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. Continue reading Opposition continues boycott of Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections