Bangladesh elections: A transitional moment in politics?

Bangladesh elections: A transitional moment in politics?

Afsan Chowdhury,

Bangladesh’s general election was a complex affair but with a simple premise. The Awami League won the election for the third term in a row with an overwhelming majority. With the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) declaring that almost 80 percent votes were cast, it was an election of monumental scale. The ruling party now has 257 and its ally Jatiya Party (JP) has 22 seats. The main challenger, BNP, won only five seats. It was as if the voters were hell bent on ushering in, what maybe be called, “one party” rule in a multi-party democracy, which deserves to be called “transitional”.

The BNP’s defeat was so comprehensive that it had no choice but to reject the polls and call for re-election, all duly turned down by the BEC. The elected BNP MPs have refused to take oath, though the Awami League invited them to join. So far so good and simple, but the days ahead could yet be more complex.

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Elections over, not politics

The election was the first under a civilian government with all parties participating after 18 years, the last being in 2001, which the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami combine won. In 2014, the BNP stayed put and called for a movement, including holding elections under a caretaker government system. That call flopped and it was a walkover election with the Awami League remaining in the saddle for a decade. The 2018 polls are a repeat even with all parties taking part. BNP supporters and a section of the public may think 2018 was rigged but it no longer matters as the election is over and the House is about to commence.

Bangladesh’s 11th national assembly lacks a meaningful opposition as the second-largest party, JP, doesn’t quite command high levels of cheering. Besides, with 20+ seats against a 250+ majority doesn’t make for an effective opposition. However, the JP isn’t a good brand given its loyal opposition record, its chief H M Ershad’s unreliability and its tag as a party of a former dictator. It’s called the “back-up” party.

Which means the streets will be more “high profile” than the House, given the seat composition and balance. Parliamentary business transactions may be so lopsided that they will not be meaningful. If the BNP made the error in 2014 by staying out of the electoral fray, by ‘voting so massively’ in favour of the Awami League have unwittingly created another problem in national politics. The government is an elephant and the rest are like small birds.

BNP’s marginalization

While the BNP’s marginalistion began in 2008, the Awami League’s new challenge will be managing success. If the political space is occupied by only one party, how will the polity be pluralistic and inter-active, not to mention accountable as the Constitution envisions? As it is, the newly elected Awami League leaders have warned that the time has come to “end BNP-Jamaat politics”. Well, it is an interesting wish.

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The BNP plans to take a hard stand and may again call for a movement which, given the current reality, might prove suicidal. That is unless the party workers enjoy legal harassment and remaining behind bars. To deepen the political complexity, despite the mighty thrashing it received, the BNP remains the major party even after getting so few seats.

The Jatiya Party is totally dependent on the Awami League, while the bridge between the BNP and the ruling party appears to have been burned. In effect, the doors seem to be closing on parliamentary pluralism. This is rather an unusual situation and the role parliament will play remains to be seen. How the government handles a multi-party or a one-party democracy will also have to be seen.

As the Awami League becomes the sole power, which it partly was even if to some extent by default from 2014 onwards, all the achievements and failures in the future will be credited to it. And in the space outside parliament the challenges will inevitably be bigger than within the House.

Economic development and governance are key

Nobody, including the government, denies that governance has been weak, particularly in the economic sector. Economists have said that banks need immediate healing or they will confront grave consequences. But how this will be done is not clear because they have been sliding for a long time. Nothing much has been or can be done to restrict this as economics moves along ‘connections’ and not the rules of finance. However, bankers themselves have told media that they are doing fine.

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There has been economic development, especially outside Dhaka, but disparity has increased, urban poverty is high and the critical job-creation sector is limping. A survey carried out by BRAC, the world’s top NGO, on electoral expectation  shows that youths’ priority is employment and political goods come lower down the line.

This means that senior politicians hooked into party lines are still not in sync with the aspiration of this rising critical group. Even the 2018 elections were pushed by the Awami League as a fight to banish the ghosts of 1971 war, which was in reference to the Jamaat’s presence. That jobs matter most is a new reality that has not been noticed well enough.

Nor has been the simmering violence below the socio-political surface. The heavily guarded polling booths were ‘safe’ but as many as 18, mostly belonging to the Awami League, died on polling day. But another gruesome incident has overshadowed the general violent instances as a mother was gang-raped by alleged Awami League workers for voting for the BNP. Unless controlled, bigger problems will emerge.

What next?

Except the Awami League, most other political parties have significantly declined and elections will not be as interesting in the future. Given the results, which leaves the Awami League as the only players, will hardly excite the people. The streets will be safe for the time being but the issues—jobless growth, graduate unemployment, weak law and order, high privileges and benefits for the ruling class and its allies—will fester.

Three main issues will linger on the political horizon:

* How to retain political pluralism in an environment of near-absolute vote, seats and power of the ruling party. With the BNP clearly unable to mount an electoral challenge, will it return to the streets now that it has no options left? Is this even an option for the party?

* How will the Awami League keep so many of its MPs satisfied even as many more will join the triumphant bandwagon. This trend was there before the elections and will widen particularly with competitors from within the ruling class, formal and informal.

* How will the aspirations, expectations and protests of the young people be managed as the social space which was already growing rapidly as the anti-quota movement and the safe road movement showed? Since the political space has already shrunk after the elections, it’s obvious that the social voices will now become louder than the political ones. Protests free from party identity can be more resilient and enjoy wider support as the two recent movements showed.

The elections may have initiated the end of an era of conventional politics. From now on, new configurations will appear and will pose a challenge for both the winners and losers.