The World Should Be Watching Bangladesh’s Election Debacle

The ruling party is making a mockery of the electoral process, pandering to Islamic extremists, and turning the country into an authoritarian state

BY SUMIT GANGULY | JANUARY 7, 2019   Foreign Policy Magazine

In Dhaka, people read newspapers carrying headlines outlining the general election results on Dec. 31, 2018. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured a fourth term with a landslide victory in a vote the opposition slammed as "farcical" over claims of vote-rigging, and clashes between rival supporters that killed at least 17 people. (Indranil Mukherjee / AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 30, 2018, Bangladesh held its 11th national election since becoming independent in 1971. The questionable results ended in a sweeping victory for the ruling Awami League party of Sheikh Hasina. The party’s coalition secured 288 out of a possible 300 seats in Parliament, ostensibly winning more than 90 percent of the popular vote. The coalition of the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, won a mere seven seats. The results ensured a third term in office for the Awami League. However, almost immediately after the results were announced, a host of foreign and domestic analysts pointed out that the election was far from free or fair. Their misgivings were warranted. At least 17 people were killed in election-related violence, many others were injured, and there were widespread allegations of voter intimidation.

The Awami League has, of course, dismissed the charges of electoral malfeasance and instead suggested that the opposition is solely to blame for its anemic performance. Hasina’s government argued that it received such a sweeping mandate because it had delivered steady economic growth during its two terms in office. Furthermore, party stalwarts accused the opposition of precipitating electoral violence.

The rollback of democracy in Bangladesh matters. Although it is dwarfed by neighboring India, Bangladesh is the eighth-largest country in the world in terms of population. It is also a predominantly Islamic country and the home of close to 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Founded as a secular republic in 1971, it has become increasingly religious in large measure thanks to the pandering on the part of both military and civilian regimes to religious zealots in efforts to court segments of the population.

Despite a formal Supreme Court judgment in 2010 that restored secularism as one of the key tenets of the country’s constitution, Islam was nevertheless kept as the only official state religion. (This restoration was needed because under the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Mohammed Ershad, the secular features of Bangladesh’s Constitution had been significantly eroded.)

Over the course of the past decade or so, the country has seen the genesis of a number of radical Islamist organizations.

Over the course of the past decade or so, the country has seen the genesis of a number of radical Islamist organizations including the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, and the Shahadat-e-al-Hikma. In part, they can be traced to a particular strain of Islamic zealotry that has existed within the country’s political culture since independence. Some elements of Bangladesh’s population had been averse to the country’s separation from Pakistan on religious grounds. They had remained deeply disaffected with the political mainstream and the country’s adoption of a secular constitution. Subsequently, the trial and execution of some collaborators with the Pakistan Army during the 1971 crisis also animated these religious zealots.

The rise of these groups can also be attributed to the infusion of both funds and ideas from Saudi Arabia, which has led to the emergence of more radical clerics and the growth of madrasas and mosques. Furthermore, the return of expatriate workers from the Persian Gulf region has to some extent infused Bangladeshi society with a more austere vision of Islam. Finally, as elsewhere, they have also stemmed from the frustration with the corruption and chicanery that has characterized nominally secular regimes in Bangladesh and a belief that Islamist parties may prove to be less venal.

Some of these entities have been formally banned, but they have nevertheless managed to wreak havoc on minorities, atheists, political dissenters, and especially the country’s dwindling Hindu population. In 2016, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen was implicated in a major terrorist attack at a bakery in the capital, Dhaka. Despite the threat that these Islamist groups pose for the security and stability of the country the ruling party, for reasons of political expediency the party has failed to fashion a concerted strategy to curb the rise of such religious militancy; it prefers to court religious voters.

For reasons of political expediency the party has failed to fashion a concerted strategy to curb the rise of such religious militancy; it prefers to court religious voters.

Hasina’s government has also shown scant interest in protecting those who incur the wrath of the Islamists. In the past several years, Islamist zealots have either attacked or killed a number of secular activists and bloggers. In 2016, two gay rights activists, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Majumdar, were murdered in their apartment in Dhaka. Earlier, in February 2015, the Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to deathon the streets of Dhaka, and his wife was severely injured in the same attack. These incidents were, by no means, confined to the capital city. In Sylhet in 2015, another secular blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was murdered. None of the killers has been arrested or tried.

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