With Bangladesh heading for parliamentary elections on 5 January, blood is being spilled on the country’s streets once again. The election is already widely considered a shambolic exercise. The risk is that more violence and political deadlock could lead to the army intervening in politics one more time.
Security forces have stepped up attacks on opposition activists in recent days as thousands of political protestors are out on the streets campaigning against the forthcoming elections. Supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami party have struck at police posts and government buildings and unleashed violence on activists of the ruling Awami League and Hindu communities.
The results of the elections have been de facto decided. The Awami League is therefore likely to win enough seats to form a second successive government. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and 17 of its allies are boycotting the poll. Mohammad Ershad, the leader of the third-largest party, the Jatiya party, has joined the boycott. The Jamaat has been banned from taking part on grounds that its Islamist nature goes against Bangladesh’s secular constitution.
The latest electoral violence and the heated debate on the legitimacy of the elections stem from a 2011 constitutional amendment, adopted under the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, that got rid of the provision for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee elections.
The political situation was further inflamed by the execution on 12 December of Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami who was convicted of war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan in 1971. Hasina had promised in the 2008 elections to hold a war crimes tribunal that would punish the worst perpetrators of violence during the liberation struggle, a move intended to bring closure to the issue that has left the nation divided for decades.
But the tribunal, which initially condemned Mollah to life imprisonment, was seen as deeply flawed and a ploy by the prime minister to rid herself of political rivals. Worse came when the Supreme Court overturned the tribunal decision in September and ordered Mollah to be put to death.
Bangladesh has been troubled by the legacy of its bloody birth for over five decades. Official estimates say nearly three million were killed and thousands of women raped by those who opposed the country’s break from Pakistan. But Mollah’s execution has not delivered justice to those who suffered. Instead, it has inflamed violence while violating international standards for a fair trial.
The rift in Bangladesh is seen by many as a simplistic conflict between forces of religious extremism and moderation, with Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party relying on the Islamist Jamaat while Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League represents Bangladesh’s secular constituency. The reality is that religion remains a powerful political force in Bangladesh, and both parties have boosted their Islamic credentials before elections. In 2006, the seemingly secular Awami League promised to pass anti-blasphemy laws in a bid to assuage the orthodox elements in Bangladeshi politics. This time around, the League has treaded cautiously around the Hefezat, a combination of hard-line Islamic splinter groups with links to the Jamaat.
Irrespective of which political party has been in power in Bangladesh, policy-makers in India have supported the idea that a slide into right-wing religious fundamentalism in Dhaka will be dangerous for India. But whether India’s game plan of securing a more secular and less radical Bangladesh is achieved by its acceptance of the upcoming elections remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the army, always regarded as the third force in Bangladeshi politics, has so far remained out of the equation. But if the violence escalates and the stand-off between the Awami League and the BNP deepens, the possibility of a state of emergency being declared and the army informally assuming control remains very real.