This week’s sham elections ought to serve as a reminder to Hasina and the Awami League that an electoral mandate is not a blank cheque and that, ideology notwithstanding, the priority for Bangladeshis is the future – not the past – warns Hassan Mneimneh
Sunday’s parliamentary election in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country of 155 million people, was a debacle. Due to a boycott by the main opposition coalition, voter turnout was visibly low and more than half the seats were won uncontested. Independent candidates made accusations of fraud and ballot box stuffing. While previous elections in Bangladesh had been closely observed and endorsed by the international community, the current round had only neighbouring India and Bhutan sending token monitoring teams. Even within the ranks of the ruling coalition, many politicians remain in campaign mode – expecting another election in the coming months.
At face value, the election fiasco is the result of a dispute between the two parties that have dominated Bangladesh’s political life for decades. The Awami League, currently in power, is led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed – the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s charismatic first leader. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party is led by Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of former president and war hero Ziaur Rahman. But in fact, the discord runs far deeper, with two opposing visions of the nation and two duel readings of its history.
At its core, the conflict is about Bangladesh’s complex relation with India. For most supporters of the Awami League, India is a mostly reliable neighbour and regional superpower with which Bangladesh should be better aligned on development and secular democratic politics and against radicalism. In the BNP’s vision, India is an overbearing hegemon seeking to fence Bangladesh in and make it a captive market.
This debate is related to a more fundamental difference. In the Awami League’s reading, Islamism denies Bangladesh a level of tolerance and openness that is innate to Bengali culture. According to the BNP, a romantic Bengali elite is attempting to dilute Bangladesh’s religious identity as a majority Muslim society. Many Bangladeshis, perhaps even most, see no conflict between the interlaced Bengali and Muslim facets of their heritage. And many view the exploitation of such identity politics with cynicism — a diversion from the endemic problems of governance, corruption, and environmental decay that constitute genuine existential threats to their nation.
The burdens of the past also weigh heavily on Bangladesh’s consciousness. The country was born in tragedy. On account of its Muslim majority, it became the eastern wing of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947, separated from its western counterpart by both geography and culture. The election of the charismatic East Pakistani politician Mujibur Rahman as prime minister of Pakistan in 1970 resulted in a coup by the Pakistani military. Mujib’s secular socialist Awami League was thus transformed into a national liberation movement, at war with the military and its local supporters including non-Bengali East Pakistanis – or ‘Biharis’ – and Islamists who viewed the independence struggle as an Indian-induced attempt at breaking up Pakistan.
The participation of Biharis and Islamists in atrocities against rebels, their supporters and the Hindu minority is well-documented – as is the involvement of Awami League supporters in anti-Bihari atrocities. Bangladesh’s independence from quasi-colonial West Pakistani rule was finally achieved in 1971, through Indian intervention, after the Pakistani military engaged in untold atrocities in an attempt to suppress an uprising it had itself provoked. But attempts at initiating a transitional justice process in the aftermath of the Independence War faltered, and factions within the Awami League and beyond continued to seek retribution against Islamists for war crimes.
In 2009, the Awami League won a decisive electoral victory. The Bangladeshi electorate may have sought to empower its leader Sheikh Hasina but many members of the Awami League interpreted her victory as a popular mandate to fulfil their vision of a staunchly secular Bangladesh – by banning and punishing Islamists. Yet, in many respects, Hasina’s government delivered. Even in a sluggish international economic environment, Bangladesh displayed a healthy growth rate. Upward mobility has created an increasingly visible middle class. Hasina herself has demonstrated that she is not merely her father’s daughter, but a powerful leader in her own right. However, much of her success has been jeopardised by a partisan and illiberal ideological agenda that targets political opponents, curtails political activity and subjugates the judiciary.
This week’s sham elections ought to serve as a reminder to Hasina and the Awami League that an electoral mandate is not a blank cheque and that, ideology notwithstanding, the priority for Bangladeshis is the future – not the past. A truth and reconciliation process is in order in Bangladesh, and only a leader of the calibre of Hasina is capable of initiating one. This will serve the cause of justice far better than the single witness hearsay testimonies that resulted in the death penalty for those found guilty of war crimes. For their part, the transatlantic community along with India should call upon Hasina to acknowledge the message of the failed electoral exercise and seek a compromise that restores Bangladesh to the path of a true developing, liberal democracy.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Take series: Bangladesh’s failed elections, troubled history and uncertain promise