The people, as they say, have spoken in Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina’s party, which leads the Grand Alliance, has romped back to power for an unprecedented fourth term in office. The general election has given the Grand Alliance, or, more specifically, the Awami League, a huge majority in the Jatiyo Sangshad, the country’s Parliament, to a point where no effective Opposition is in sight.
While Awami League supporters are in a celebratory mood, the Jatiya Oikya Front has rejected the results and demanded fresh polls under a neutral government. Jatiya Oikya Front convener Kamal Hossain, around whose personality the Opposition came together to challenge what it called the authoritarianism of the government led by Ms. Hasina, has called Sunday’s vote “farcical”.
The significance of this election
The political reality for Bangladesh at this juncture revolves around a couple of factors. First, for the first time in a decade, all the political parties took part in the election (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or the BNP, boycotted the 2014 election). In other words, this time voting was based on an inclusive election. Second, this was the first time a general election was held under a political government since the fall of the Hussain Muhammad Ershad military regime in 1990. The earlier stipulation of elections being supervised by a caretaker administration, introduced in the final stages of General Ershad’s regime and carried on till the period of the Fakhruddin Ahmed-led military-backed caretaker government (between January 2007 and early 2009), was scrapped in 2011 through a constitutional amendment by the Awami League government which assumed office in January 2009. Despite protests from the Opposition against the move, the Hasina government remained unmoved. It stuck to the justified position that a government elected for five years cannot morally and logically hand over power to an unelected administration for three months before a new elected government comes into office.
This election has drawn the usual criticism from the Opposition, which has alleged that candidates did not have a level playing field in the course of the campaign. Moreover, on election day, at a large number of polling centres across the country, polling agents of the Opposition were either not allowed to enter the polling stations or driven out of them by ruling party activists. Mr. Hossain and the BNP have cited these as the reasons for voting having been unfair and not free. The government has rejected the allegations. It has instead pointed to what it describes as a massive degree of popular support for Ms. Hasina and her government’s development programmes.
From trauma to victory
For Ms. Hasina, politics has been a long journey from personal trauma following the assassination of nearly her entire family in a violent coup in August 1975 to her rise to political prominence in the years since she took charge of the Awami League. She has been chief of the Awami League since 1981, when she was persuaded to return home from exile in India by senior party leaders, including Mr. Hossain. Her return galvanised a faction-ridden party into coming together as a strong political force, a feat which resulted in her leading it to electoral victory for the first time in 21 years in June 1996. Ms. Hasina’s assumption of office as Prime Minister was certainly significant from the perspective of Bangladesh’s history. One of the earliest priorities for her government was a repeal of the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, promulgated in the post-coup circumstances and subsequently accorded legal sanction by a Parliament dominated by supporters of General Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first military ruler. The ordinance had blocked any questioning of the coup as well as a trial of the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family in any court of law. Five of the assassins were tried and executed in January 2010.
That apart, the Hasina government took steps to bring some prominent Bengali collaborators of the occupation Pakistan army in 1971 to trial. These collaborators, belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim League and rehabilitated by General Zia and given ministerial berths by Khaleda Zia, were tried by specially constituted war crimes tribunals and hanged. In effect, on Ms. Hasina’s watch, the impunity which the 1975 assassins and 1971 collaborators had enjoyed was brought to an end.
Steering the economy
To be sure, there have been questions regarding the government’s treatment of the Opposition in the run-up to the election — cases filed against Opposition leaders and activists, laws seen as an impediment to a free functioning of the media, etc. But it is the strength of its economic performance that the government has projected before the electorate, to a point where the international community, including the World Bank, has been appreciative of the strides made in the economy. Remittances from Bangladeshis working abroad have registered a significant rise, the ready-made garments industry has been performing well, growth has gone up, and massive infrastructure projects have been undertaken. In the field of foreign affairs, the government has based its approach to the outside world on pragmatism, thus successfully preserving a balance in Bangladesh’s relations with India, China and Russia. The government has also found appreciation from the international community in its treatment of the Rohingya refugees — nearly 1 million refugees have found shelter in Bangladesh following their expulsion from Myanmar. It has gone out of its way to ensure the safety of the refugees even as it tries, rather fitfully, to strike a deal with Myanmar on the return of the Rohingya.
In a country where politics has often been vulnerable to extra-constitutional interference, as in the coups and counter-coups of the mid-1970s followed by the emergence of two military regimes in quick succession, and where national history has been massively distorted by those who exercised power between 1975 and 1996, Ms. Hasina has turned out to be the most powerful political leader in the country’s history, after her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Her three terms in office, and now a promised fourth, make her the longest-serving head of government in Bangladesh. There has been no alternative to her.
In the next five years, it will be the government’s responsibility to go beyond an emphasis on economic progress to ensure rule of law and democracy, in the form of a properly functional Parliament, a free judiciary, and an efficient executive. Now that the election is behind her, Ms. Hasina looks to preside over the centenary of the birth of the country’s founder in 2020 and the 50th anniversary celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence in 2021.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and columnist in Bangladesh