Bangladesh is expected to go to the polls for its General Elections with the term of the current Ninth Parliament on January 24, 2014. The present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came into power in January 2009 after Bangladesh had gone through a spell of two years (2006-2008) of a Caretaker Government.
Bangladesh forthcoming General Elections are a matter of intense focus as the political turbulence commencing in January 2013 in the wake of sentencing of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami leaders to death and life imprisonment on charges of war crimes related to Bangladesh Liberation War were announced sent out conflicting portents.
The Shahbagh Awakening in the wake of War Criminal Trials judgements witnessed a virtual violent struggle for Bangladesh’s national identity between the nations’ younger generation and the followers of Islamist parties combine led by the Jamaat.
It was heartening to note that Bangladesh’s Generation X vociferously demanding stiffer sentences for the 1971 war criminals accused of atrocities against their own people in collusion and collaboration with the rapacious Pakistan Army engaged in an ethnic genocide in East Pakistan then. Generation X was also demanding a banning of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh
Contrastingly, the Jamaat combine supporters’ unleashed violent disturbances as if in a last-ditch battle to prevent Bangladesh moving towards stabilising into a moderate democratic Islamic Republic.
Attempting the preview of the forthcoming General Elections in Bangladesh would briefly require the consideration of the historical patterns of Bangladesh electoral politics, Bangladesh’s contextual political dynamics, and the India Factor as an issue in Bangladesh General Elections.
In terms of historical patterns political power has alternated between the two main rival political parties, namely, the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Begum Khaleda Zia. Going by this, what appears to be a set pattern, the General Elections 2014 portend that Begum Zia should be coming into power in Dhaka. But then there are other imponderables that come into play which will be discussed a little later.
Bangladesh’s contextual political dynamics cannot be said to follow set historical patterns except that the unremitting hostility between Begum Hasina and Begum Zia continues as a constant and is likely to acquire sharper contours in the run-up to General Elections 2014. This arises from Begum Zia’s and the BNP combine demanding that the system of a Caretaker Administration be restored before General Elections are held.
It needs to be recalled that the system of Caretaker Administration was dispensed by the AL Government by a Constitutional Amendment (15th Amendment) arising from a Court judgement pronouncing the system as unconstitutional.
Speculation exists that the BNP may refuse to take part in the General Elections provoking a political crisis of the political legitimacy of General Elections 22014 which may be frowned upon by Bangladesh’s international supporters.
More than the above the factor which may heavily overweigh Bangladesh electoral dynamics is that the main ally of the BNP’s 18 Party electoral alliance is the Jamaat-e-Islami party whose top leaders stand convicted in the War Crimes Tribunal. Association by guilt may perceptionaly count heavily with Bangladesh Generation X voting patterns that spearheaded the Shahbagh Awakening protests calling for stiffer court sentences for War Criminals. They would not be oblivious to the Jamaat being the main political ally of the BNP -led Alliance.
The India Factor has always figured as a political issue in Bangladesh politics and in Bangladesh Elections. India has not done much to solve outstanding irritants in India-Bangladesh relations like the Teesta Water’s sharing dispute, exchange of enclaves and border tensions between the border security forces of both countries.
However, in an indication as to in which directions political winds are blowing in Bangladesh, India seems to have widened its political bets by outreaches to the BNP leader Begum Zia and Lt. Gen. (Retd) Ershad heading the Jatiyo Party.
Begum Zia was invited for a visit to India this year and reports suggest that India got assurances that BNP would not adopt any hard-line posturing on India in the coming General Elections or in the event of assuming power.
As per one Bangladesh newspaper, General Ershad claims that India’s premier intelligence agency RAW backs him and that Indian funds would be funnelled to him.
However both these developments lie in the field of imponderables and cannot be counted as firm indicators that these two political leaders would adopt changed stances on India especially in a much surcharged political environment in Bangladesh in the run-up to Bangladesh General Elections 2014.
In such a surcharged election year conspiracy theories abound abundantly. The more prominent is that the Jamaat-e-Islami is likely to align with the ruling Awami League in return for guarantees of leniency against its top leaders involved in War Crimes trials thereby robbing the BNP of one of its key allies. Indicators cited to this end are that the Government has appointed weak prosecutors now for the trials.
The other conspiracy theory is that should the political impasse between the AL and BNP reach a dead-end impasse and the resultant political violence that will be attendant thereon, the Bangladesh Army may intervene to provide a Caretaker Administration until the impasse is resolved.
It is being aired that the ruling AL may prefer such an intervention as against an outright BNP victory in which case political vendettas against AL leaders are feared.
Lastly in terms of Bangladesh political dynamics what need to be brought out are the recent trends in local Mayoral election just about five months before the General Elections. Indicative of dissatisfaction with incumbent AL leaders heading Corporations, the AL has lost Chittagong, Narayanganj and Commilla. Reports also indicate AL losses in Barisal, Khulna, Rajshahi and Sylhet.
Concluding, in a preview of the forthcoming Bangladesh General Elections one can state that there are no clashes of grand ideologies of the two major political parties but a clash of the two dominating personalities of Bangladesh politics, namely the two Begums and the clash of their two political wills. Islamist contours are added to this clash as the BNP headed by Begum Zia has in its 18 member Alliance is dominated by Islamist political parties with limited political weight but great weight in providing disruptive force in complicating democratic elections. In terms of a clearer picture of new political realignments that may emerge one would have to await the panning out of Bangladesh political dynamics as the dates for General Elections inch closer.
(Dr. Subhash Kapila is Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group)