Bangladesh was the third country in South Asia to witness the general elections in 2018, besides Pakistan and Maldives. But unlike the other two countries, Bangladesh did not replace the incumbent government. Though there was widespread anger and popular unrest before the elections within Bangladesh as was the case in Maldives and Pakistan, unlike the latter, there was no regime change in Dhaka. Why? What does it mean for the future of Bangladesh?
An Expected, but Surprising Outcome
Of course, analysts of Bangladesh did predict the return of the Awami League for the third time in a row. The reasons for their prediction is simple – a weak opposition led by the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia), and the strength of the ruling coalition led by the AL (Awami League led Sheikh Hasina) along with the official machinery in its dispensation.
But the results of December 2018 elections in Bangladesh are still surprising – Awami League winning 280 plus seats and the opposition winning less than ten for the 300 seats.
Though, a section forecasted the return of the AL, but not with this margin. And that makes the results surprising, even though it remained expected. Consider the following reasons. Unlike the previous election in 2014, in 2018, there was an opposition, however weak it was perceived to be. In 2014, the opposition led by the BNP boycotted the elections. As a result, the Awami League led coalition swept through the elections. The AL itself had won more than 230 out of the 300 seats in the 2014 elections that were directly elected for the Parliament.
In 2018, the opposition – Jatiya Oikya Front took part in the election, unlike in 2014. The Jatiya Oikya Front had the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami besides ten more smaller parties. The 2014 electoral result was expected in terms of the AL sweeping the same, because of the boycott by the opposition. But, the 2018 result was surprising because AL swept the elections, despite the presence of an opposition.
The opposition in 2018, that took part in the election led by Kamal Hossain was not a paper tiger. Khaleda Zia may not have led the campaign; but the opposition had enough issues to place in front of the public and also grievances against the AL-led government and rule since the 2008 election.
Second, the electoral result is also surprising because of the popularity of the AL-led coalition, and the weakness of the opposition in 2018, when compared to 2014. Remember, the AL was contesting the 2014 elections as an incumbent. In the run up to the 2014 elections, there were misgivings about the successes of government programmes. People were dissatisfied in 2014 with the AL performance despite the upward swing in developmental indicators. However, the AL won 2014 elections, primarily because they had no opposition.
But in 2018, the case was different. Before the elections in December 2018, there was popular unrest in the streets, especially amongst the youth. Though it started with youth, especially young students taking to the streets and protesting, many joined them subsequently. The AL government saw it as a conspiracy and used force to bring the protestors down. A section even blames the AL for letting loose the party goons on the protestors.
So, in December 2018, when Bangladesh was getting ready for the elections, the AL was certainly not a popular choice amongst the people. Then how did the party succeed in sweeping the elections? Winning the election by the AL with a close margin was perhaps expected; but sweeping the same, with opposition being bulldozed thoroughly – was not.
So, the election result was surprising, especially with the margin in which the AL-led front trounced the opposition.
How did the AL manage to win the 2018 election, with such a lead? Again, AL returning as the largest party of the election was likely; but winning the same with such an absolute margin – should have surprised even the AL supporters. What were the reasons for the results that gave AL an absolute lead?
Two reasons could be explained. First, the disarray within the primary opposition – the BNP. The party leader – Khaleda Zia was placed under jail on corruption charges; her party could not find a good replacement who could rally the party and lead the charge against the AL, despite popular discontent against Sheikh Hasina. Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s son had to stay in exile in London, following a prison term in another case in Bangladesh.
The above meant double jeopardy for the BNP. While for the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina could take forward the legacy of her father – the great Sheik Mujibur, the Bangabandhu. The above meant continuity for the Awami League; the opposite had happened for the BNP – with Khaleda in jail and her son in exile. The BNP could not take the mantle of the opposition; and none in the front, including Kamal Hossain, the leader who led in the absence of Khaleda could take the fight into the AL camp.
Second, the government did use force to ensure the electoral process favoured the ruling coalition. Was the opposition given a level playing field? While the polling may have been without any incidents of malpractices, the electoral process may not have been totally free and fair.
The pre-poll process was heavily criticised. Many in the opposition did complain about pre-election violence, where they were targeted and detained. One of the predominant complaints from the opposition was the violence unleashed by the AL workers.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) observed the following on the electoral process: “repeated instances of arbitrary security force arrest and detention of protesters and political opposition figures, and acts of violence and intimidation by members of the ruling party’s student and youth wings. The crackdown, and the broad and vaguely worded laws that facilitate it, are contributing to an environment of fear. Institutions including the judiciary and the national election commission do not appear to be fully prepared to independently and fairly resolve disputes around campaigns and elections, such as on registration, candidacies, and results.”
The above HRW report also quotes Brad Adams, its Asia Director observing the same about the election: “The Awami League government has been systematically cracking down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control…Members and supporters of the main opposition parties have been arrested, killed, even disappeared, creating an atmosphere of fear and repression that is not consistent with credible elections.”
So What Next?
Now the elections are over and the AL has won the same, what next for Bangladesh politics?
Will the opposition boycott the Parliamentary proceedings and undermine the democratic process? The opposition may have a point on the nature of electoral process and question its freeness and fairness; but, can it afford to boycott the Parliament and derail the process?
Kamal Hossain, the leader of the opposition has already rejected the results claiming that the whole election was completely manipulated and should be cancelled. This demand is not likely to be accepted by the AL. The chances of another election under an international supervision is less likely. So what would this mean for the opposition in terms of options?
Unfortunately, both the AL and BNP has created a negative culture within Bangladesh, that both parties when in opposition would want to boycott the Parliament, and when in power, would ignore the opposition doing the same. If the opposition today is going to boycott the Parliamentary process, it is least likely to affect the AL. Sheikh Hasina is likely to continue with or without the opposition in the Parliament.
So what is in store for the opposition?
The process may not have been totally fair, however, many agree that the polling was free. Even some of the external observers have commented that 2018 election was freer than the earlier ones. The polling was much higher; more than 65 percent of the voters took part in the election. Despite the criticism about pre-poll violence, polling was relatively peaceful.
The opposition will have to play a positive role both within and outside the Parliament and not fall in the trap of recent electoral history.
On the other hand, the AL has a bigger responsibility. First and foremost, it has to ensure that the Parliamentary democracy succeeds in Bangladesh. And the AL would know this better, given its history since the days of East Pakistan. Parliament cannot succeed without a working opposition, and democracy cannot succeed without a functional Parliament. Sheikh Hasina has to be politically accommodative. Given the history between her and Khaleda Zia, vendetta politics is an easy option that Sheikh Hasina should resist.
Second great challenge for Hasina and the AL would be to improve the governance process. During recent years, there have been multiple cases of corruption, State highhandedness, arbitrary detentions and use of force. This is a political recipe for disaster. Improving governance would automatically impact developmental process and economy. There have been many positives in Bangladesh economy, when compared to other countries in South Asia; improved governance by the AL will help Bangladesh reap the benefits.
Finally, Sheikh Hasina should resist the temptation of becoming a democratic dictator. With taking the party to win the elections for three consecutive terms and with no opposition within Parliament, she should not get carried away. With all great intentions, the democrats in South Asia have done greater damage to democracy than the dictators. Sheikh Hasina should avoid treading that path. She has a greater responsibility today to promote Parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh.