Dialogue January - March, 2009 , Volume 10 No. 3
‘Democracy’ Makes a Comeback after Elections in Bangladesh
The ninth parliamentary elections in Bangladesh brought Awami League chief Shaikh Hasina into power and in the process also restored democracy in a country where it was in abeyance for last two years. This interregnum saw two caretaker regimes one of which actually tried to throttle democracy by attempting to hold a stage managed election in favour of Khaleda Zia. The second caretaker government no doubt tried to introduce some positive political reforms, but its long stay in power once again started raising fear about its intentions. This return of democracy became further important as it managed to keep ‘undemocratic forces’ like Jamaat-e-Islami and other similar Islamist groups out of power.1 In this sense, democracy made a real comeback in Bangladesh. No body was sure till very last whether the elections would be held in Bangladesh or not. The uncertainties about the elections were however removed after the interim authority lifted the state of emergency which has been prevailing in the country since January 11, 2007. The people of Bangladesh made their choice against Islamic extremism when the same forces are sweeping through a major part of the Muslim world.
This paper has tried to analyze the outcome of December 2008 elections in Bangladesh and while doing so it has also taken into account developments that took place towards the end of Khaleda Zia regime and during the nearly two year tenure of the caretaker governments. This paper argues that though democracy has been restored in Bangladesh after a gap of two years, challenges before the new government are immense. A successful Awami League regime will strengthen democracy in Bangladesh and check the phenomenon of rising extremism. But if this regime fails to deliver on the promise made during the election, then the reaction against it would be equally sharp. The failure of Awami League government would either bring back military rule or create further space for Islamist and extremist forces.
Khaleda’s Attempt to Manipulate Caretaker Government System
After the end of the tenure of democratically elected government, a caretaker government takes over in Bangladesh with the mandate to hold elections within 90 days.2 Khalida Zia handed over power to caretaker government in October 2006. But by then she had tried to make several changes in administrative structure which could have easily swung elections in her favour by using ‘unfair means.’ Awami League started crying foul about the intentions of the BNP led government in 2004. At that time nobody took it seriously. But when Khaleda tried to increase the retirement age of the Supreme Court judges, it made her intentions obvious.3
Election in Bangladesh could not be held on time after the completion of the term of Khaleda Zia government as the administrative set-up left behind by her was perceived to be biased in her favour. As a result, instead of holding election in Bangladesh, the caretaker government (CTG) and the Election Commission (EC) succeeded only in inciting a political turmoil in the country. The continuous political agitation launched by the Awami League led “Grand Alliance” finally forced President Iajuddin Ahmed to resign from his additional responsibility of chief advisor to the caretaker government.
This brought into Bangladesh a new Caretaker government headed by Fakharuddin Ahmed. This was a unique arrangement. This caretaker government was strongly backed by the military but it did not directly take over the reins of government.4 This caretaker government tried to bring in many political and electoral reforms in Bangladesh some of which was actually demanded by the opposition Awami League, though the party never thought that the scope of these reforms would be widened and its leadership may also suffer because of this.
The main thrust of the reforms introduced by the Fakharuddin Ahmed led caretaker government was to end the dynastic leadership in the parties and change the way political leaders rule when they are in power. The prime targets of these reforms were former Prime ministers Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. The caretaker government also wanted to strip the parties of their powerful and often militant student wings as both the BNP and Awami League bank heavily on the support of students and professional groups in this politically volatile south Asian country.5
To bring in democracy and financial transparency in the political parties the Bangladesh Election Commission proposed that parties should register with it by submitting lists of their elected leaders. These parties were asked to complete elections to their central and grassroots committees in accordance with their constitutions before applying for registration. They were also asked to disclose sources of funds. It was decided that a political party failing to fulfill these conditions would not be allowed to participate in the elections.
‘Minus Two Formula to ‘Manage Two Formula’
In Bangladesh many people including the second caretaker government headed by Fakharuddin Ahmed thought that the personal rivalry between Shaikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia was the main problem behind the political instability in the country. The caretaker government tried to keep both the ‘battling Begums’ out of politics by pressing charges of corruption against them which they were supposed to have done during their respective tenures. This came to be known in Bangladesh as ‘Minus Two Formula.’ But the personal loyalties of the two ladies proved very strong and the caretaker government was forced to allow them to contest elections.
The government was unable to foster any alternative political scenario despite encouraging splits and dissensions in the existing two parties. They now tried to create a better democratic environment by putting restrictions on the two women and the Minus Two Formula was replaced by “Manage Two Formula.”
When Shaikh Hasina and the Awami League criticized the release of Tarique Rahman and Khaleda, the caretaker government got the sense that the old political rivalry had not disappeared. To stop Bangladesh from returning to era of perennial political hostility they pressured the two women to enter face-to-face talks although it was believed that they had not spoken with each other for nearly a decade. The purpose of these talks was to make them discuss how to promote fair competition in politics and do away with the culture of mudslinging. The caretaker government also asked Barrister Rafique-ul Huq, who was defending both of them in court, to mediate.6 Khaleda was asked to keep her son Tarique Rahman out of politics for few years. Often referred to as the most powerful man in Bangladesh despite having held no ministerial post in his mother’s government, Rahman was widely regarded as the epitome of corruption. The caretaker government also suggested Khaleda to withdraw the expulsion order of ex-BNP secretary general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and joint secretary general Ashraf Hossain and accommodate the pro-reformist faction of the party.
Political Reforms and the Caretaker Government
Some of these reforms were however only partly adhered to. The caretaker government has introduced several measures to bring in intra-party democracy. To this end, it had recommended that the nomination of candidates should come from local level.
The Awami League by and large tried to involve local leaders in the awarding of party nominations. In BNP however, the party leadership chose to circumvent the grassroot approach by dispatching teams comprising of senior leaders to the constituencies to judge conditions. Decisions on nominations were made at the top levels of the party leadership. The party tried to justify this approach on the basis of shortage of time. The party skirted around or even flouted the relevant provisions of the Representation of People Order (RPO) regarding nominations.
The BNP also cold soldered its reformist leaders. These leaders had talked of reform in the party and wanted steps taken to introduce intra-party democracy within the party. Khaleda was freed after an understanding with the caretaker government that she would rehabilitate these leaders and not victimize them. But this promise was not been fully kept. The BNP high-ups decided to give party nomination only to a few reformist leaders like Saifur Rahman, Lt Gen (retd) Mahbubur Rahman, Maj (retd) Hafizuddin Ahmed. Former BNP secretary general Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and nine former BNP lawmakers failed to get party nomination for siding with him after the changeover of January 11, 2007. They filed their nomination papers as independent candidates. Similarly Osman Farruk, Chowdhury Kamal Ibne Yusuf, Masud Arun and Zahiruddin Swapan were also denied nominations.7
A record number of women candidates contested this election. Their number was 50 and they contested from 52 constituencies. In the 2001 polls, 38 women contested from 48 constituencies. Apart from Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, a crop of female leaders of different political parties emerged as strong candidates in different constituencies. But this also does not indicate a positive trend in Bangladesh politics. Both Awami League and BNP nominated many female candidates just because their husbands became ineligible to contest elections as they were convicted in different corruption and criminal case.8
First time a number of new faces were given nomination by both the parties. This was especially the case in Dhaka. Awami League fielded as many as 40 new faces for the polls. In BNP the number of new faces was around 20. But unfortunately, most of these nominations were given to the relatives of those who have been convicted and other individuals of dubious credentials. BNP gave nominations to even a charge sheeted accused who is involved in August 2004 grenade attacks on a Sheikh Hasina rally. Increase in the number of constituencies from 8 to 15 in Dhaka was another reason for crisis of candidates.9
Inability of Caretaker Government to rein in Islamists from participating in election
Though the interim authority brought in legislation to prevent parties from using religion for political purposes, it could not stop Islamist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami from contesting elections. These parties made minor changes in their constitution to so that they can register themselves with the Election Commission which was an essential condition this time. The four-party alliance once again demanded votes in the name of religion. Khaleda urged the voters to vote for her party ‘to save Islam and the country’ though it was difficult to understand how Islam faced threat in Bangladesh. The caretaker government on the whole was unable to rein in Islamist groups from participating in religion based politics.
Political Configuration before Elections
As in the past, elections in Bangladesh were fought between the alliances led by the two main political parties – Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The earlier 14 party grand alliance headed by the Awami League was reduced to nine - party alliance on the eve of elections. In this alliance besides Awami League another major constituent is Jatiya Party (JP) of Gen Ershad. Awami League gave 48 seats to JP and nine seats to other allies. On the other hand, the BNP was back with the same old four-party alliance. In this alliance besides BNP other partners were Islamist parties who have their avowed objective of turning Bangladesh into an Islamic state. The BNP partners included Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), and Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP). Jamaat was given 34 seats to contest. BNP also gave four seats to the two parties in Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), and two seats to Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP).
In Bangladesh on the eve of elections, the country gets divided into two halves. One section supports BNP and the other Awami League. Islamists vote share vary from four to eight percent. Thus this vote actually give the edge to the party they ally with. In 2001 elections, the Awami League actually increased its vote share from 37 to just over 40 per cent. Though the BNP’s vote share also increased marginally, it was able to sweep the polls because of its well-thought-out electoral alliance.10 A cursory look at the election returns of 1996 and 2001 show that a relatively small increase in the BNP’s vote (8 percent, perhaps half of which was the transfer of Jamaat support) led to a 44 percent increase in seats elected. The Awami League, despite increasing its vote (3 percent), witnessed a 57 percent decline in seats elected. A small shift in voters produced a disproportionate outcome. This is, of course, a vagary of the first-past-post voting system.11
The importance of a proper alliance made General Ershad a prize catch this time.12 Both BNP and the Awami League knew that his party gets about seven percent of votes polled. In a country like Bangladesh where the electorate is almost evenly divided between Awami League and BNP this vote was very crucial. Moreover, Awami League also wanted to undo the advantage enjoyed by the BNP because of its alliance with Jamaat. However, when Ershad made clear his intention of joining Awami League alliance, the erstwhile BNP government opened some pending cases against him to put pressure. Probably, Ershad had sensed the mood of the voters and hence he stuck with the Awami League led Mahajot (grand alliance).
Promises to Electorates
In the election manifestos of both political alliances main focus was on economy and making the Bangladesh parliament functional. Awami League manifesto titled ‘Charter for Change’ highlighted five promises: lowering of commodity prices and avoiding an economic depression, curbing of corruption, increasing production of power and energy, eradication of poverty and inequity, and establishment of good governance.13 The manifesto also promised that the Anti-corruption Commission would be further strengthened. War criminals would be tried and religious terrorism would be suppressed with an iron hand. The BNP also pledged measures to contain price hike of essentials, curb corruption, restore law and order, combat terrorism, and allow the judiciary full independence.
Both the main political parties stated in their manifesto that they will work for a functional parliament. The Awami League promised that Deputy Speaker would be from the opposition. Similarly, the BNP to make parliament ‘effective and functional’ suggested that speaker and deputy speaker will have to resign from party post. Besides, the deputy speaker would be nominated from the opposition. The party also promised that parliamentary standing committee would be formed and chairman of important committees will be picked up from opposition bench. It further suggested that no party or alliance should boycott parliament session, though they would be able to stage a walkout on specific issues.
Thus the present concerns of the country found place in the respective manifestos of both the political alliances. But many people are still skeptical how much of it would be implemented. Moreover, constitutional experts also feel that unless parliament members of both sides enjoy full access to government funds and facilities, participatory role of all MPs will not be ensured. Similarly, the promise of the BNP to make judiciary fully independent was not taken seriously as the party had kept dilly-dallying over the issue while it was in power.
Khaleda’s alliance partner Jamaat-e-Islami talked in its poll manifesto that it would initiate enactment of ‘blasphemy law’ to prevent anti-religious publicities or criticism of religion in books, newspapers or electronic media and punish those responsible, if the BNP-led four-party alliance was voted to power.
The party willing to establish a rule in the country based on the ideals of Islam also showed its intention to initiate measures to spread the ideals of Islam through all mediums, including radio, television and newspapers.14 It wanted to give priority to Forkania madrasa and mosque-based mass education. Most importantly, the Jamaat manifesto talked of giving military training to citizens aged between 20 and 30 gradually under the supervision of the defence forces.15 Jamaat however did not clarify what was its intention behind such training. This agenda of Jamaat made many people in Bangladesh worry as Islamist organizations have generally given this kind of training to create militants.
The use of religion by the four-party alliance also forced the Awami League to issue statement saying that Awami League (AL) will not formulate any anti-Islamic law if voted to power since the party is committed to restoring the image of Islam as a religion of peace and equality. The Awami League presidium member Matia Chowdhury however made clear that the party and its allies were not in favour of using Islam as a political tool in the elections.
Election Results: Overwhelmingly in Favour of Awami League
The election results were overwhelmingly in favour of Awami League led alliance which came into power with a landslide victory. The BNP led four party alliance was routed and among its alliance partners only the Jamaat-e-Islami could manage to make its presence in the parliament. This alliance got 262 seats in the 300 member parliament. Awami League alone got 230 seats while its alliance partner Jatiya party of Gen Ershad got 27 seats. The BNP alliance got just 31 seats out of which three seats are held by the party chief Begum Khaleda Zia, who must resign two. Begum Zia’s Islamist partner Jamaat-e-Islami managed to get just two seats.
Remarkably Free and Fair Elections
This was one of the most free and fair election ever held in Bangladesh. The country’s military which has been notorious in the past for coup and counter-coups did a remarkable job this time under General Moin and prepared a digital voter list with photographs. Preparing a list of this kind was no mean achievement in a country of 150 million people. The fairness of voter list has been endorsed by Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).16 The IFES did a sample survey and found no ghost voters in the list. The earlier list prepared during the former four-party alliance rule was alleged to have 14 million fake voters which the Awami League feared were there to rig the elections in favour of the BNP.
The violence during the elections was also minimal. It was most closely watched election in the country and attracted nearly 200,000 poll observers. They came from many countries. The UN, commonwealth and the European Union also sent its team of observers.
Absence of Peaceful Transfer of Power: A Bane of Bangladesh Democracy
The most disconcerting aspect of the Bangladesh elections is that generally people are not sure whether the losing side would accept the defeat graciously. In the democratic history of Bangladesh it has been seen that the losing party instead of contributing in the parliament takes politics to the streets. This situation results in endless strikes which has often given excuse to the military to step in. This also brings the country to a grinding halt and makes people suffer.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels based NGO, prior to the elections had also expressed apprehension about a smooth transition to democracy in Bangladesh through the polls.17 It had stated that regardless of who wins election, the next government and opposition parties will face the challenge of making parliament work and contending with army that wants a greater say in politics. The report also suggested that the international community was not satisfied with the behaviour of political parties in Bangladesh but it wanted elections to be held fearing take over of power by the military.
Fortunately for Bangladesh this time country was largely saved from any widespread post-poll violence. Though the BNP and its allies still seem to have not recovered from the scale of defeat and are maintaining that the elections were rigged, local and international observer missions have endorsed the elections as free and fair. Not many people now believe Khaleda’s allegation who had launched similar offensive even during the run-up to the elections. She had termed both the caretaker government and the election commission as biased. But these allegations were refuted by the UN delegation which visited Bangladesh prior to the elections.
Factors behind Victory of Awami League
The election results surprised even the most ardent supporters of Awami League. A large number of factors were behind their landslide victory.
Awami League Learnt Importance of Alliance
The debacle in 2001 had made clear to Awami League that in the existing system it was a good idea to form an alliance with a party with some significant following in the country. As Islamist groups were ruled out, it opted for Gen Ershad. This strategy paid dividend and there was a huge increase in the number of seats of Awami League. Interestingly, this majority will also now give freedom to Awami League to keep Ershad under check.
In latest elections people gave a clear verdict in favour of Awami League and its progressive agenda. As Bangladesh is a poor country, economic issues have always been important. This time its importance was even more as the prices of essentials had shot beyond the reach of common people. During the previous regime of Awami League prices of essentials had been in check. Awami League has been more successful in managing inflation. Their agricultural policy has also been better during their earlier rule.
The economists of Bangladesh appreciated the manifesto of the Awami League for its time bound economic programme which also makes it accountable to the people. On the other hand, the manifesto of the BNP touched the economic issues but did not spell out how it was going to achieve them. Its other promised programmes like free distribution of foods to nearly one third of Bangladesh population and grant of loans to unemployed educated people in exchange of certificates was seen as nothing but a political rhetoric.
During the rule of BNP led four-party alliance, Bangladesh became epitome of corruption. It was ranked as the most corrupt nation of the world by the Berlin based Transparency International for three consecutive years. There was corruption also during the regime of Awami League but it was never at this scale. The BNP regime became known for Hawa Bhavan Syndicate. In fact, the prime minsters office (PMO) moved to Hawa Bhavan and all important decisions were taken by the elder son of Khaleda Zia. People not only suffered because of this corruption, they also found it humiliating as the whole nation was taken as corrupt, whereas in reality only the government machinery was corrupt.
The progressive section of Bangladeshi population was concerned
by the rise of Islamist extremism in the country. Jamaat was the political face of this phenomenon. What made people extremely worried was that increase in terrorist activities in the country. In fact, the country also witnessed suicide bombings. The threat from the Islamists resurfaced in the run-up to the elections. Sheikh Hasina was warned of a threat on her life from the Islamic militants. Another senior leader of the Awami Legue Begum Motia Chowdhury, a candidate in the polls, also received a threat from the Islamist Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen group. The group warned that Motia, a former agriculture minister, would face the consequences unless she stopped talking tough against terrorism, especially about Islamists seeking to turn Muslim-majority Bangladesh into a sharia-based state.18 The arrest of eight Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) cadres in Gaibandha on the eve of elections further indicated that Islamists were regrouping. The example of Pakistan was before Bangladeshi population. They did not want the same thing to happen to their own country.
Awami League, however, this time was clearly against the militants. Awami League President Sheikh Hasina pledged to take measurers to stop repression on religious minorities and build a developed Bangladesh free from poverty and hunger, if voted to power.19
The freedom fighters of Bangladesh played very important role in the run-up to the elections. Sector Commander Maj Gen (retd) KM Shafiullah requested “the people not to let any war criminals go to parliament as we have got our parliament in exchange of three million lives.” They also ran a campaign against all the war criminals contesting the polls, especially against Jamaat-e-Islami Ameer Motiur Rahman Nizami, supreme commander of Al Badr Bahini, Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, head of Al Badr in Dhaka, and alleged war criminals Delwar Hossain Sayeedi and Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury.
Sammilito Sangskritik Jote, a platform of cultural organisations, too vowed to boycott war criminals in the national elections. A call for not casting votes in favour of war criminals and communal forces was also given by ‘Bikkhubdha Deshbasi.’
Jamaat, a key component of the four-party combine, however tied to weaken the movement of freedom fighters through propaganda and by misleading people.20 It floated a fake freedom fighter body. In its election manifesto it offered to strengthen the liberation war ministry and the Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust and increase allowances for the freedom fighters’ families. This was probably an attempt to win over the freedom fighters and weaken their resistance to the politics of Jamaat. Fortunately, people saw through their designs and defeated them in the elections. BNP and Jamaat once again tried to get votes in name of Islam but were not very successful in their effort.
Hasina in her ‘Charter for Change’ promised building a ‘digital Bangladesh.’ This drew public attention particularly of young generation and was reflected in the votes she got. People preferred Hasina’s promise of digital Bangladesh over old rhetoric. She also called upon other political parties to shun politics of confrontation and exercised restraint in her political speeches while targeting political opponents. This won her popularity in a country where political culture has been marked by confrontational politics.
India, not an Issue
As the elections were held after a gap of two years, elections themselves became important. People were happy with restoration of democracy. In Bangladesh politics, in the past, India had been an important issue. Parties tried to outdo each other on anti-India stance. This is especially the case with BNP. This party also tries to make Awami Legue defensive by painting it as pro-India. But this time, it was not so. It gave some advantage to Awami League.
High Voter Turn Out
This election was marked by a high voter turn out in which women outnumbered men. A significant section of the voters were first timers. In the society of Bangladesh, women have played a very important role. These women faced serious curtailment of their rights during the BNP-Jamaat rule. Many of them wanted to punish this alliance. In this election 33 percent of people were first time voters. These voters came to know about their history and the despicable role played by Jamaat from the campaign launched by the war veterans. As a result, they too wanted to punish these extremist forces.
Overwhelming majority of Awami League: Good or Bad for Bangladesh democracy
The overwhelming result in favour of Awami League has started a debate whether it is good or bad for Bangladesh politics. Generally, it is believed that for an effective democracy opposition should also be strong and should be strongly represented in Parliament. Though BNP together with Jamaat got 36 percent of votes it is not displayed in the number of seats they got in parliament due to ‘first past the post’ system.
A closer analysis of Bangladesh situation shows that this kind of majority might actually help the grand alliance to strengthen democracy in that country. Many ills have crept in democracy of Bangladesh over the years. For instance, secularism one of the founding principals of 1972 Bangladesh constitution was removed in the past and Gen Ershad who ironically is the partner of Awami League had declared Islam as state religion in Bangladesh. Sector Commanders who had fought the Liberation War for Bangladesh are now clamouring for restoration of secularism in Bangladesh and revival of spirit of ‘war of liberation.’ This kind of majority would help Awami League restore the 1972 constitution.
This will also make position of Shaikh Hasina more secure and less dependent on unpredictable Gen Ershad. Ershad has been eying the post of president. No doubt Jatiya Party has considerable following in Greater Rangpur area of Bangladesh and it gets six to seven percent of votes, it has also corruption institutionalized in it. The massive majority of Awami League will help it to manage Jatiya Pary more effectively.
Challenges before New Government
There are myriad challenges before the new government. In fact, the voters of Bangladesh have already set five priority agenda for the government. In an exit poll, International Republican Institute (IRI) found that the Bangladeshi voters want government to address inflation, corruption, law and order, food security and education. These five issues actually cover the top pledges of the two major political alliances.
The government will also have to come up with a suitable response to meet the challenge emanating from emerging global economic slowdown. Manpower export is one of the main exports of Bangladesh. The new government faces challenge to maintain the existing labour markets already showing a downtrend. The regional priorities for government would be settling the maritime boundary with its neighbours, India and Myanmar. It will also have to deal with the issue of cross-border insurgency and the menace of religious extremism.
The most important challenge however the government faces at the national level and that is of getting the cooperation of opposition in running the country. Hasina in her election manifesto had offered that the post of Deputy Speaker of parliament would go to the opposition. Despite their small number of seats BNP and Jamaat garnered 36 percent of the popular votes cast. To make the government inclusive Hasina will have to reach out to these people. Now it is generally felt that to make parliament in Bangladesh functional, the country will have to take a fresh look at the system of ‘winner takes all.’ The winner has also to take the opposition in confidence and value their suggestions in governing the country. But can Awami League successfully do it, remains to be seen.
Implications for India
The victory of Awami League will have major implications for bilateral Indo-Bangladesh relations. It may also have some impact on the general security situation of the sub-continent.
Hasina’s Stand on Terror
The issue of religious extremism was very prominent during the run-up to the elections. This also helped Hasina in some way to come to power. The progressive section of Bangladesh population also wants Hasina to take action against Islamists, who are a threat to democracy in Bangladesh. In her first public address after the election victory Shaikh Hasina talked of trying war criminals and acting against terrorism. She has also come out with the idea of creating a regional mechanism to tackle terror.21 However, her effectiveness against Indian insurgent groups using Bangladesh territory remains to be seen. It is possible that the overt support of Bangladesh state to these groups might stop.
Connectivity for Northeast
Lack of proper connectivity to India’s northeast from the rest of the country is a major hurdle in the path of development of this area. Bangladesh has not allowed even transshipment of Indian goods across Bangladeshi territory though it is beneficial to both the countries.22 Awami League in its election manifesto talked of joining Asian Highway. Now if the party implements the promise, it will also improve connectivity to northeast.
Regional Economic Cooperation
Economic upliftment of Bangladeshi population has been a major issue during the elections. To achieve this objective, Bangladesh will have to move on a path of fast economic growth. Besides, it will also have to control inflation. Awami League had promised to bring down the prices and change the face of Bangladesh by turning into a ‘digital Bangladesh.’ India is the largest trade partner of Bangladesh and a fast growing economy.23 Though the world is going through an economic recession, Indian economy has not done too badly. Other smaller countries of the region like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan have benefited by cooperating with India. Hasina can also bring the promised change only by engaging economically with India.24 Previous regimes were cutting their nose to spike India.
Greater stability in the region
The south Asian region has been marked by growing fundamentalism and increasing incidents of terrorist violence. The northeast India has been one of the hotspots of this terrorist violence. Now with a secular and progressive regime coming to power in Bangladesh this region might see greater stability. It is very difficult to make progress in unsettled conditions.
The latest elections are seen as watershed in the history of Bangladesh. It seems Bangladesh has achieved a smooth transition to democracy after the unduly long tenure of the caretaker government. The four-party alliance also appears to be coming to terms with its defeat. Moreover, the present set up suits Bangladesh army who would have been little uncomfortable with Khaleda’s victory, because her party had suffered the most during the caretaker regime of Fakharuddin Ahmed. Khaleda along with her two sons was put in jail. Though Hasina also was in jail, Khaleda alleges that her sons were tortured in the custody. This would have made Khaleda more vindictive had she come to power this time. Though the army failed in its attempt to keep the two women out of politics, it has at least accepted the present political set up. But whether the democratic government of Bangladesh will prove to be a model for other Muslim countries remains to be seen. This government has raised great hopes in Bangladesh and in the international community. But in case it fails to deliver on the expectations, it will either bring back military into power or create space for Islamists to further strengthen their hold on the politics of the country. The tall promises of Awami League have brought the party in power. Soon, the ‘charter for change’ of Shaikh Hasina would be tested against the performance delivered by her cabinet. The task to raise the living standards in a least developed country at the time of global recession is not going to be easy. Nonetheless, the Bangladesh politics and democracy seems better placed than what it was two years ago. The international community including the US had enormous stake in elections of Bangladesh. The world feared that if Bangladesh stumbled this time then it would become a breeding ground for terrorists and extremists wishing to operate in south and Southeast Asia. For the time being the country seems to have put under check Islamist militancy and appears to be moving on the path of making its democracy functional. The apprehension that democracy would stay in the country appears to be waning.
1 Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, Islam and Democracy, Publicity Department, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Dhaka, 2005
2 Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, A Year of Caretaker Government in Bangladesh,
3 Haroon Habib, A controversial amendment, Frontline, Volume 21, Issue 12, June 05 - 18, 2004
4 “Bangladesh in the Generals’ Grip,” The New York Times, April 15, 2007, at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/opinion/15sun2.html?_r=1
5 Anand Kumar, “Bangladesh: Country Prepares for Political Reforms,"
South Asia Analysis Group, Paper no. 2248, May 15, 2007 at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers23%5Cpaper2248.html
6 Businessmen, lawyers should not meddle in politics, says Ashraful, New Age, September 26, 2008 at http://www.newagebd.com/2008/sep/26/front.html
7 Bhuiyan, other ‘reformists’ submit papers independently, The Daily Star, December 1, 2008 at http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=65678
8 Rakib Hasnet Suman, Women aspirants for JS seats reach new high, The Daily Star, December 26, 2008 at http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=68795
9 AL, BNP bank on freshers in Dhaka, December 15, 2008 at http://www.bangladeshnews.com.bd/2008/12/15/al-bnp-bank-on-freshers-in-dhaka/
10 G Parthasarathy, “The Return of Khaleda Zia,“November 7, 2001 at http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/nov/07gp.htm
11 Proposal Summary: Poll-Level Electoral Return Map at http://www.ndibd.org/election_analysis.php
12 Ershad observing course of politics, The Daily Star, October 29, 2006 at http://www.thedailystar.net/2006/10/29/d61029012318.htm
13 Hasina rolls out AL’s charter for change: Highlights 5 poll pledges, vision up to 2021, The Daily Star, December 13, 2008 at http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=66898
14 Introducing Jama’ate Islami, Bangladesh, Publication Department, Jama’ate Islami Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1989
15 Polls Manifesto: Jamaat pledges blasphemy law, The Daily Star, February 4, 2008, at http://www.thedailystar.net/pf_story.php?nid=66782
16 Bangladesh voters list gets clean chit, Daily Times, Pakistan, December 26, 2008 at http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2008%5C12% 5C26%5Cstory_26-12-2008_pg20_1
17 Bangladesh: Elections and Beyond, International Crisis Group, Asia Briefing, 11 December 2008, at http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=5806
18 Bangladesh faces security challenge ahead of poll, China Daily, December 15, 2008 at
19 Since 1991, the Islamists, particularly the Jamaat-e-Islami has maintained close contacts with the two main political parties (Awami Leagu and BNP) and switched sides more than once until they entered into an electoral alliance with the BNP. Please see, Ali Riaz, Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh: A Complex Web, Routledge, London p.41.
20 War Crimes Law and the Constitution, Central Publicity Department, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, Dhaka, February 2008.
21 Bangladesh vows to form south Asia force against militants, International Herald Tribune, January 29, 2009 at http://www.iht.com/articles/reuters/2009/01/29/asia/OUKWD-UK-BANGLADESH-TASKFORCE.php
22 Zafar Sobhan, “Trade and Economic Cooperation: The costs of Non-cooperation,” in Farooq Sobhan edited, Dynamics of Bangladesh-India Relations, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2005, p. 9.
23 Mamta B Chowdhury, Growth in India and Its Impacts on Bangladesh Economy, Peace and Security Review, Dhaka, Vol 1, No 1, First Quarter, 2008 pp. 67-72
24 Sreyashi Dastidar, “Bangladesh-India Trade: Economic and Investment Outlook” in Farooq Sobhan edited Bangladesh-India Dialogue: Vision of Young Leaders, The University Press Limited, 2006, p99.
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