Keep­ing Democ­racy Alive

Southasia - - COMMENT -

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

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