Democracy in Bangladesh, a prisoner of history

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that modern democracy in Bangladesh is a prisoner of this history.

It was an election of the ruling party, by the ruling party and for the ruling party. That is how one can describe the recent general elections in Bangladesh.

It was an election of the ruling party, by the ruling party and for the ruling party. That is how one can describe the recent general elections in Bangladesh. More than half of the candidates won the elections without even contesting and the remaining half, in a parliament of 300, romped home with a token fight between friendly parties.

Hasina-KhaledaThe ruling Awami League, therefore, got a three fourth majority in the national assembly, which was an unprecedented victory. This is a parliament where the largest opposition in the country, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has no representation at all.

Political monopoly

No doubt, a House chosen without the participation of the main opposition alliances raises questions about the legitimacy of the government. And this question is being echoed within Bangladesh as well as outside. Concerns about the future of democracy in the youngest republic of South Asia are also under discussion.

This is not the first time that Bangladesh has seen a one sided election; in the middle of the 1990s, the BNP, then in power, held similar elections and won all the seats of the parliament, unopposed. But the government collapsed under the weight of its own majority and held another election within a few months, and the Awami League came back to power.

There is a huge and complicated history behind what is happening in the Bengali speaking country. And this history is a recurring theme in the nascent nation. It is a battle ground for political parties. The fights of the past have created deep distrust and animosity amongst the two main political organisations – the Awami League and the BNP.

But the first point of discussion is: why were the 2014 general elections non-inclusive and did not see the participation of the main opposition parties?

The BNP wanted the elections to be held under a caretaker government, run by a non political, neutral regime. The ruling party offered to set up a caretaker government, constituting all political parties, but the opposition rejected the offer and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina before the elections were to be held.

The Awami League cited the constitutional provisions which did not support such an arrangement. In 2011, the parliament had annulled the provision of a caretaker regime, thereby doing away with a system which had become contentious ever since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1991. The main opposition was not in favour of this move, as it understood what this step would lead the country towards – and that prediction came true in the form of the 2014 elections.

The reality is that every election has, so far, been held under a caretaker regime. Awami League had a bitter experience in 2006 under the caretaker regime when that government, with support from the military, instead of holding instant elections, extended its term and tried to cleanse the Bengali politics of its two predominant parties. Sheikh Hasina had faced incarceration whereas the BNP leadership was also found in trouble at the time.

However, none of the political parties learnt any lesson from that episode.

Many rounds of talks were held and international players tried to broker a compromise between the two political rivals but no agreement could be reached between them.

As a result, the Awami League went ahead and held elections, whereas the BNP and its alliance partner – right wing Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami – tried to disrupt. It led to country wide protests costing more than 500 lives in a span of three months. Not only that, the whole nation reeled under constant shutdowns and strikes called by the opposition.

Various reports suggest that the fundamentalist Jamaat attacked the Hindu minority and other sections in different parts of the country, which were coming in to vote. This violence continued even after the elections.

A historical analysis

Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971, under the active leadership of the Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the current prime minister’s father. Bengali nationalism and linguistic identity were two defining reasons that led to a bloody separation between the then East and West Pakistan.

However, there were elements led by Jamaat-e-Islami who opposed the partition of Pakistan and these people actively helped the Pakistani army in suppressing the movement, which led to the deaths of more than a million people and the displacement of another 30 million.

Majority of Bangladeshis feel very strongly about the war and want justice for the deaths of so many innocent people.

Immediately after becoming an independent country, Dhaka banned the fundamentalist group, but after the death of Mujibur Rahman the ban was lifted and the Jamaat became one of the alliance partners of the BNP, under the presidency of Ziaur Rahman – an army dictator and the husband of Begum Khalida Zia, the leader of the present BNP.

The political legitimacy of the Jamaat, and some of its leaders involved in the movement, became a bone of contention between the two main political parties in the 70s and this difference still persists.

 International crimes tribunal

In 2009, the Awami League government set up Bangladesh’s International crimes tribunal to try those who were responsible for killing people in the liberation war. As a result, some of Jamaat’s most prominent leaders faced trials. One of these prominent figures, Abdul Quader Mollah, became the first case of the tribunal and faced the gallows late last year for his criminal complicity in 1971.

His hanging stoked violence in several parts of the country. The BNP has been a loyal ally of the Islamic group and it patronised many of its radical leaders during its rule.

It is this history which is coming in the way of any kind of compromise and understanding between the Awami League and the BNP. The BNP and the Jamaat term the tribunal vindictive towards their leaders, illegal with respect to international law and want its disbandment. The ruling party sees it as cathartic and a must to provide justice to the thousands of victim families.

Democracy, a prisoner of history

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that modern democracy in Bangladesh is a prisoner of this history.

But one needs to ask, what is the way forward to the present impasse in the country?

I asked the same question to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on January 5, a day after the elections; in the media interaction, where she, very bluntly, replied back that it all depends upon the attitude of the opposition – if they want to talk then some way out can be found.

The only way out is a new election, which is inevitable, whether it happens in six months or a year.

The present regime suffers from the problem of legitimacy. The violence and continuous disruption of normal life has made people cynical about the elections and democracy. Talk to any common man on the street and his or her first reaction is always the restoration of peace and normal life. They don’t care who wins and loses.

Such cynicism does not strengthen democracy; rather it gives an opportunity to military intervention – which the 160 million people of this country are not immune to.

Democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people but this idea is served well only when it is participatory and includes all shades of political colours.

In a nutshell, the 2014 elections in Bangladesh lacked this democratic spirit.

 By Sanjay Kumar, Express Tribune Blogs.