Awami League party of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid has won two-thirds majority in the country’s bloody and divisive elections on January 5. The almost one-party polls, following opposition’s boycott, are being described by much of Bangladeshi media as a farce.
Election-related violence left 22 people dead while 150 polling stations were burned. More than 150 people lost their lives in violence in the run-up to the elections. More unrest is being feared in the coming days as opposition has called for 48-hour strike for annulment of poll results, starting Monday, Jan 6. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), leading an 18-party coalition that boycotted the exercise, demanded cancellation of the polls results and schedule for fresh elections, claiming that the Bangladeshis had rejected the ‘lopsided’ polls.
“People have rejected election with hatred… thus showed their no-confidence in the government,” UNB news agency quoted BNP chairperson’s adviser Osman Farroque as saying. The ruling Awami League, however, termed election as “victory of the people and democracy”.
Turnout was very low and at least 41 polling centers in 11 districts reported zero votes being cast. The country’s controversial election commission said a 40% turnout would be “acceptable”. But the opposition put the turnout only at 3 to 5 percent. Even the voters who showed up at polling stations had no real choice because of opposition boycott.
The Hasina Wajid-handpicked election commission has been criticized for being hand in glove with the government in carrying out massive electoral fraud. On polling day, at least 25 candidates, mostly independent, withdrew in protest against rigging and beating up of their polling agents in several districts including Dhaka, Brahmanbaria, Laxmipur, Sirajganj, Barisal and Jamalpur.
“The Election Commission is absolutely spineless and subservient to the government. It’s a puppet of the ruling party (AL). So, their data are totally unacceptable. We have data from various polling centers. According to that only 3 to 5 percent votes were cast,” BNP’s Farroque said.
Political legitimacy and legal authority are derived from electoral transparency in a democracy. If an electoral exercise does not honor the very basic democratic principles of offering free choice in a transparent ballot, it may deliver a despot rather than a legitimate democratically elected leader. This is precisely what many Bangladeshis are looking at in the new term of Sheikh Hasina Wajid — a “democratically elected” despot.
Awami League’s return to power as a result of Jan 5 ballot may not give it the legitimacy and political authority to govern Bangladesh democratically. The European Union and the US have already rejected it by refusing to send their election observers, questioning the credibility of the exercise. “We’re disappointed that the major political parties have not yet reached a consensus on a way to hold free, fair, and credible elections,” Reuters quoted Marie Harf, a US State Department spokeswoman told a briefing in Washington.
Many Bangladeshi experts predicted more political turbulence even before the elections. More than half of the country’s 300-member Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban or National Parliament House were “elected” unopposed before the polls.
“The ‘election’ of more than half of the parliamentary seats unopposed, that is to say without casting a single vote, has already made it a farcical exercise. By any standards, the parliament that will come into being would not represent the popular will,” Al-Jazeera English quoted Ali Riaz, a professor and chair of the department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, as saying.
A BBC report quoted Sabir Mustafa, BBC Bengali editor, as saying that the question on Jan 6 will not be who won but what will happen next? Many on the Bangladeshi streets shared Mustafa’s fears that legitimacy of Hasina Waid’s new term will always be a question mark.
Will an undemocratically elected government in Dhaka make Bangladesh isolated at the international level? It’s highly probable. The United States and the European Union have already given their verdict on the exercise by refusing to send their observers. Sheikh Hasina will find her biggest support in India, her long-time backer, at least for the time being.
According to World Bank, in the past decade, Bangladeshi economy grew at nearly 6 percent per annum despite frequent natural disasters and the fuel, food price and global financial crises. In the past two decades, poverty was reduced by nearly one third whereas life expectancy, literacy and per capita food production have increased significantly.
Will Bangladesh’s economy continue to performance as impressively during the five more years of the last five years of Sheikh Hasina Wajid? Unfortunately, in the given charged political atmosphere, this too may be a challenge. Daily strikes and political violence could deprive the country of new foreign direct investment, slowdown productivity and push the economy into recession.
Many analysts are nervously looking at the role of Bangladesh’s military which seized power at times of political crisis in the past. Will it intervene again should the political instability continue? Some in Bangladesh believe that the military, unlike 2007 when it last took over, is reluctant to be sucked into the political mess Sheikh Hasina has created, at least for the time being. However, no one is sure for how long the generals will restrain themselves.
Bangladesh’s stability is important not just for its own people but also for the region. Sheikh Hasina Wajid must understand that legitimacy does not come through winning votes. Rather it comes through adherence to the democratic principles of free choice and transparent ballot under a credible neutral dispensation. She will do well to respect the popular sentiment of her countrymen and call fresh elections under a neutral caretaker government to ensure fair and transparent ballot. Her failure would fail Bangladesh’s nascent democracy and betray its people.