By Rupak Bhattacharjee
Amidst recent Islamist attacks on secular-rationalist voices and sharp polarisation of the polity, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has strengthened her party’s position in Bangladesh. The ruling Awami League (AL) clinched a landslide victory winning three-fourth of the mayoral posts in the municipal elections held across the country on December 30, 2015. The party’s candidates had secured 177 of the total 234 seats, while the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) managed to win just 22 mayoral posts.
The year 2015 witnessed Hasina’s tightening of grip over power in Bangladesh completely outmaneuvering her arch rival and two-times premier Khaleda Zia. The AL leaders were confident of the party’s impressive show in the local polls much before voting and pointed out that the people would not vote for the BNP which had become isolated due to its violent anti-government street demonstrations staged earlier. Except for some sporadic incidents of violence and a few cases of irregularities that are common to the politically-restive South Asian nation, the election was generally peaceful and fair. But the BNP was not satisfied with the poll outcome and questioned the credibility of the Election Commission under Hasina as usual following the party’s debacle.
Many in Bangladesh viewed the local elections as the referendum on the policies and programmes of the two key contenders of power—AL and BNP. The former described the victory as an endorsement of its development agenda and on the other hand, the latter’s dismal performance revealed the voters’ disapproval of the opposition party’s long-standing demand of holding general elections under the supervision of a non-partisan neutral caretaker administration. To some Bangladeshi observers, the recent civic polls also offered the AL an opportunity to “reconfirm” the mandate it received in the January 2014 national election.
The BNP leaders have now realised that they committed a political hara-kiri by refusing to join the 10th parliamentary polls two years back. The municipal election has thoroughly exposed BNP’s sorry state of affairs. The party is yet to recover from the serious setbacks it suffered in 2008 elections. The chord, which it previously enjoyed with the Bangladeshi electorate, is totally missing now and its boycott of the January 2014 elections only worsened the conditions. The morale of the party activists is currently very low and the party’s organisational structure has begun to crumble.
Moreover, BNP chairman Khaleda Zia is facing hosts of graft and criminal charges in different courts. Her popularity has been eroded considerably in the recent years. Khaleda’s poor health and demise of younger son Koko in 2015 have only added to her woes. The municipal elections have once again brought to light the opposition party’s state of disarray.
The civic polls assume significance because for the first time they were contested on party lines adding the fervour of a national election. The AL government amended the old local government election laws in October 2015 allowing the political parties to nominate their candidates in the civic bodies. The AL and BNP, which ruled the country alternately since 1991, also fought against each other for the first time after December 2008. Besides, more than 15 smaller parties—all alliance partners of the BNP, joined the election fray making it more participatory.
Although only 7.5% of the country’s electorate exercised their rights in the municipal election, its outcome could determine the future of Bangladesh politics. BNP’s participation in the local polls indicates its intent to regain the contacts with the voters and deny the ruling party a free run in the 2019 national election. The BNP is searching for a viable strategy to counter its bitter political foe AL after the failure of the anti-government agitation in the early 2015.
The BNP leaders perceive that elections organised by the AL government could never be free and fair. They allege that the present Election Commission is a “puppet” of the ruling party and can not discharge its duties in an impartial manner. The AL leadership has rejected such notions saying in most functioning democracies, including neighbouring India; elections are conducted smoothly by similar constitutional bodies before the expiry of the incumbent government’s term.
The Hasina government has been trying to introduce this conventional model in Bangladesh for the last few years as part of democratic institution building. The abolition of the caretaker administration for overseeing national election and the recent amendment of the local government laws to facilitate participation of political parties in civic polls are efforts in that direction.
The democratic institutions of Bangladesh are still fragile and the volatile nature of the country’s politics has made the task of rebuilding them even more difficult. The electoral process and election as an institution had repeatedly been subverted by the successive military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad. The effectiveness of the institution was destroyed by the use of all sorts of malpractice, manipulation, force and violence.
The Election Commission’s independent and neutral status was severely undermined during the prolonged military rule (1975-90). Elections were held to legitimise illegal seizure of power by the military. They were not aimed at ensuring people’s representation in the decision making process. The military rulers of Bangladesh organised elections only when they were convinced that the results could be manipulated to the advantage of the ruling party.
The authoritarian regime of Ershad perpetrated unprecedented electoral malpractices. Most of the elections held during his period were boycotted by the major political parties. Finally, it was the caretaker government of Justice Sahabuddin Ahmed which restored the credibility of the electoral process in the early1991.
However, in the context of the subsequent politico-military developments in Bangladesh, the role of the caretaker administration became one of the most controversial issues and a major bone of contention between AL and BNP. The AL, which suffered most under military rule, believes that the old power-bastion of civil-military bureaucratic complex could revisit Bangladesh taking advantage of the political turmoil that the country confronts quite frequently.
Against the backdrop of a chaotic political situation in 2007, the military had intervened and installed a proxy caretaker government which clung onto power for an extended period and tried to enforce its own agenda in the name of cleansing the polity. Unlike the BNP, which was floated from the cantonment by using the intelligence agencies, the AL has always been a mass-based party. Sheikh Hasina’s government abolished the system of caretaker administration to forestall any attempt of the men in uniform to seize power under various pretexts.
Bangladesh’s polity achieved a semblance of stability under Hasina in 2015. The AL government that seeks to make Bangladesh a middle-income country by 2021 and eventually a developed nation by 2041 knows fully well that the prerequisites for releasing the twin objectives are peace, stability and democracy. Therefore, it is expected that the institutionalisation of democratic process will be accelerated in the days to come.
(Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst working on issues related to Bangladesh. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)