Holding all the cards: Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League

Dhaka: Sheikh Hasina has been sworn in as Prime Minister of Bangladesh for a third consecutive term and her fourth overall. This follows the unsurprising victory in elections to the 11th parliament.

What was unexpected, however, was the scale of the Awami League (AL)-led alliance’s win, which would have delighted the election managers of the likes of Kim il Sung, Nicolae Ceausescu and Enver Hoxha.

The polls were the first participated elections in a decade as the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had boycotted the last parliamentary polls in 2013. These were also the first to be held under the ruling dispensation and not under a neutral caretaker government. As such, it was a test for the health of democracy in the country.

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In what seems to be a deeply flawed election, the ruling coalition won 288 of the 298 seats which went to polls on December 30. The AL itself emerged victorious in 257 of the 259 it contested in, with almost 75 per cent of the popular vote. 110 of the ruling alliance candidates won with more than 90 per cent votes, with 10 winning by margins of over 30, 00, 000 votes. Six candidates, including Sheikh Hasina, secured 99 per cent of the votes cast.

In contrast, the BNP-led opposition alliance polled a mere seven seats, of which the BNP could win only five. Rejecting the results, they have refused to be sworn in as MPs. All this in sharp contrast against the results of the last contested parliamentary elections of 2008, in which the AL won 230 seats with 49 per cent vote and the BNP won 30 seats with 33 per cent votes. In the past, regardless of the poll outcome, both AL and BNP have never seen their vote share fall below 30 per cent or climb over 50 per cent.

What led to such an unprecedented victory for Sheikh Hasina? It is not as if there was no anti-incumbency. Analysts have rightly pointed to her firm leadership and personal popularity, the impressive economic development in the last decade, the sharp improvement in social indicators, relative comfort of the minority Hindu community, which rallied solidly behind her and the resources and muscle of her party workers.

Over and above, one has to add the open support and misuse of official machinery. Even Awami Leaguers were embarrassed at the way ballot boxes were stuffed and opposition voters were prevented from exercising their electoral right. One Election Commissioner had to publicly concede it was not a level playing field.

What is the impact of this electoral tsunami on the political landscape? First, the Awami League. The party entered the electoral arena in alliance with the obscurantist Hefazat-e-Islami, indicating a gradual dilution of its secular ethos. With 174 businessmen winning on the party ticket, one can imagine the distance AL has travelled from its left of the centre mass base.

Remnants of the old guard Tofael Ahmed, Amir Hossain Amu, Mohd Nasim have been put to grass and the remaining connection with the liberation war spirit is gone. There is hardly anyone now in the party who can speak on the basis of old ideological ties with India. Sheikh Hasina’s position is unassailable and supreme. At the same time, there is now no known second rung of leadership, except perhaps her son.

The opposition is completely dispirited and in disarray. Having hanged Jamaat-e-Islami collaborators of 1971 and broken the back of that party’s organisation, Sheikh Hasina’s strategy of crushing the BNP into fragments is now bearing fruit. BNP is in dire straits and out of power now for a decade may not survive the fresh political wilderness as a viable political force. There is a serious leadership crisis.

Begum Zia has been in jail now for almost a year. Her son and heir apparent, convicted in many cases, is absconding and chances of his return in the next five years are negligible. Although, not many leaders in the party are unhappy about the same. Even before the elections, some were pleading with the AL for accommodating a small number in the parliament in return for their participation. The party is confused and is paying the price for boycotting the elections in 2014, thus leaving its cadre leaderless and the leaders defenceless when persecuted by the government.

Essentially an anti-India an anti-AL platform, it diluted rhetoric on both India and Islam in the hope of currying favour with New Delhi and Washington. It has paid the price for ignoring its core appeal of nationalism, meaning anti-Indianism, and religion. Essentially, a party of Dhaka based businessmen; it lacks street power for which it used to depend on the Jamaat. With that not forthcoming, its ability to pressure the government is non-existent.

Much now depends on how Sheikh Hasina governs. And it is not simply an issue of authoritarianism and development versus democracy. Again there is no opposition to oversee governance and AL’s electoral ally, the Jatiya Party, which won 22 seats as part of the ruling alliance, has been prevailed upon to perform this friendly role.

In the last five years, Sheikh Hasina showed signs of extreme authoritarianism, complete intolerance of any dissent or criticism, muzzling the press on one hand and denying legitimate political space to her democratic political opponents on the other.

She drove an upright serving Chief Justice into exile. Non-political street protests by students were violently put down not only by the police but by ruling party cadres. The BNP bore the brunt of her intimidation with criminal cases filed against almost its entire leadership.

Denial of democratic space causes protests to turn violent and go underground. In Bangladesh, groups like the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami and others could be the avenues disaffected elements could turn to giving rise to religious radicalism. Just as JSD cadres did in the Baksal days in the early 70s with disastrous consequences. Sheikh Hasina will have to guard against this.

The Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President were the first to call and congratulate Sheikh Hasina over her victory. Both India and China have economic and political stakes in Bangladesh which are not always competing interests. Both welcome stability and continuity. It is not necessary to recount all that has happened and is happening in the economic and security engagements between Delhi and Dhaka. Irritants that will arise in its relationship but for India, Bangladesh, the key to its Act East Policy is extremely important.

So regardless of the Western criticism of flawed elections, neither India nor China is going to countenance any revision of the electoral verdict. India is particularly happy that Pakistan has been denied any opportunity to exploit Bangladesh for its designs in the east and northeast India. At the same time, policymakers and security strategists must not delude themselves that just because India was not an issue in the political campaign there is no anti-India sentiment.

India would have to guard against the revival of this sentiment by the BNP, as also the possible gravitation of BNP leaders and cadres from their centrist positions to a more rightist anti-India position.


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