The landslide poll victory of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s political alliance, the Awami League, ends two years of military-backed emergency rule in Bangladesh. But it’s doubtful if this could herald the return of democracy and stability to the country any time soon.
Plagued by political and economic crises for years on end, the people of Bangladesh can only afford to be cautiously optimistic, considering the many false dawns they have witnessed in the past. In fact, there is even a sense of déjà vu in the huge parliamentary majority now chalked up by the League. For its main rival, the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had won the national election in 2001 by a similar margin. Since then, the see-saw “battle of the Begums” had led the country from one crisis to another, as they took turns dominating its politics. Both claimed to be champions of democracy, but never thought twice about joining hands with radical Islamists to snatch power from each other. No wonder militant parties like the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh gained as much importance in Bangladesh politics as parties like the original Jamaat. As a result, political parties became hostage to Islamists, and were forced to support terrorist organisations like Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI) for their jihadi operations across the border in India. It is, therefore, good news for New Delhi that Sheikh Hasina has of late consistently opposed extremism and could follow through on her campaign pledges of acting against militant groups.
This election offers an opportunity for her government to mend fences with political rivals and together try to find solutions to the huge problems facing the country. If that doesn’t happen, chances are that the country will be back to zero-sum politics, which, in turn, could prompt the military to intervene again. On its part, the international community should lend a hand by insisting that Bangladesh’s political leaders clean up their act and find non-partisan ways to support democratic institutions. One way to do this, perhaps, is to make foreign aid conditional upon the cleansing of Bangladesh’s political culture of violence and social intolerance. This is the only way for Bangladesh to stop its alarming slide towards the status of a failed state.