Bangladesh Flag Ballot Box. 3D Rendering. Photo: iStock
Bangladesh Flag Ballot Box. 3D Rendering. Photo: iStock

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the eighth most populous country in the world, is holding general elections later this year. Notwithstanding how the contest pans out, South and Southeast Asian countries, China, Japan and even the US, UK and a host of Nato countries will be focused on Bangladesh. With China trying desperately to draw Bangladesh into its orbit, and the possible return of a regime to power in Dhaka that was often accused of turning a blind eye to mushrooming radical terrorist networks, the choice Bangladeshis make at the polls has implications far beyond their country’s borders.

Bangladesh politics is hugely polarised between two major political parties: the Awami League, currently in power and headed by Begum Hasina, and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which is headed by Begun Khalida Zia. Hasina is the daughter of Shaikh Mujibur Rehman, the founding father of Bangladesh. Khalida Zia is the wife of the former Bangladesh army chief and also its president, Ziaur Rehman.

Khalida’s party did not participate in the 2014 elections. In the bargain, the Awami League marched into the Bangla Parliament with a huge majority for a second consecutive term.

The primary reason given by the BNP for not contesting the 2014 elections was the abrogation by the Awami League-led government in 2011 of a constitutional provision enacted in 1998 that allowed for a caretaker government to take the reins of the state in the run-up to the elections. The caretaker government was meant to ensure free and fair elections.

This time, the waters are murkier.

Khalida has been handed a five-year sentence for graft and is barred from contesting the elections. Her son was also convicted earlier in a graft case and is currently in exile. To sum it up, the BNP is close to being leaderless today, with no one available to step into Khalida’s shoes. Under the circumstances, the Awami League definitely has an edge; should Khalida not be able to overturn the verdict in a higher court.

Notwithstanding Khalida contesting the elections, her party, the BNP, is likely to contest the polls as it will lose relevance in national politics if it stays out of Parliament (Jatiyo Sangshad) any longer. Some BNP leaders have asked for the caretaker government clause to be reinvoked in order to ensure a fair election.

With Khalida out of the way, Hasina can afford to accede to the BNP’s demand for an all-party caretaker government to supervise the elections. Such a stance would be a low-risk approach to garnering greater legitimacy internationally. However, the Awami League government, having served for 10 years, has a large enough swath of detractors amongst the citizens. Governance has definitely not been of a high order. While it’s widely acknowledged that Hasina stopped Bangladesh’s slide into the quagmire of being another terrorist haven in South Asia, the poverty rate, despite commendable progress, was at 24.3% and extreme poverty at 12.9%, according to the World Bank’s Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016.

Hasina’s relatively tougher attitude has been on display all through her tenure and may affect her voter base. Bangladeshi independence in 1971 was preceded by the worst pogroms this continent has witnessed. Rapes with institutional support and gross human rights violations scarred the nation deeply. Among the main perpetrators were the Jamaat-e-Islami militias. Hasina formed an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) after coming to power in 2008 to try war crimes as defined by Bangladesh. Those tried were mostly leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami and a few senior BNP leaders. A total of six executions were carried out before November 2017. Though Jamaat-e-Islami is known for its radical approach and is barred from contesting polls by a court order, Hasina’s tough stance, the non-adherence to international standards by the ICT, may have dented her voter base to some extent.

To Hasina’s advantage in the next elections will be the Bangladesh growth story – GDP rose 7.2% in 2017

To Hasina’s advantage in the next elections will be the Bangladesh growth story – GDP rose 7.2% in 2017. The expected growth in 2018 is 6.9%. She has also handled the Rohingya refugee problem quite ably.

Should Khalida be back in the ring with higher courts exonerating or reducing her sentence, it would be difficult to predict whether she will return chastised or turn the clock back on the current government’s approach against terrorist groups. Most affected are India and Myanmar, the two countries with which Bangladesh shares borders.

As far as global interest in Bangladesh is concerned, it’s mostly defined by increasing Chinese forays into the country. Bangladesh has also supported the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Incidentally, the Japanese are one of the biggest donors as far as Bangladesh is concerned. Most governments looking at Hasina emerging as the leader for the next five years will be averse to Chinese garnering a greater foothold. They are also likely to give due weight to the stance Indians take on Bangladesh.

Hopefully, Hasina will run an election that’s very obviously legitimate. Whichever party comes to power in the elections will have to make a choice between being in the Chinese orbit or having India, the US, most of Europe and a host of Asian nations as its partners. Most of the world will also need to be sure that Bangladesh continues the battle against radicalization and terrorism.

S K Chatterji

Brigadier S K Chatterji (Retired) served in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army and is a prolific writer.

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