The elections in Bangladesh went off predictably — amid a boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its 18 smaller allies, lots of violence, loss of life and property, and a victory for the Awami League. As many as 30 people died on the election weekend, and on voting day activists and supporters of the boycotting parties went about burning polling booths. The Election Commission says the turnout was just less than 40 per cent, a figure hotly contested by the Opposition which put it at a quarter of that. In any case it was nowhere close to the nearly 80 per cent turnout in 2008 — the highest in Bangladesh — that gave Sheikh Hasina a landslide victory. This time, the Awami League was assured of victory even before a single vote was cast — it faced no contest in half of the 300 parliamentary seats due to the boycott. In the remaining ones, the party faced opposition from its own dissidents, and won 110, thus obtaining an absolute majority. Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has declared her satisfaction with the turnout, and asked law enforcing authorities to quell the continuing unrest with an “iron hand”, she must know that questions about the credibility of this election will not easily vanish. In a nation that has worked hard to build some of the best social indicators in South Asia — Bangladesh has cut ahead of India on reducing poverty and malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality rates and gender disparities — such unending political and civil strife can only undermine the gains of the last few years.
The Bangladesh Prime Minister has rejected calls, including by the United States, for dialogue with the Opposition and fresh elections. She has declared that talks with the Opposition can be held only when the BNP ends “violence and terrorism” and severs its alliance with the banned Jamaat-e-Islami. But a mid-term election may become a necessity if the political chaos does not abate. It is time the Awami League realised that while its fight against Islamism is a good fight, it simply cannot be won by polarising the nation politically. It will take two, though. BNP leader Khaleda Zia needs to discover better alternatives to expressing political differences than holding the country ransom to street violence and thuggery. As for her dalliance with Islamism, she has Pakistan’s example to see what opportunistic alliances with religious extremism can do to a country. New Delhi’s description of the elections as a “constitutional requirement” that Prime Minister Hasina has fulfilled, is too nuanced to serve any useful purpose; in fact, it only makes it seem partisan. If India really wants to help progressive and liberal forces in Bangladesh, it must use its cordial ties with the Awami League to work at breaking the deadlock.