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Bangladesh’s painful journey to democracy is still far from over

Bangladesh’s painful journey to democracy is still far from over

The tenure of Bangladesh’s current parliament, more than half of whose members were elected uncontested in a violent and disputed election in 2014, is coming to an end soon. And with a general election on the horizon, various diplomatic missions are stepping up their efforts to help things run as smoothly as possible.

The American, British and Indian ambassadors have all visited the Election Commission in recent months, as has the UN resident co-ordinator for Bangladesh. They have publicly expressed their concerns for the forthcoming election, and implored the commission to take measures to avoid the boycotts and violence that marred the election process last time around. Some in Bangladesh welcome these entreaties, but others in the ruling alliance consider them nothing more than attempts to meddle in their country’s affairs.

Already it’s turning into a rerun of the same old election story: the incumbent Awami League and its allies insist that the election will be held under the current government rather than a non-partisan caretaker regime, a device previously used to take the management of the election out of partisan hands. Meanwhile, the alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says it will do whatever’s necessary to stop the government from holding an election without giving up full control of the electoral process.

Everyone concerned clearly remembers the turbulence of the 2014 election, when all sorts of political violence boiled over, claiming many innocent lives. But the explanation for why it happened is still a matter of heated debate.

A woman shows her ink-stained thumb after voting in the 2014 election. EPA/Abir Abdullah

Among all the competing theories about what caused all the violence and deaths, two dominate the argument. More than a few Bangladeshis believe the BNP and its allies wanted to create an unstable situation, which would force the ruling Awami League and its allies to form a caretaker government; others believe the violence was in fact orchestrated by the ruling alliance, but blamed on the BNP-led alliance to keep it out of the 2014 election altogether.

Neither side seems willing to concede anything to the other’s version of events. But what both must acknowledge is that hundreds of everyday people, most of them returning home from work, were killed without justification – and that the main reason was intense antagonism among the political parties.

Election diplomacy and the India factor

Bangladesh’s political landscape is extraordinarily toxic. Whenever they’re out of power, parties lose all faith that the sitting government can or will convene a fair election. The Election Commission is independent on paper, but not in practice, and ever since the 1990-91 transition from military to parliamentary rule in Bangladesh, every general election has taken place in a climate of ominous uncertainty.

The pattern is clear: whichever party is in power tries to manipulate the electoral architecture and exploit a politicised public sector, while the opposition demand that a non-partisan caretaker government should be installed to provide a level playing field. And each time, the situation turns lethal.

As a result, Bangladeshi elections invariably attract the diplomatic attention of the international community. This pressure is applied mainly by Western diplomatic missions, the European Union, the United Nations and so on. Various high-level envoys and teams have visited Bangladesh over the years to help build consensus among the political parties and set up some kind of interim government to arrange a free and fair election.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits his Bangladeshi counterpart, the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina. EPA

Apart from the Western countries, India has been particularly influential ever since it supported Bangladesh in the 1971 war of independence. After the disputed 2014 election, it endorsed the Awami League’s victory even though many Western governments and outside organisations expressed their reservations; through its influence on South Asian geopolitics and diplomacy, India ultimately managed to sway the international community to acknowledge the result.

But India’s relationship with Bangladesh and its politics is far from simple. The two countries are still wrangling over a number of unresolved issues, such as the flow of major international rivers, transit, terrorism, border control, and investment. Their overall relationship is best described as bittersweet, and its particular flavour is still subject to who is in power in Bangladesh.

India enjoys a much warmer relationship with the Awami League than with the BNP – but since the 2014 election, both parties have worked hard to improve their connections with the current Indian government. Still, anti-India sentiment is commonplace, mainly because of the patron-like attitude India takes, especially while the Awami League is in office.

Looking ahead

Bangladesh is becoming an increasingly important player in Asian geopolitics, especially when it comes to the competition between China and India and the various changes and crises underway in Myanmar. An unstable and violent neighbourhood is the last thing Bangladesh and its people need – but the best thing Bangladesh can do to help keep things on an even keel is to stabilise itself.

If democracy is to take stronger root, it needs a conducive political environment. The country’s institutions must be kept free of political influence. Bangladesh’s political parties should recognise that dialogue does no harm; the international community should do everything it can to improve ordinary Bangladeshis’ lives, or at least avoid further unnecessary deaths – especially when a general election is approaching fast.

What Bangladesh really needs is not just security, but a legitimately elected government that’s accountable above all to its people, not to some or any external patron.