By Dr. Subhash Kapila
Bangladesh next General Elections could be held in 2013 at the year- end but since January 20 2014 is the outside limit as per the Constitution, they are being termed as General Elections2014.
Therefore Bangladesh at the outside limit is only five months away from General Elections 2014 which could turn out as probably the most significant elections held so far.
Bangladesh stands today at crucial political cross-roads where the nation was engulfed in 2013 with incessant violence centred on the politics of national identity on one hand and opposed on the other side by political groupings banking on the religion of Islam in electoral politics, desperately bent on pushing Bangladesh towards an Islamist Caliphate.
The Shahbagh Protests that erupted in early 2013 were an expression, going by the large-scale participation of Bangladesh youth of both sexes and women protestors of all ages, as expressing rejection of Bangladesh collaborators who colluded with the Pakistan Army in the ethnic genocide, rape and plunder that it unleashed on their fellow Bengalis of then East Pakistan; demanding death sentences for these collaborators has been vociferous this year as it was as an electoral issue in the last General Elections.
Hence the demand for death sentences for such Bangladesh traitors was a natural response in the Shahbagh Protests. Violent rear-guard reactions from the Jamaat-i-Islami supporters were also not long in forthcoming. Analytically, it is debatable that unrestrained violence by Right-wing elements in Bangladesh can cow down the popular upsurge against the Bangladeshi Jamaat leaders who collaborated with Pakistan Army’s brutalisation of what is now Bangladesh.
So on the eve of General Elections 2014, Bangladesh and also neighbours like India breathlessly wait in expectation as to whether the politics of national identity and Bangladesh nationalism prevails over the politics of Islamisation of Bangladesh, outsourced from abroad, in terms of voter’s preferences.
One saving grace however is the imponderable of the perceptions of ‘young voters’ and women voters who perceptionaly view the Bangladesh Nationalist Party being intimately tied with Islamist radical organisations like the Jamaat and the Hefazat-e-Islam and would tend to reject that brand of politics.
Bangladesh General Elections: Seats Won by Political Parties in Last Two Elections
Before viewing perspectives on the forthcoming General Elections it may be pertinent to illustrate the voting patterns in Bangladesh in the last two General Elections and the seats won by each political party.
The picture emerges as follows:
- Bangladesh Nationalist Party 198 30
- Awami League 62 230
- Jatiya Party 14 27
- Jamaat-e-Islami 18 2
In terms of politically divisive electoral issues dominating the last two General Elections nothing significant has changed, with the exception of the sentencing by the War Crimes Tribunal leaders and the banning of the Jamaat on Court orders and ruling out its putting up candidates for the next General Elections.
Would these two developments generate a heavy political downslide of the Awami League? It does not seem so.
Bangladesh General Elections 2014: Major Observations
Viewing the political scene five months in the run-up to the General Elections, the following major observations can be made:
- National reconciliation between the two major political parties is definitely not visible.
- Political forecasts are banking on the old formula of the ‘Anti-Incumbency’ factor that would suggest that the Awami League would be voted out and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party would logically assume the mantle as per this trend.
- The results of the recent city civic elections being swept by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party is also being quoted to reinforce the above assertion.
- Large-scale violence can be expected during the electioneering as all the opposition parties have at least one major issue on which they whipped up frenzy and violence in2013. This trend seems likely to continue.
- The Awami league however maintains that the cities civic elections cannot be read as a trend in the making; the general elections in an unprecedented trend breaking development may witness the continuance of the Awami League in power.
Recent Developments That Could Possibly Have a Bearing on Forthcoming Elections.
The following recent developments could possibly affect or queer the election campaign and the outcome of the General Elections:
- Jamaat-i-Islami being banned by Courts orders.
- Foreign Minister’s unsuccessful visit to India bringing the India Factor into focus as an electoral issue.
- Awami League rejects calls by Bangladesh Nationalist Party for reintroduction of Caretaker Government system in the run-up to the General Elections
- Election Commission giving recognition to new political parties.
- The Hefazat-e-Islam factor gaining salience.
This creates a number of complex impacts on the election campaign in the run-up to the General Elections. The first impact would be that the Jamaat cannot field candidates for the General Election though the order does not ban political activity of the Jamaat.
The second impact would be on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as the main opposition party which had the Jamaat as its leading coalition partner. It would rob the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of much of its firepower in the election campaigns and also its outcome.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s visit to India recently drawing a blank on crucial issue like the Teesta Waters sharing agreement and the Land Boundary Agreement drew much attention from Bangladesh media columnists. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister during her New Delhi visit pressed for resolution of these agreements speedily so and also cautioned that “If the Bill does not go through and the Teesta Waters sharing deal are not signed they will become important issues in the run-up to the Parliamentary Elections in my country”. But evidently with India itself being dominated by election year politicking, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister drew a blank from both the Indian Government and the main Opposition Party.
This could be a big handle for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to use against the Awami League, moreso, when the Awami League is perceptionaly viewed as very close to India.
The Awami League has rejected calls by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party for reintroduction of the Caretaker Government system to be put in place for 60 days on announcement of General Elections.
Ironically, it was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party which was forced to introduce this system after the 2006 elections when this Party which had risen to power questionably due to electoral malpractices and was forced to backtrack after massive political boycott of the Parliament by all opposition parties. A Caretaker Government was put in place to remedy the political situation.
But a new factor has crept in after the recent city civic polls where the Bangladesh Nationalist Party swept the polls in major urban centres. There are voices within the Bangladesh Nationalist Party that when political trends in voting are as it is favouring them, is it worthwhile for them to insist on reintroduction of the Caretaker Government system?
The Election Commission is in the process of examination of giving recognition to new political parties. About forty one new outfits have applied so far. Only the Bangladesh Nationalist Front is in the run for recognition. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has threatened an agitation and possible boycott of elections as it insists that the new party’s logo and election symbol is very much akin to that of the older party.
The Hefazat-e-Islam surfaced more significantly in 2010. It is headquartered in Chittagong and is a coalition of a dozen or so radical Islamist organizations drawing its strength from the thousands of ‘madrassas ‘run and controlled by it.
It came into focus in May 2013 when it led a 50,000 man march to Dhaka to protest against the Shahbagh Square protests calling for execution of war criminals. This turned out to be a very violent protest in which fifty of the protestors were killed in clashes with the police.
It has recently withdrawn from the 18 member Opposition Coalition to continue its struggle alone to get its 13-point agenda enforced which is basically radical Islamist in content. Primarily, it is against women emancipation and education and also granting inheritance rights to women.
What the Hefazat-e-Islam stands for can best be explained by BBC’s report on it which reads: “It has traditionally not sought power through elections, but has looked to use its street muscle to change Bangladesh’s traditional secular culture and politics through the imposition of what it believes are proper Islamic ways.”
Bangladesh media suggests that Hefazat is determined to influence the outcome of the 2014 General Elections and some view it that it could emerge as the kingmaker. This implies that radical Islam would find great acceptance in the forthcoming General Elections. It is a perspective that is in the realm of speculation going by the Jamaat’s past election performances in which it failed dismally despite whipping up Islamist causes.
While the Bangladesh General Elections 2014 domestic dynamics and internal challenges are covered in the perspectives outlined above what have not been covered are the eternal Islamist forces that are likely to play a significant role this time.
Initially it stands pointed out that Bangladesh is at critical political crossroads where its advance to establish its national identity shorn of 1971 events and Islamist radicalism is being desperately being challenged by radical Islamist organisations bent on transforming Bangladesh into an Islamic Caliphate.
Bangladesh radical Islamist organisations draw their ideological inspiration and financial sustenance from religious organisations in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This election may witness an extraordinary influx of funds from these countries to assist the emergence of Bangladesh Islamist organisations as strong political factors in General Elections 2014. They may not be able to capture political power directly but could claim to emerge as kingmakers.
The ruling Awami League will have its hands full in maintaining Bangladesh law and order situation and internal security in the coming months to ensure free and fair elections.
(Dr. Subhash Kapila is the Consultant, International Relations & Strategic Affairs, South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at email@example.com)