The excitement of elections in democracies comes from the uncertainty of their outcomes. The Bangladesh general election due on December 30 was till two weeks ago expected to comfortably return the ruling Awami League to power. Recently, however, a number of developments have upped the excitement.
There should be no reason for the Awami League to be nervous. Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Bangladesh has attained a robust 7.86 per cent growth rate. She is contesting on her development record and showcasing her mega-projects — from the Padma Bridge, the Metro Rail project for Dhaka, the four-lane Dhaka-Chittagong Expressway and the proposed Dhaka-Chittagong bullet train project to the second unit of the Rooppur nuclear power plant. Exports are up, and so are investments in health and welfare.
She has also effectively hobbled the rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) by removing its star campaigner, Begum Khaleda Zia, from the scene. Her long jail term debars her from contesting. Her son, Tarique Rehman, is in self-imposed exile in London.
For what it is worth, the two big regional players — India and China — both want continuity in Dhaka. India’s goals are primarily security-related while China’s business interests are significant. Sheikh Hasina has pulled off an amazing balancing act with the two regional adversaries.
So why is the Awami League worried?
Contrary to its own expectations, the Opposition appears to be gaining momentum. The BNP has not only decided to fight the elections without its two top leaders in the fray, but it has been instrumental in forming a joint Opposition front, the Jatiya Oikya Front. Most of its 18 constituent parties have also agreed to contest on the BNP’s election symbol. The coming together of the Opposition parties has lifted the electoral battle from being a narrow partisan contest between two ambitious women, to something much larger. The leaders of the front, from its chairman, former law minister and veteran politician Kamal Hossain, to renowned freedom fighter “Tiger” (Abdul Kader) Siddique, bring their personal reputations to the electoral contest.
The Awami League is also worried by the unprecedented rush for BNP nominations. Such was the crowd of nomination seekers at the BNP’s Naya Paltan head office that the police fired rubber bullets to control the crowd. The government is also accused of attempting to disrupt Tarique Rehman’s Skype interviews with potential nomination seekers from London. The Election Commission has, however, refused to intervene in this matter.
Meanwhile, the government has also continued to arrest Opposition activists despite the election process being under way. A BNP leader going to file his nomination from Jashore disappeared en route to Dhaka. His body was found floating in the Buriganga four days later. Corruption cases pending against some Opposition leaders have also been suddenly resuscitated.
The Awami League perhaps hoped that the BNP would not contest the election without Begum Zia. The party had boycotted the last general election in 2014. But the party seems to have also realised that it is a make-or-break election for it and for Bangladesh as a multi-party democracy. It could also be deregistered by the Election Commission for boycotting two elections in a row.
Not that it will be an easy election for the Opposition. In South Asia, the democratic Opposition is always suspicious of the governing party rigging elections in its favour. Yet these fears may be overblown in Bangladesh this time around.
Widespread rigging will be especially difficult as polling will take place on a single day, December 30. There are 300 seats of the Jatiyo Sangshad (Parliament), with 44,000 polling centres spread across the country. Moreover, this time at least some of the polling will be done through electronic voting machines.
To prevent polling irregularities, the Jatiya Oikya Front has asked its constituents to create local groups to guard polling booths in each constituency. Should the state machinery be overstretched on polling day, then any attempt by the ruling party to use its muscle power will be countered by “peoples’ power”.
Another concern for the Opposition is the timing of the election. The results could be out as early as January 1, but the life of the Parliament will continue till January 28 since in Bangladesh it is not dissolved before the elections. Sheikh Hasina’s incumbent government can carry on for a while even if the election results are adverse. Apprehensive of possible foul play by the Awami League in such a scenario, the Opposition wants to shorten the time period between the declaration of results and the swearing-in of the new government. However, the Election Commission has refused to postpone the polling.
India is concerned that the BNP, if voted to power, will renew its alliance with remnants of the banned Jamaat-e-Islami, a pro-Pakistan outfit. The BNP’s protestations to its friends in India that its electoral compulsions should not be conflated with hostility to India may not cut much ice. The BNP is expected to part with 40 to 60 seats to its alliance partners, including Jamaat sympathisers. This fear has been the Awami League’s trump card with India.
The fact, however, is that in a predominantly Muslim country there are bound to be Islamic parties. Both the BNP and the Awami League would want to attract their voter base. Moreover, the Awami League has left the BNP far behind in befriending Islamic parties by courting Hefazat-e-Islam and adopting a part of its Islamisation agenda.
This includes the recognition of its Qawmi Madrasa degree Dawra-e-Hadith as equivalent to a master’s in Islamic and Arabic studies to allow students with no modern education to join the civil service, revising school textbooks to remove secular content, removing an “un-Islamic” statue of the Goddess of Justice from the premises of the Supreme Court (relocated after popular protests) and lowering the marriageable age of girls to 16 years to appear Islam-friendly.
The month of December will clearly be crucial for both the Awami League and the Opposition. However, the Awami League cannot be entirely sanguine about its prospects or its grip over the bureaucracy. Like the electorate, the behaviour of the state machinery would also depend on the direction of the wind.
The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.