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'Battling Begums' Costing B'desh

 

Bangladesh has to consider its national interest over its limited people’s interest to continue the growth saga and overall development
AMIR HOSSAIN | Issue Dated: January 19, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Battling Begums | Patterns of Democracy |
 

A world renowned political scientist, Arend Lijphart raised a query in his highly acclaimed book titled ‘Patterns of Democracy’ that “defining democracy as ‘a government by and for the people’ raises a fundamental question: who will do the governing and to whose interests should the government be responsive when the people are in disagreement and have divergent preferences?” His conclusion was simple, go by the majority. But the same concern has become very much prevalent in the context of Bangladesh, with respect to its general election held a few days back. While more than half of the seats were won uncontested due to an opposition boycott and merely 22 per cent voters cast their vote, the credibility of the election looks vague and the essence of democracy has becomes perilous. The current political instability that Bangladesh is suffering is likely to cost the country drastically in near future.

The saga of the ‘Battling Begums’, a.k.a. Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, is not new in Bangladesh. But this time, it has taken a different form altogether. As the 9th parliament (Jatiyo Sangshad) is expiring on January 24, 2014, Article 123(2) (a) of the Constitution of Bangladesh directs that general elections have to be held between October 26, 2013 and January 24, 2014 i.e. inside 90 days before the expiration of the Parliament. Consequently, the Bangladesh Election Commission declared on November 25, 2013 that the 10th general election in Bangladesh will be held on January 5, 2014. However, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) stated that they would not participate in the election unless a neutral government was formed to oversee the whole process. Khaleda Zia appealed to citizens by saying, “I am urging my fellow Bangladeshis to completely boycott this scandalous farce.” Scandalous farce, because, as per her, a fair election was not possible under the ruling Awami League Party led by Sheikh Hasina. However, the Awami League Party refused to approve an interim government or a neutral caretaker government and instead created an all-party interim government, which was headed by Begum Hasina. To be fair, this move seemed sensible – but not to Khaleda Zia, whose boycott call became quite successful.

As BNP did not participate in the election, the result was almost certain. Without any surprise, Awami League Party won with two-thirds majority. As per preliminary reports, the ruling Awami League candidates secured 232 of the 300 electoral seats, giving it a sweeping majority in parliament. Interestingly, 153 out of 300 parliament seats were won uncontested. As mentioned earlier, only 22 per cent of voters cast their votes. Compare this to the record 83 per cent of voters who participated in the previous election in 2008. Sayeeda Warsi, a senior British Foreign Office Minister stated that “It is… disappointing that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box and that turnout in most other constituencies was low.” So, could we call this election as the majority people’s decision? Perhaps not. Then again, if voters believe that they can show their might by boycotting elections, then shouldn't they reap what they sow (or not sow)?

Looking at it all neutrally, it is the BNP-led 18 party alliance that seems to have put in the maximum effort to destabilise democratic processes. They announced “a non-stop blockade of roads, railways, and waterways across the country from January 1, 2014 order to resist the scheduled Jan 5 parliamentary elections.” The opposition parties asserted that the “March for Democracy” program will be continued until reelections under a neutral caretaker government.

But then again, why should Hasina go for reelections when she 'is' the democratically elected leader? The answer is that Hasina herself doesn't have clean hands, as a matter of saying. Khaleda Zia's virtual house arrest, apparently under Hasina's orders, an example of Hasina's excesses. Hasina additionally imprisoned Mohammad Ershad, opposition party head (of Jatiyo) and former dictator, and further banned another leading opposition party Jammat-e-Islami for breaching Constitutional practices. The timing of such excesses leaves no doubt that electoral results were pre-manipulated and gives credence to Khaleda Zia's calls for boycotting fixed ballots.

Consequently, Hasina has been under tremendous pressure from global agencies to find an immediate resolution. The United States has advised both the Bangladesh Government and its opponents “to engage in immediate dialogue to find a way to hold, as soon as possible, elections that are free, fair, peaceful, and credible, reflecting the will of the Bangladeshi people.” Subsequently, while Hasina has assured that “an election can happen any time when BNP comes for a dialogue, but they must stop violence,” Begum Zia has said that “the ongoing crisis will not be resolved by keeping me virtually confined to my house and carrying out oppression on the opposition.”

Whatever is the reality, as a developing country, Bangladesh and its leading Begums have to understand that democracy does not come free. It is the respect that Bangladeshi civil society bestows on two lady leaders that they have the power to support or oppose democratic initiatives. One should not forget that it was not too long ago that Bangladesh was blubbering under dictatorial rule – and also that even democratically, during Khaleda Zia's rule, there was nothing but much of, as The Economist puts it, 'kleptocracy'. On January 19, the Bangladesh Army quite interestingly put out information that they had foiled an internal 'coup' against Hasina. While the news seemed quite planted (by Hasina herself, some analysts pointed out), even if it were true, the dangers of instability are only growing with every passing day.

There is no specific survey to estimate Bangladesh’s election cost but there is no doubt that every election has cost it dearly. More than 142 people have lost their lives in election-related violence since last October. In the same light, the nation’s flourishing $22 billion garment industry which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports has been severely affected by several strikes initiated by opposition parties and election related violence. The growth rate of the country is likely to plummet. Several analysts and agencies have estimated a growth rate of 5.5 to 5.8 per cent in the current year compared to 6 per cent in the last fiscal year. IIPM Think Tank estimates are closer to 3%. More importantly, the way forward has to start with Sheikh Hasina releasing curbs on opposition parties, allowing democratic protests, and topping it with announcing an early date for reelections under a caretaker government.

And if that doesn't happen, that's the point where it would be better for the Supreme Court of Bangladesh to quasi-constitutionally remove Hasina and conduct reelections. But then, if Hasina waits for that, she would have lost the complete lot, and most certainly the subsequent elections.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017