What lies ahead for Bangladesh?

In the wake of Bangladesh’s election, prime minister Sheikh Hasina has said massive drives will be conducted to arrest all those involved in recent attacks on the Hindus and other minority groups in the run-up to, and during, the polls.

Warning the culprits that stern action would be taken, she vowed to contain the violence with an ‘iron hand’, saying that ‘none will be spared A drive has been underway in Jessore since [January 6], and some culprits have been arrested.’

The prime minister was speaking at a meeting with leaders of the Awami League-led alliance at the Gono Bhaban on the evening of January 7. Earlier, she had met President Abdul Hamid at the Bangabhaban, and apprised him of the current political situation and the government measures for checking post-polls violence.

Hasina also discussed with the president the formation of a new government, as her party won an absolute majority in the January 5 election, said sources in the ruling party.

The prime minister, also president of the Awami League (AL), said she had directed the authorities concerned to compensate and rehabilitate the affected minority families.

She urged Khaleda Zia, chairperson of the country’s main opposition party, the BNP, to ‘stop attacks on the minority community’, saying that otherwise the government would take appropriate measures. In an oblique reference to the international community’s call for initiating dialogue to resolve the political crisis, Hasina said the option for holding talks was still open.

‘If you [Khaleda] want to talk after severing relations with the Jamaat and war criminals, we could then see how to move forward. But they [the BNP] must cut ties with the Jamaat, and this is the reality.’

However, despite talk of negotiation, Hasina could not resist a swipe at her arch-rival, telling her somewhat paradoxically, ‘You could not resist the elections. You’ll not be able to do anything. Better keep your mouth shut.’

Sheikh Hasina also called upon the BNP chief to shun hartal and agitation for the sake of O- and A-level exams. Children had been the worst victims of hartals, as they could not attend schools or concentrate on their studies. Nothing could be gained by enforcing hartal, insisted the prime minister.

She said that the BNP and Jamaat wanted to thwart the polls to destroy democracy by creating a constitutional crisis, but they had failed — despite the fact that only a handful of Hindus had cast their votes in certain districts of the country, as the majority of the community either feared attacks by Jamaat or were unhappy with the ruling party’s failure to protect them. The people of Bangladesh had given the Awami League a mandate through the January 5 polls, said Hasina, and her government’s prime objectives were to serve the people and build the nation in the spirit of the Liberation War.

The prime minister also criticised the role of a section of civilian society members, saying that many newspapers had published reports that made the polls controversial. Media people have a responsible role to play in society, she stressed, and they must not encourage terrorists and militants.
Hasina reiterated her government’s resolve to continue the war crimes trials and act upon the the verdicts in the trials. The leaders of the AL-led 14-party combine congratulated Hasina on her re-election.

Earlier that same day, Hasina told President Hamid that her government was firm in its resolve to protect people’s life and property, and it was doing everything possible to ensure that.

The president congratulated the people, the Election Commission and the candidates on the holding of ‘a peaceful election’, said Ihsanul — a comment that will surprise many, in view of the political unrest and violence that has surrounded these polls.

In the light of such violence and poor voter turnout — said to be less than 40 per cent — many believe that both the Awami League and the BNP have irreparably damaged Bangladesh’s embryonic democratic institutions. It may well be that the government made a serious error in abolishing the poll-time caretaker administration (even though no other country in the world apart from Pakistan has such a provision, and Bangladesh’s Supreme Court actually ruled it unconstitutional), and that allegations of corruption and cronyism have subsequently damaged its credibility. The opposition, meanwhile, in unleashing its campaign of violence — especially when the EU had promised to monitor the elections and ensure fairness, thus removing any justification for the boycott — undermined any claim it could have had to victimhood, and Khaleda Zia’s close ties with Jamaat-e-Islami have long been a problem.

However, there have been recent hints of a rift between the BNP and Jamaat, as Jamaat appears to be distancing itself from the BNP over the party’s handling of the ongoing movement, and its stance on the December 12 execution of war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah, which BNP leader Khaleda Zia refused to condemn. For its part, the BNP shows signs of recognising that it would have been better for them to participate in the democratic process, rather than boycotting the elections.

So what lies ahead for Bangladesh? Soon after independence, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the country ‘the basket case of South Asia’, and it has spent the past 40 years trying to prove that label wrong, turning itself into a centre of low-cost global manufacturing where living standards have steadily risen and the status of women has improved. So the turn of events during the recent election has been a cruel blow, with the poor bearing the brunt and cottage industries suffering as orders are cut by up to 50 per cent

The people of Bangladesh deserve better, and they need their politicians to deliver. Circumstances may finally compel Sheikh Hasina to try and win over some old friends in the BNP, and she and Khaleda Zia may finally have to overcome their long-standing rivalry and work together for the good of the country.

— Davina Cook