Elections to the tenth Parliament of Bangladesh is being held today amid boycott by the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which many presume was poised to form the next government, if one goes by the prediction of various opinion polls that were conducted from time to time to ascertain people’s pulse. One hundred and fifty three lawmakers have already been declared elected unopposed and the contest is now for the other 147 seats in 59 districts of the total 64 in Bangladesh where the ruling party faces such political parties, who have rarely won any seat in the past. By all accounts the Awami League (AL) is going to receive a thumping majority in this election.
The main reason that the BNP has cited for not participating in the election is the abolition of a neutral caretaker government. It was not prepared to consider its participation under an all-party national government. Effort of the international community as well as the UN to bring the two warring Begums to a mutually agreed formula to conduct election failed miserably as the two leaders continued the zero sum game.
In the last four mayoral elections held under the AL government, BNP candidates won the most crucial Gazipur elections. Many considered it as a defeat for the AL rather than a BNP win. The BNP, without much organisational effort, has benefited from the poor governance record of the AL. Thus the question that becomes extremely important is why has the BNP declined to participate and what are the reasons.
As it appears, there has been pressure on the BNP to come to the rescue of Jamaat. While BNP is critical of war crimes trials, it has never rejected the necessity of holding the trial. Its only criticism is that the trial is not free and fair and the ‘real’ war criminals have gone scot-free. Moreover, war crimes trial is also conducted on the plank of secularism, which BNP sees as a direct challenge to its Islamic ideology.
The Jamaat, since the Shahbag movement, has been extremely alert and has resorted to violence and street fight. Lately, the BNP cadre have joined it, strengthening their resolve to perpetuate violence and mayhem, which will unleash equal repression by the government and create an untenable situation for extra-constitutional intervention.
One has observed in the past that talk between the two political parties is never sincere, and it is conducted for international audience and their domestic supports to paint the other party as unreasonable. One also saw similar effort in 2006 where the two political parties conducted a meeting to ‘resolve’ political impasse over caretaker government. Developments of 2006 also attested to the fact that how caretaker system can be subverted and it is the BNP that should take responsibility for undermining the caretaker regime and creating a crisis that ultimately paved the way for a military-backed caretaker government to takeover in 2007. The caretaker government, which is election time transitional government, was declared unconstitutional in a Supreme Court verdict.
Even when the AL repealed it, no step was taken to strengthen the Election Commission. When the 15th Amendment Act was passed by the parliament in 2011, the Opposition was not present as it was boycotting the sessions. Since then it has taken the matter to the streets. This is not peculiar to the BNP, but the AL, when in Opposition, also had the same approach towards its participation in the Parliament. The AL argues that elections under the Election Commission is important in any democracy, yet it fails to take into account that participation of all the political parties, especially the main opposition party also forms the core of democracy.
Of the three important political parties in Bangladesh the Jatiyo Party, led by H.M.Ershad, and the BNP are not participating in today’s election. In spite of efforts by the AL, it is likely that the voter turnout is going to be extremely low, given that 120 people have lost their lives in violence in the last month alone. Already, 96 polling booths have been burnt by ‘miscreants’ on 3 January, sending an ominous sign to the voters.
The election will produce a government that will have a crisis of legitimacy. The civil society groups have appealed to the government not to hold the election and to find a way out for BNP’s participation. BNP has been adamant that it will not participate without a neutral caretaker government. However, it is too early to say whether circumstances lead to a reenactment of 1996 or 2006 scenario post the election.
While the military remains a potent actor, it is reluctant to intervene. With the potency of increased violence in the near future the question that remains moot is the legitimacy of the government and its domestic and international political implications. Already, Western countries have distanced themselves from the controversial election, and India though emphasized on broader participation, has referred to it as Bangladesh’s internal matter. Bangladesh, which was created as a struggle to establish democratic rights of Bengalis, after 42 years of independence, is sadly witnessing the death of that very aspiration that among other issues led to a revolution in 1971. The democratic future of Bangladesh appears bleak with the demise of an apolitical culture that promotes pluralism and provides space for Opposition.
Dr Smruti S Pattanaik is a research fellow at IDSA, New Delhi