Last Sunday they held an election in Bangladesh, and nobody came. Well, practically nobody: turn-out was down from 70 per cent in the last election to only 20 per cent. Some of the absentees stayed away on principle, but others were just frightened away by the violence: more than a hundred polling stations set on fire, and 200 dead in political violence in the last two months. The past is back with a vengeance in Bangladesh.
It wasn’t actually former U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger who predicted that an independent Bangladesh would be "an international basket case." That was American diplomat Ural Alexis Johnson, at a meeting in December 1971, only days before Pakistani forces surrendered and Bangladesh won its independence. Kissinger merely observed that it would "not necessarily (be) our basket case."
Nevertheless, it was attributed to Kissinger, and it became the defining prediction about Bangladesh’s future. Over the next two decades it seemed pretty accurate: it was a country where poverty was endemic, famine was an occasional visitor, political turbulence was permanent, and there were frequent military coups. But since the restoration of democracy in 1991, the narrative has been very different. Until now.
In the past 20 years the country has seen rapid economic growth, a steeply falling birth rate, and the advent of universal primary education. Average life span is 70 years, and average income has doubled since 1975. Not bad for the world’s most densely populated large country, with few natural resources and 160 million people crammed into the same area as Canada’s Maritime provinces. But now the narrative is changing again.
The problem is politics. Ever since the return of democracy in 1991, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two women who utterly loathe each other. Sheikh Hasina, currently prime minister and leader of the left-leaning, secular Awami League, is the daughter of the country’s "founding father," Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in 1975 together with almost all his family by rebel army officers.
Her opponent of 20 years’ standing is Khaleda Zia, leader of the conservative, more religiously inclined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She is the widow of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who became president after several more military coups and was then himself assassinated in yet another coup in 1981. Khaleda Zia’s husband was not one of the plotters who murdered Sheikh Hasina’s father, but the latter sees him as having come from the same stable.
The animosity between them can get very petty. For example, none of Khaleda Zia’s official documents list the date of her birth as Aug. 15, but that is when she chooses to celebrate her birthday. It is the date when Sheikh Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman, her mother, and all her brothers were massacred. The argument about whether it is really Khaleda’s birthday has been taken as far as the High Court.
Bangladesh might have moved on from its tragic early history much faster if both women had chosen other careers. Nevertheless, they have both shown enough respect for the law and the democratic process that the country has prospered while they alternated in office ever since 1991.
Even in 1996, when the Awami League boycotted the election and the BNP therefore won by a landslide, the two leaders managed to finesse their way out of the crisis. The new BNP-dominated parliament quickly amended the constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to take over and supervise new elections — which the Awami League won.
But this time the whole thing has gone off the rails. Sheikh Hasina, who has been prime minister since 2009, abolished the "neutral caretaker" system the following year. So when she announced an election on Jan. 5 that would be run by her own Awami League government, the BNP assumed that the election would be rigged and declared that it would boycott it.
The Islamist Jemaat-e-Islami Party, the BNP’s usual election ally, went even further and began to make violent attacks (mostly beatings and fire-bombs) against both Awami League rallies and election officials. As the death toll mounted, the army and police started shooting at violent protesters, and it went up even faster.
In the end, the Awami League won 127 seats where there was no opposition candidate, and 105 of the 147 contested seats. It holds more than three-quarters of the seats in the new parliament, and its political allies and some independents hold the rest. But it has no democratic credibility at all. (The European Union, the Commonwealth, and the United States all refused to send observers to monitor the polls.)
This outcome is all the more surprising because 17 years ago Sheikh Hasina was standing in precisely the shoes Khaleda Zia is wearing now. Then it was the BNP that rigged the election and the Awami League that staged the boycott. Hasina must have known that her rival would respond exactly the same way this time, and that the only escape from the resultant crisis would be to bring back the "neutral caretaker" to supervize a rerun of the election.
She knew that, and yet she did it anyway. Which means that she must be determined to ride the protests out and not allow any caretaker government or election rerun. This is a formula for escalating violence and an eventual military coup. Bangladesh is in trouble.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.