Crisis of the Battling Begums
Bangladesh is caught between two female politicians who have consigned the country to uncertainty and violence to satisfy their own whims.
The victory of the Awami League is seen as hollow not only by the opposition parties but also by most neutral observers.
When a country’s general elections are contested by only 11 of the 41 registered political parties, and 153 out of 300 seats of the National Assembly are won unopposed by the ruling party, the exercise can only be called farcical.
Elections were held in Bangladesh on January 5 and the Awami League of Sheikh Hasina won 232 seats. But the victory was seen as hollow not only by the opposition parties but also by most neutral observers. For the last 22 years, the two major political parties, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia, had taken turns to rule the country except for a short period when the military ran the show.
Before elections, the leaders of the two parties failed to reach an agreement about the formation of a neutral caretaker government to ensure fair and free elections. The leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia demanded that Sheikh Hasina relinquish power and let a neutral caretaker government conduct the elections to ensure unbiased supervision.
Sheikh Hasina, however, did not accept the demand. This resulted in a tense political climate and violent agitations ahead of what were termed the bloodiest elections in the history of Bangladesh. Ultimately, Hasina won majority seats.
Ever since the election schedule was announced in October 2013, the opposition continued to protest against the decision of holding elections under the supervision of the incumbent government and termed it a conspiracy to ensure the Awami League’s victory. Its calls for shutdowns and blockades crippled the day-to-day life in the country. Business activity came to a halt, transport disappeared from the roads, trains were attacked
with petrol bombs and massive rallies were organized.
Protesters repeatedly clashed with the police in all major cities. Around 150 people were killed and thousands were injured. Countless vehicles were torched and dozens of polling booths were burnt during the period from October 2013 to January 2014. The country had not experienced such violence since its creation in 1971. The series of hartals and blockades crippled the economy. The Awami League government did try to deal with the situation with an iron hand and made massive arrests, including those of the leaders and activists of the opposition parties.
Khaleda Zia was put under house arrest with a heavy posse of lawenforcers guarding her residence. These excesses were criticized by the Human Rights Watch and other international observers but the AL government did not budge. After taking these measures, the Awami League was sure that it would form the next government. It did not bother about other issues such as the possibility of a low turnout.
The fact that the Awami League published its election manifesto only a week before the election day was an indication of its approach towards its mandate. The manifesto did not project any major issues faced by the country. The BNP also failed to focus on vital issues in its campaign and only tried to exploit the failings of the Awami League government. It criticized the government’s foreign policy, especially its over-dependence on India and termed it as a compromise to the sovereignty of Bangladesh.
The BNP’s entire campaign revolved around the formation of a caretaker government to oversee elections. Zia had distanced herself from the Jamaat-e-Islami’s protests against the war crimes trials and the execution of its leader after feeling the pulse of the masses and for fear of losing voters. Still, the banned Jamaat’s sympathizers supported her.
On the other hand, the Awami League timed the trials and execution of a JI leader perfectly so as to gain the support of the Bangladeshi youth, AL loyalists and nationalist elements. It politicized the trials and criticized the opposition for having proPakistani and pro-Saudi feelings and also blamed it for fanning religious militancy. By banning Jamaat-e-Islami earlier, the government had effectively reduced the strength of the opposition and dented its campaign against Sheikh Hasina to some extent.
The undemocratic moves by the Bangladeshi government and the subsequent boycott of elections by the opposition affected the credibility of the polling process to such an extent that the United States, the European Union and the Commonwealth refused to send their observers to Bangladesh. They pressurized Hasina to negotiate with the opposition parties to participate in elections and also forced the BNP chief to withdraw the call of boycott and end the agitation.
But that would have meant formation of a caretaker government – a demand unacceptable to Sheikh Hasina. So while she did invite Khaleda Zia and her allies for negotiations, she also reiterated her earlier stance of holding the elections under the Awami League government. Khaleda Zia refused to negotiate without an assurance of the acceptance of her party’s demand.
The impasse was a foregone conclusion. The two “Battling Begums” were hardly expected to place the national interest above their personal agendas and egos. The boycott of elections by the BNP continued and elections were held on January 5, 2014 as planned by Sheikh Hasina despite extreme tension on the eve of the polls. The elections were a constitutional requirement that had to be fulfilled but the entire exercise could not be called democratic.
With no independent observers to oversee the polling and with most of the opposition leaders detained, allegations of massive rigging in voting did not surprise anyone. The boycott was very effective and the appeal of Khaleda Zia to voters to stay away from polling got the desired response. The turnout was only about 22 percent against 87 percent in the 2008 elections.
With only 11 out of 41 political parties in the field, the Awami League was bound to sweep the polls and sweep it did. However, the mandate it got was dubious. The pattern of voting was interesting – it was very sluggish in the earlier part of the day but gathered pace towards the evening, which suggested possible rigging. Despite extensive security arrangements in almost all cities and towns, 26 people were killed on the election day.
As expected, the result was not accepted by the opposition and also by independent observers. Violent protests continued unabated and the international community termed the polling process highly flawed. The United States even called for a re-run without any delay. It refused to accept the stand of Sheikh Hasina that the boycott by the opposition parties had not affected the election result and its legitimacy was not undermined. The European Union and the Commonwealth also supported the U.S. call for re-election.
Sheikh Hasina initially resisted the pressure and stuck to her guns but the mounting pressure made her soften her stance. She indicated a willingness to have re-election, provided the opposition parties ended their violent agitation. But she did not budge from her stand of not forming a neutral caretaker government to supervise the process. She again invited the opposition leaders to negotiate and asked Khaleda Zia to sever BNP’s ties with the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist parties to break the deadlock.
Khaleda Zia responded through a press conference in which she announced her future program to seek a solution to the crisis. It was only after this announcement that she was allowed to leave her house on January 11.
Relatively less hostile, her stance indicated a desire to reconcile. She said in her address, “There is no alternative to holding a free, fair and participatory election for restoring peace, stability and normalcy in the country.” She again urged the government to hold dialogue to this end, release the leaders and workers arrested before or during the election period and lift the ban on “peaceful political programs”.
However, this reconciliatory atmosphere was short-lived as Sheikh Hasina chose to take oath as the prime minister for a third term instead of opting for an election re-run. But it seems difficult for the new government to continue for long because Hasina may not be able to withstand the pressure by local and international forces. Khaleda Zia has already announced resumption of blockade of roads, rail and waterways. Irrespective of the future sequence of events, the next couple of weeks promise some interesting developments on Bangladesh’s political front.