Bangladesh, the world’s eight-most populous country, was supposed to kick off the 2014 election season, where unpopular prime minister Sheikh Hasina seemed set to be kicked out of office by voters angry about the economy, the lack of jobs, and above all, her handling of the war crimes tribunal that began in 2009 and that resulted last week in the execution of Islamist leader Abdul Quader Mollah.
Instead, Hasina and the Bangladesh Awami League (বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ) look set to win virtually all of the 300 seats in the Jatiyo Sangshad (the National Parliament, জাতীয় সংসদ) when voters head to the polls on January 5.
That’s because the most prominent opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, বাংলাদেশ জাতীয়তাবাদী দল), as well as the smaller Jatiya Party (National Party, জাতীয় পার্টি) and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (বাংলাদেশ জামায়াতে ইসলামী) are all boycotting the election over what they claim are the unfair conditions of the race. Specifically, the BNP and the Jatiya party oppose Hasina’s refusal to adhere to the tradition of appointing a caretaker government to conduct national elections.
The boycott leaves at least 154 seats uncontested, which have essentially already been awarded to the Awami League. That could further escalate the political tensions that reached a crescendo in October, when the BNP launched two general strikes against Hasina’s government and protests that have left hundreds of Bangladeshis dead — all in response to Hasina’s refusal to step down as prime minister. Opposition forces are also currently enforcing a transport blockade that’s crippling the Bangladeshi economy — since November, the blockade is estimated to have cost the economy up to $4 billion. Hasina’s government has increasingly responded with a heavy hand, and police forces are carefully tracking the BNP and its leader Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister, and they have detained the leader of the Jatiya Party, Hussain Muhammad Ershad, also a former Bangladeshi leader.
It’s a depressingly familiar story in Bangladeshi politics, which has been dominated by the same parties and the same leaders since the early 1980s.
In particular, the 1996 elections crisis feels like a virtual echo of the current political crisis. But 17 years ago, the roles were reversed, with Zia leading a BNP government and Hasina leading the Awami League in opposition. The Awami League began agitating for Zia’s resignation after it alleged that the BNP fraudulently stole a 1994 by-election. The Awami League organized general strikes throughout the country that disrupted the government for the purpose of brining about a caretaker government and fresh elections, just like Zia and the BNP are doing today. When Zia called a vote for February 1996, the Awami League and the Jatiya Party boycotted the elections and the BNP won all 300 seats in the national parliament. The parties ultimately agreed to install a caretaker government in late March 1996 headed by Muhammad Habibur Rahman, the chief justice of Bangladesh’s supreme court, paving the way for a second set of elections in June 1996. The Awami League won those elections with a minority government, and Hasina became Bangladesh’s prime minister for the next five years.
A similar outcome could be likely in 2014 — and Hasina has indicated that she is willing to dissolve the next parliament and call new elections if the BNP denounces political violence and severs its ties to the Jamaat-e-Islami. Though the BNP is hardly as Islamist as the Jamaat-e-Islami, Islamism is an issue that has traditionally divided Bangladesh’s two main parties, with the BNP favoring a moderately Islamist nationalism and the Awami League favoring a secular Bengali nationalism. But the BNP already controls large parts of the country already, and trust between the two longtime enemies is so low that a deal could be hard to broker.
Upon the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Bangladesh was originally established as the geographically isolated province of East Pakistan, united with West Pakistan, itself a largely artificial construct, solely on the basis that both West Pakistan and East Pakistan contained populations with Muslim majorities and despite the fact that the Bengalis in East Pakistan had more in common culturally with the state of West Bengal in India than with Punjabis or Sindhis.
The Awami League began fighting for an independent East Pakistan in 1949, and years of neglect and inferior treatment from Islamabad led to full independence in 1971 for Bangladesh. Independence followed a short but bloody war with West Pakistan (that eventually sucked India into military engagement). Virtually no diplomatic or economic assistance followed from the rest of the world, including the United States, whose strategic incompetence at the time under president Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger is detailed in one of the best new books of 2013, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary Bass. Bangladesh was left scrambling to win allies, given Pakistan’s military ties to the United States and India’s softer ties to the Soviet Union.
It took just four years for a military coup to take power from Bangladesh’s initial government, and Ziaur Rahman, a Bangladeshi general, ultimately rose to power in 1977. He formed the BNP in 1978 and promptly won the 1979 elections, though he was assassinated in 1981 during a failed coup attempt. A successful coup attempt followed in 1982 when Ershad took power — and held onto power through two elections that the BNP boycotted in the 1980s — until he was convicted and jailed for corruption in 1991. In the 1991 elections, the BNP returned to power under Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman.
More recently, Bangladesh faced a fresh political crisis in 2006 on the eve of what were supposed to be the 2007 elections — the president ultimately took control of the government, declared a state of emergency and installed a caretaker government in January 2007. As political violence increasingly destabilized Bangladesh, both Hasina and Zia were detained by government forces as the caretaker government struggled to unite the country to get through another round of voting. By the time elections were finally held in December 2008, Hasina won a landslide victory — the Awami League today holds 230 seats to just 30 for Zia’s BNP and 27 for Ershad’s Jatiya Party (Ershad was released from prison in 1997 and promptly returned to lead his party).
But many of the problems in Bangladesh today lie in the unfinished business of Bangladesh’s independence and the internal divides during its war of independence. Hasina, to her credit, established the International Crimes Tribunal in 2009 in a bid to bring some finality for the atrocities that occurred in the 1971 war, when the Pakistani army engaged in a systemic genocide of murder, torture rape and displacement — up to three million Bangladeshis were killed in a campaign that targeted Hindu minorities, women and what would have been the intellectual and political elite.
During the 1971 war, the Jamaat-e-Islami opposed independence and fought alongside the Pakistanis. Since independence, Jamaat-e-Islami has been Bangladesh’s most hardline Islamist party, but it’s not been a widely popular party — at its most successful, it won just 18 parliamentary seats, and it won just five in the previous 2008 elections.
But many Bangladeshis remained indignant at the role that many of its leaders continued to play in Bangladeshi politics, despite their roles in the 1971 genocide. So when the ICT convicted Quader Mollah, a top Jamaat leader, for war crimes earlier this year and sentenced him to life imprisonment, you might have thought it would have won cheers. Instead, protestors gathered in February 2013 at Shahbagh Square in central Dhaka demanding Quader Mollah’s execution, some of the largest protests in Bangladesh’s history. As I argued earlier in the spring, the protests weren’t just a bloodthirsty mob call for Quader Mollah’s death:
It’s increasingly important to keep in mind the second aspect of the Shahbagh protest, what I believe will become the more enduring aspect of what’s happening at Shahbagh — the political coming-of-age of a new generation of Bangladeshis, the sons and daughters (many of whom weren’t yet born in 1971) of those who fought for independence, who are now pushing to finish the business of 1971 by coming to terms with the horrors of the 1971 atrocities, to settle the lack of accountability in either Pakistan or Bangladesh over the past 42 years for the crimes of 1971, and to create a space for Bangladesh to finally move forward as a nation.
Yes, protestors are pushing for the death penalty (in part because life imprisonment today under one government could well mean parole under a new government), but they are also pushing for a more transcendent justice with regard to the 1971 crimes.
Hasina’s government learned that lesson perhaps a little too well — Bangladesh’s judiciary banned the Jamaat-e-Islami from participating in the upcoming elections in August, and the ICT reconsidered its sentence for Quader Mollah and rendered a death penalty after all — Quader Mollah was executed last Thursday amid counter-protests from Jamaat supporters. After the springtime protests at Shahbagh Square and the most recent execution, Hasina’s approach seems to have left no one in Bangladesh particularly satisfied, all while alarming the international community over legal standards in Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, as the country heads toward the ghost elections of January 5, the worst may be yet to come if Hasina and the BNP cannot come to a compromise on elections and on the ICT — because Bangladesh faces many more challenges once its political crisis is over.