, as ‘terrorists’. Among the first to congratulate her were China, Russia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Belarus. But India has also sent its best wishes. It has come to favour Sheikh Hasina in recent years.

America has called for fresh and credible polls within six months. The European Union is less impatient. But it is wishful thinking anyway and everybody knows it. Foreign powers are loath to cut foreign aid or the trade that underpins the country’s booming garment sector. The UN does not want to risk losing access to Bangladesh’s bountiful blue-helmeted peacekeepers. The only thing that could bring real pressure to the ruling elite — a ban on their travel privileges — is no more likely than fresh elections.

Bringing the begums to the negotiating table looks even trickier than forging peace with the Taliban. In Afghanistan the late Richard Holbrooke was said to have drawn Venn diagrams to illustrate how much the opposing sides had in common. On his way to China Nixon asked, What do they want, what do we want, what do we both want?” The problem in Bangladesh is that the sets of its Venn diagram are mutually exclusive. The only thing both sides want is for the other not to rule.

It would not be fair to pin all the blame on Sheikh Hasina. Khaleda Zia chose the road that undid her. While the Western powers and 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s population agreed that Zia should have the fair elections she was demanding, she went further and set the course for deadly street violence and crippling hartals (labour strikes). The BNP is now in disarray and has no better option than to wait out Sheikh Hasina’s new government, hoping they bring about their own downfall.

If voting were fair and mandatory, the AL would probably win every time; but it enjoys a popularity that does not always translate into turnout, much like the Democrats in America. And the next time Bangladeshis pick their government the League will almost certainly lose. It is now setting the standards by which it will be treated when the BNP come back to power. In 2013, 500 or so people were killed in political clashes, one of the most violent years since independence.

Bangladesh is uniquely imperiled by climate change. One half of its 160 million citizens live on a delta close to sea level. By the middle of the century a country the size of the American state of Iowa will be home to as many people as live in Brazil today. It would be a miracle if its battling, small-minded politicians were to adopt policies capable of bringing the population to live together, in peace, behind the dykes — that are yet to be built.

Tom Felix Joehnk is based in Bangkok and writes for The Economist. This article first appeared on the East Asia Forum on 9 February 2014.




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