ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Bangladesh's Predicament

How to strengthen secular democracy without weakening democratic institutions.

It is difficult not to feel a sense of déjà vu at the conduct and the results of Bangladesh’s general elections that were held on 5 January 2014. With nearly the entire opposition – including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and a faction of the Jatiya Party headed by former dictator H M Ershad – boycotting the elections, a low voter turnout has hurt the legitimacy of the “win” by the Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina. The boycott of elections by the opposition is reminiscent of a similar situation in 1996 when the AL refused to participate in the elections when Sheikh Hasina’s rival, Khaleda Zia, was in power. The official estimates have indicated that less than 40% of the electorate turned out to vote, a significantly lower number than 85% who voted when the AL won a landslide in 2008. In the recent elections, nearly half of the winners from the AL have been elected unopposed which itself questions the credibility of their “election”.

Old political polarisations – between the largely left-leaning Bengali nationalists represented by the AL and the alliance of right-wingers and Islamists, represented by the BNP, Jatiya Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) – continued in the run-up to the elections. The opposition demanded that the elections be held under a caretaker administration as has been the precedent in the country. The BNP overlooked the fact that the last caretaker administration, run by the military, had delayed elections in 2006 and had the leaders of the AL and the BNP arrested before the judiciary decided to intervene. The AL, for its part, refused to budge from its stance that elections could only be conducted by the Election Commission with the ruling party still in power. The BNP even rejected the AL’s invitation to join a consensus government till the elections.

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