Bangladesh’s two main political parties need to find a compromise

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The Bangladesh elections held on January 5 amidst violence and a boycott by the main opposition parties gave Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League a two-thirds majority. About 153 of the 300 seats went unopposed and voter turnout for the remaining 147 seats was about 40 per cent, according to early Election Commission estimates

Though the elections met legal requirements, the Awami League government’s main challenge is the credibility of its mandate and its ability to govern through continued post-poll protests. Bangladeshi commentators have, in any case, termed it a ‘caricature’ and ‘hollow electoral exercise’.

While India backed the elections after urging the Bangladeshi leaders to negotiate, the US, the European Union and the Commonwealth secretariat refused to send election observers. Washington said the elections did not “credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people” and called on the two sides to engage in immediate dialogue to hold free, fair and credible polls.

Bangladesh has been through almost a year of disruptions and demonstrations as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the radical Jamaat-e-Islami sought to force Prime Minister Hasina to hand over charge to a caretaker government before the polls. There is a view in Bangladesh that the post-election situation could turn into a repeat of 1966 elections when the Awami League boycotted the polls and the subsequent widespread disturbances forced Khalida Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party government to constitute a caretaker government to hold fresh elections four months later.

The BNP and Awami League have alternated in government after each election. In 2007, Hasina threatened a boycott when Khalida appointed a close advisor to head the interim administration. An army-backed neutral caretaker administration took over but stayed for two years.

The Bangladesh Supreme Court had struck down the legal provision for a neutral caretaker government in 2011, holding it incompatible with the country’s constitution. Though the court allowed the caretaker institution to continue for the next two elections, the government scrapped the provision. This time, the BNP boycotted the elections, insisting on a caretaker government and turned down Hasina’s offer of an all-party government headed by her.

Indo-Bangladesh ties may have strengthened in the past five years, but Hasina’s record in office has not been without its controversies. Her government’s actions against Nobel laureate, Mohammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank founder, riled his admirers in Washington. The trials of those accused of crimes during the Liberation war were widely welcomed in Bangladesh but western governments and human rights groups quibbled over the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal process. Most of those on trial are Jamaat leaders, but Washington does not consider them as radical despite their use of violence. The de-registration and banning of the Jamaat made the BNP more adamant as it deprived the party of a committed cadre of workers and the extra support required to top the anti-incumbency mood against the Awami League.

The western countries who are significant aid donors and trade partners of Bangladesh had been urging Hasina to reach out to the opposition parties and resolve the election issue. There is a view that the open pressure on Hasina to resolve the issue led to the BNP leader hardening her stance and rejecting the all-party government proposal. Western opinion has taken a simplistic view of the developments in Bangladesh. The two main political parties need to find a compromise and friendly countries can help persuade them towards a dialogue. But that requires a more realistic view of politics in Bangladesh.

The 2009 election had an 83 per cent turnout and the opposition BNP had received 32 per cent of the vote. A stable polity cannot ignore a political party that draws over a third of the popular vote in the country. In her post-election press conference, Hasina offered to hold talks with the BNP leader for the next general elections but added the rider that the BNP must eschew violence and sever ties with the Jamaat; conditions that the BNP is unlikely to accept. The Awami League leader will need to do much more to calm political tempers to be able to run an effective government.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)

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