Keeping Democracy Alive
Elections are never a peaceful affair anywhere in the world and more so in the South Asian context. Perhaps it is to keep the record alive that the forthcoming annual general elections in Bangladesh are again heading for a bloody faceoff between the two main contenders- the ruling Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – the major opposition entity.
It is to be expected, however, that in these circumstances, democracy will not be sacrificed at the altar of disagreement though the two top-billed parties in South Asia’s third biggest democracy are again hurtling towards a showdown that could derail the country’s general elections due in January 2014. Bangladesh already has a history of ferocious political violence and military interventions. In the current showdown, the ruling Awami League has refused to step down under a constitutional requirement. As per the constitution, general elections must be held within 90 days after the expiry of the Parliament. Since the ninth parliament expired on October 25, 2013, Article 123 of the Constitution of Bangladesh requires general elections to be held between October 26, 2013 and January 24, 2014. In these circumstances, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has threatened that unless the government relinquishes power, its supporters would whip up nationwide strikes and summarily boycott the elections. Polls were also aborted in Bangladesh in 2007 following clashes between rival parties and a military-backed government took over for two years. This time it is feared that even if the polls do take place, the opposition, led by the BNP, may not accept the results, leading to more strikes and, as was the case in 1996, a second election may take place.
It must go to the credit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that she has sought to defuse the crisis and has even offered setting up of an all-parties government to ensure a peaceful election. It is thought that the BNP may not go along with this solution. The scepter of election bloodshed is a very real one in volatile Bangladesh. Though Bangladesh is a major resource for readymade garments for many international brands, factory owners have frozen their order books for the time being, causing great loss to the national exchequer. For the business and investment sector, this is one cost of the elections that must be borne.
Awami League President Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh for the second time in December 2008. The caretaker system was started in the mid-1990s to ensure fair polls in a country where power had long changed hands between the two dynastic and mutually distrustful parties. The two parties differ little in terms of policy, analysts say, with voters simply booting out the incumbent with every poll in the hope that change will bring improvement.
Another flashpoint between the rivals is a tribunal set up in 2010 to try those accused of human rights abuses during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. The tribunal has so far convicted eight leaders of the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamic party, sentencing six to death. It is hoped that over and above the rivalry between the two main parties, the traditions of democracy will be upheld in Bangladesh, a country which long ago bade goodbye to army boots. While disagreement and dispute are proof of a living democracy, it is expected that the on-going rivalry between the AL and BNP will not be allowed to affect the holding of general elections in Bangladesh in 2014 and once again the best traditions of democracy will reign supreme in this South Asian nation.
Syed Jawaid Iqbal