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Bangladesh Elections: DEMOCRACY IN QUESTION, By Prof. Arvind Kumar, 15 January, 2014 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 15 January 2014

Bangladesh Elections


By Prof. Arvind Kumar

(Dept of Geopolitics & Intl Relations, Manipal Univ)


The recent elections held in Bangladesh had a very poor turn-out of voters and hence it has raised a number of questions about the functioning of its democracy among the members of strategic and academic community. The turnout was down from 70 per cent in the last election to only 20 per cent. The poor turnout was largely a result of very poor law and order machinery in the State. The internal threat perception warranted the people to stay indoors. There was an anticipation of a high level of violence and that practically frightened the masses, especially in terms of their voting.

Bangladesh experienced a high degree of violence and roughly two hundred polling stations were set on fire. The country has been experiencing internal turmoil with a lot of negative consequences for peace and stability in the region. In fact, it has been so severe that it has been impacting on the democratic fabric of the nation.

Undoubtedly, Bangladesh’s economy has improved remarkably over the past two decades. The economic growth and the overall GDP have seen a rise. There seemed to be a willingness on the part of the state system to improve the overall quality and standard of living of the average Bangladeshi. The promotion of universal primary education was a step taken mainly to build the capacity among masses and help develop the nation. Life expectancy in Bangladesh too has shot up. It must be emphasised here that the average income has doubled over the years since 1975. However, the inflation rate has not been seen in consonance with the current rate of the average income.

For several reasons, Bangladesh is being plagued by politics. Apparently, the return of democracy in Bangladesh in 1991 so far has not been able to mature and flourish. It is only because the politics in Bangladesh has always been dictated and dominated by two begums who have completely been preoccupied with reaching to the centre of power by blaming each other. Unfortunately, over the years, both the women have created personal hatred at the cost of the nation.

The current Prime Minister and leader of the left-leaning secular Awami League Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the country's ‘founding father,’ Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in 1975. Khaleda Zia has been the opponent of Sheikh Hasina and is the leader of the conservative and more religiously inclined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Neither BNP nor the Awami League so far has been able to consolidate their positions in Bangladesh. It seems that both the political parties have not been able to evolve any strategic vision for the country. It is generally believed among the members of academic community that Bangladesh could have taken a better and different path if both these women would have kept themselves away from politics.

During the election in 1996, the Awami League had boycotted the election and the BNP therefore won by a landslide. It was again because of an assessment done by the Awami League about the misdeeds of the BNP. The boycott of the election certainly is not the answer. One has to find the space and make a change after becoming a part of the political process. At that given point, the Awami League had no vision whatsoever. It must be emphasized here that the new BNP-dominated Parliament quickly amended the Constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to take over and supervise new elections. In that process of change and amendment of the constitution, the Awami League had won.

During the recently held election on 5 January 2014, it was found the system to be different. Sheikh Hasina has been the Prime Minister since 2009 and had abolished the “neutral caretaker” system in 2010. Hence, the announcement about the election by Sheikh Hasina had a negative consequence for the BNP. It was felt by the BNP that the election would be rigged and hence the declaration was made that it would boycott the polls.

It is ironical that without contesting the election in many of the constituencies by the Opposition party BNP, the Awami League won 127 seats. It holds more than three-quarters of the seats in the new Parliament, and its political allies and some independents hold the rest. The debate centres on whether this election will have any credibility. It must be mentioned here that the outcome of the election does not augur well with the democratic values and ethos. It has been a challenging task to make democracy work in Bangladesh.

Shiekh Hasina knew that, and yet she did it anyway. This means that she must be determined to ride the protests out and not allow any caretaker government or an election re-run. This is a formula for escalating violence and an eventual military coup. Bangladesh is in trouble. The international community, including the UN, had expressed disappointment and questioned the credibility of the polls because of a poor turnout and political violence that claimed over 160 lives in the past few weeks.

India has acknowledged the election “as a necessity to fulfil the constitutional obligation” but wanted dialogue between the two major parties to settle disputes in a peaceful manner. It may be because New Delhi finds it easier to work with the Awami League than the BNP. A number of outstanding issues between India and Bangladesh from policy point of view need to be addressed in the current context. Undoubtedly, Indo-Bangladesh relationships have improved in some ways and there is a growing feeling that the Awami League accommodates India’s interests largely.

India has also been changing its stance and helping Bangladesh in every possible manner. Recently, it has reached out to Bangladesh through a link which is the first of its kind between two countries in South Asia. It decided to provide electricity to its largest trading partner in South Asia and has constructed a new transmission line. It means a lot to Dhaka because such help comes at a critical time when power outages are resulting in a loss of annual industrial output worth $1 billion. The foreseeable future in Indo-Bangladesh relations mostly will depend on the priorities both the countries will give on the issues impacting bilateral relations.

However, the concept of democracy in Bangladesh needs to be revisited and the participation of the civil society in the decision-making process can only help in getting rid from the ongoing crisis.---INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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