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Political stability at stake in Bangladesh

Ruling Awami League poised for an encore amid poll boycott by main Opposition party

Political stability at stake in Bangladesh

TIRADE: Sheikh Hasina’s critics have accused her of becoming dictatorial in recent years. ANI

Anand Kumar

BANGLADESH is going to the polls on January 7. The ruling Awami League is looking to retain power, a task made easier by the boycott of the elections by the main Opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Although some smaller and little-known political outfits, along with Independent candidates, will be contesting against the ruling party, they are unlikely to pose a major challenge. In this scenario, the ruling party might get a thumping majority. However, the non-participation of the BNP could make the Awami League’s potential victory lose its sheen.

Its per capita income has tripled in the past decade. The World Bank estimates that more than 25 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the past 20 years.

The Awami League is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is regarded as the father of the nation by Bangladeshis. The BNP is headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of military dictator Ziaur Rahman. The two women are also known as the ‘battling Begums’ of Bangladesh.

In the first three elections after the restoration of democracy in 1990, these two parties were in power by turns. However, since 2009, Hasina has been at the helm. Critics have alleged that the elections in the past decade and a half have not been free and fair. Some say that it was a blunder by the BNP to boycott the 2014 elections, which allowed the Awami League to retain power with a huge majority. This decision also kept the BNP and its top leaders away from the parliament for a considerable period. The party was further weakened as many of its leaders, including Khaleda and Tariq Rahman (her son and heir apparent), were booked in corruption cases. They were prosecuted and convicted for their wrongdoings. Rahman stays in London, keeping him out of touch with politics in Bangladesh. Khaleda’s house arrest and poor health make it harder for her to revive the political fortunes of her party.

The BNP was involved in violence in the run-up to previous elections. This also gave the Awami League an opportunity to prosecute some other top leaders of the BNP. As a result, the party is now quite weak and not in a position to counter the Awami League.

A key alliance partner of the BNP, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, has been banned from contesting the elections. The party has repeatedly stated that it does not believe in laws legislated by the parliament and only adheres to Islamic law and rule. This led Bangladesh’s Election Commission to deregister the party. The Jamaat-e-Islami suffered further damage as its top leaders were executed in the wake of the war crime trial conducted after the Hasina government came to power.

The BNP is demanding that the general election should be conducted by a neutral interim government. It fears that the Hasina dispensation cannot conduct free and fair elections. However, the government is unwilling to accept the Opposition’s demand. The BNP now believes that it committed a mistake by participating in the 2018 elections.

The Awami League government removed the provision for a caretaker government in 2011 through the passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution. Before that, the caretaker government used to conduct the elections within a stipulated time period and hand over power to the elected party. However, the caretaker government continued for a couple of years (2007-09), functioning like a regular government and taking several steps that were beyond its jurisdiction. It also prosecuted Hasina and Khaleda. Clearly, the caretaker government system has not been foolproof. Bangladesh needs to come up with institutions that can conduct free and fair polls, as is the case in other democracies.

While Hasina’s critics accuse her of having become dictatorial in recent years, it is a fact that her tenure has brought political stability to Bangladesh. This has proven beneficial for Bangladesh and its people. The country is experiencing rapid economic growth and is one of the fastest-growing economies in South Asia. Its per capita income has tripled in the past decade. The World Bank estimates that more than 25 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the past 20 years.

The Hasina government has also implemented several major infrastructural projects. With a combination of the country’s own financial resources, loans and development assistance, the flagship $2.9-billion Padma Bridge was built over the Ganga. This bridge alone is expected to help increase the GDP by 1.23 per cent.

Despite these achievements, Bangladesh has been facing economic problems in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The country has been struggling with the escalating cost of living, with inflation reaching around 9.5 per cent in November. Its foreign exchange reserves have dropped from a record $48 billion in August 2021 to around $20 billion now, which are not enough for even three months of imports. Additionally, its foreign debt has doubled since 2016. India has helped Bangladesh by supplying essential commodities.

There is no doubt that the political stability that Bangladesh has enjoyed for a decade and a half has resulted in economic growth. India and Bangladesh now enjoy a much greater level of trust, which has resulted in improved rail connectivity and bilateral trade. However, the prospect of Bangladesh entering the China-led international trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, has made India tread warily on the FTA (free trade agreement) negotiations with the neighbour. India is closely monitoring the situation and hoping that things will work out in its favour once the new government takes charge after the elections.


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