The decision by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to boycott the national elections earlier in January robbed voters of the opportunity to fully express their will at the ballot box. The violence that the opposition anarchists instigated damaged the country’s reputation and stunted its economic growth.
The BNP shunned the elections in part because it insisted that a caretaker government should take over prior to – and to conduct – the elections. It also wanted to reverse the Electoral Commission’s decision to exclude its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, which is known to be a party of extremist religious convictions.
The BNP’s leaders appear to be convinced that they need an alliance with Jamaat to secure an electoral majority in Parliament; and that probably is the case. But the calculation has come at a high cost for the people of Bangladesh.
In 2013, more than 500 people were killed in political clashes, making last year one of the most violent years since the nation’s independence in 1971. Jamaat-e-Islami, which enjoys the support of its namesake party in Pakistan as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, employs brutal tactics in support of its fundamentalist convictions. These tactics have included arson, train derailments and destruction of property, both private and public. In recent weeks, Jamaat has also targeted minority Hindu families in rural areas in its rampages.
Despite such violence and anarchy and the opposition’s efforts to obstruct the elections, the government managed to maintain law and order. Bangladesh’s election, which was conducted in accordance with the constitution, was fair, open and transparent. A recent statement by observers from neighbouring India said the election was ‘a resounding victory for democracy.’
The boycotting political parties represented only 11 per cent of the last Parliament, while the Awami League and its partners represented 87 per cent. Parties that contested in the elections had 57 per cent of the votes cast in the last election, while the BNP had 33 per cent. It is commendable that over 39 per cent of voters turned out to exercise their right to franchise despite the intimidation and BNP’s declared programme to obstruct the polls.
In short, the BNP’s deliberate decision to boycott the election has only served to weaken its voice – and the voice of its supporters. Unfortunately, having dug themselves into a political hole, they continue to dig even deeper. Its leaders have called for additional, crippling strikes and street protests. This is certainly no way to gain voters’ support or to help the national economy.
Violence and instability are damaging to Bangladesh’s reputation, economy and to the livelihoods of average Bangladeshis. The people of Bangladesh should expect that political parties and politicians will support their aspirations for a more democratic and prosperous future. All stakeholders are therefore legitimately concerned that the International Monetary Fund says it expects Bangladesh’s economic growth to fall, from 6 per cent in 2013 to 5.5 per cent this year. A major reason attributed to the projected decline is the economic uncertainty caused by the roiling state of affairs around the election issue.
Western governments that have decried the recent violence should send a clear message that there is no place for violence in democratic protests and encourage all political parties in Bangladesh to work together to strengthen democratic accountability. To that end, the government of Bangladesh has reached out its hand of reconciliation to the opposition, despite its inflexibility and violent protests, and has asked that negotiations resume for a new and fully participatory and credible electoral process.
But first, Jamaat must stop its violence and attacks on innocent citizens. And the BNP must renounce its ties to the extremist group. Anything short of that is an invitation to lawlessness and is an insult to the democratic aspirations of the people of Bangladesh. The government and the BNP can then begin to build a consensus for fully participatory elections in the future. The Election Commission has overseen thousands of local and national elections over the last five years. No one has complained of bias or mismanagement. The Commission can surely do so again and should be allowed to.
Bangladeshis deserve the chance to vote according to their convictions without fear of intimidation or reprisal. The government has demonstrated its good faith by opening up the poll-time interim Cabinet to all party membership and continues to sincerely invite the BNP to talk in good faith about how that can finally happen.
A supporter of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina holds a national flag during a rally in front of her political party’s headquarters in Dhaka on 4 January