Bangladesh has passed a remarkably calm period in politics both domestically and internationally considering that a year ago it held an election that was termed “tainted” by the European Union and many Western governments. The United States observed that the election-day irregularities “undermined faith in the electoral process.” The US House Foreign Affairs Committee also said it “lacked credibility”. At home the vote is popularly known, due to social media coinage, as “the midnight election”. This terminology derived from the fact that in many polling centres, the stuffing of ballot boxes was completed the night before the polling day on December 30th 2018.
Although this was the second consecutive election where people were prevented from choosing their preferred representatives in a free and fair manner, the 2018 poll did not result in street protests. There was no repetition of the violent protests that followed the controversial 2014 elections which had been boycotted by all opposition political parties after the Awami League government decided not to hold the election under an independent caretaker government. Four years on, however, political protest was not possible as the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina commands unprecedented control over the state and its institutions at a level that even the country’s former military dictators were never able to achieve.
In 2018 Hasina had skilfully managed to persuade the political parties to take part in the election with a series of negotiations and promises which were never kept. Yet, the extent of rigging on polling day left everyone shell-shocked, not just the opposition. Disbelief and bewilderment in Western capitals were also palpable.
The EU spokesperson in his statement noted that “the participation of the opposition in the elections for the first time in ten years reflect the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to democracy” and called for a proper examination of allegations of irregularities and commitment to full transparency in their resolution. The then British state minister for foreign affairs also called for credible and transparent resolution of all complaints related to the conduct of the elections. The US Congressional committee went one step further by writing to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on February 12th 2019 asking for an outline of how his department intended to respond to what it termed the negative trajectory of democracy in Bangladesh.
One may wonder what happened to all those calls for the transparent resolution of electoral complaints and the return of democracy in Bangladesh onto the right trajectory. There are three possible answers.
The first one is that the international community does not want to create instability in Bangladesh when the country is shouldering a huge humanitarian responsibility by sheltering more than one million Rohingya refugees.
The second reason is the Sino-Indian factor as both of those regional powers have welcomed the continuity of the Awami League regime. There is very little that the other international actors can do in relation to democracy in Bangladesh without creating new irritants in their own strategic relationships with China or India. In particular, the US has given so much importance to its Indo-Pacific strategy to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region that it is unlikely that it will take any step that annoys India.
And thirdly, President Trump’s reluctance to engage in the affairs of far-flung countries might have impacted on the US State Department and its failure to respond to the urgings of the Congressional Committee.
On the other hand, exhausted over a failed confrontational policy of post-2014 violence and lacking leadership, the main opposition party BNP had banked on foreign help and held innumerable talks with Western diplomats hoping that they would put pressure on the government to allow them space to campaign. Its pre-election alliance with some moderate liberal parties, primarily aimed at extracting some concessions from the government, did not in the end prove useful. The alliance was the reason it agreed to enter into a dialogue with the government and also to take part in the elections, but it did so without gaining any concession whatsoever from the government.
Similarly, despite rejecting the electoral outcome citing mass-rigging, the opposition alliance could not get its handful of newly elected MPs to abstain or relinquish their parliamentary seats. Such a sacrifice would have eroded the residual legitimacy of the parliament and the election. Instead, participation of less than a dozen MPs has not only provided the 11th parliament and the regime much-needed life-support, but has helped allow the world to conveniently forget its demand for transparent investigation and resolution of the massively rigged elections.
The vacuum in the BNP leadership, created due to the imprisonment of its leader Khaleda Zia and the exile of her son in the UK, crippled the BNP so much so that it has supported policies without realising that they were alienating the party further from the electorate.
Instead of emphasising the need to restore voting rights as the number one priority, BNP has deployed all its energy and resources on freeing the party chief from prison. It seems that they are unwilling to learn from their past mistakes and are fixated on an unachievable target.
Sheikh Hasina in her record consecutive third term, however, has not fared well either. In the last twelve months, not a single month has passed without the Awami League government facing significant difficulties, most of them directly linked to the lack of proper governance. Student protests, the road safety movement, farmers discontent over falling rice prices, revelations of massive corruption, the running of illegal casinos by ruling party members, its failure to control the Dengue epidemic, onion shortages and discontent over publication of the collaborators’ list are just a few. But, unlike the Awami League’s ability in the past to exploit widespread discontent within the country when it was in opposition, its challenger now cannot do the same. Whilst in part this is due to opposition failures, it is also attributable to the government’s increasing authoritarianism with its stringent curbs on civil liberties and freedom of expression.●
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.