The next election in Bangladesh poses a serious dilemma not only to the country itself, but also to the world. Though it is backed by the constitution, the election lacks moral ground. Therefore, almost all regional and global actors seem to reject the monopolistic comeback of the ruling Awami League. Interestingly, the global reaction resembles the Cold War-era polarization regarding the question of Bangladesh’s independence. In 1971 when Bangladesh was fighting Pakistani forces, India extended its hand to the then would-be independent nation. India not only sheltered millions of Bangladeshi refugees, but also sent troops to Bangladesh in the closing days of war. The Soviet Union aided India and therefore Bangladesh by securing an absolute victory against Pakistan. The United States and the West supported Pakistan. The United Kingdom and France, however, abstained on the U.S-sponsored cease-fire resolution at the UN Security Council because of Pakistan’s campaign against Bangladesh.
Nevertheless, the Nixon administration dispatched an aircraft carrier to galvanize the morale of the embattled Pakistani armed forces, which projected a impending danger in Indian minds. Again, the Soviets impeded such American plans by sending a nuclear submarine to ward off the USS Enterprise. Bangladesh attained sovereignty in 1971. In accordance with the strong popular support for the new country, almost all nations recognized Bangladesh shortly thereafter. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - the founding father of Bangladesh and leader of Awami League - continued to run Bangladesh until a military coup d’état in 1975. Fortunately, his two daughters escaped. Bangladesh then experienced many military showdowns.
A seemingly endless cycle of military upheavals ended democracy until it was rehabilitated in the 1990s. Two political forces spearheaded by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia emerged as the chief forces in Bangladeshi politics. Today there are several political forces in Bangladesh. Islamists and constitutional supporters are all part of the equation. Sheikh Hasina’s coalition is certain to win a second term which is an impressive achievement for the League but at the cost of massive unrest, bloodshed, and economic loss. Opposition protestors have occupied the streets. Hundreds of people have died in political violence and the economy is languishing and inflation is rising.
With her super majority in the parliament, Ms. Hasina abolished the provision of the caretaker government, an interim non-partisan administration, to oversee the election. Interestingly, it was Hasina herself who introduced this in the 1990s and it is a reasonable solution when mistrust between political parties is a fact of life. Hasina capitalized on a court ruling that paved the way for her to experiment with the constitution at her discretion. She ignored the same verdict that would keep the caretaker government for the following three elections. Ms. Hasina refuses to let any external groups monitor the election. She and her opponent, Khaleda Zia, were both put behind bars during the last army-backed caretaker government. In reality, it was the culmination of the uncompromising nature of the two women that ushered in such anti-democratic days.
Unfortunately, the present political circumstances are similar. The only difference is that this time the Awami League is oppressing the opposition. In the name of purification of the past, the Hasina government set up a tribunal to try those accused of committing crimes during Bangladesh’s liberation war. Since Bangladesh needs to mend the past, this move was celebrated with immense support. To the chagrin of many, later it appeared Hasina might have orchestrated the tribunal to be nothing more than a political witch-hunt. Human rights groups around the world raised the alarm but it fell on deaf ears. Recently, the government acted upon one tribunal verdict effectively by executing Mollah Quader, the leader of the largest Islamist party.
In response to the deadly political stalemate in Bangladesh, world powers have visibly shifted from noncommittal roles to firm positions. On December 20, the European Union’s Catherine Ashton said in a press release that no observer will be sent to monitor the election because it is not inclusive. Put simply, an election without principal opposition will not be acceptable to outside parties. “Inclusive” has become the term widely used by all including China that rarely speaks regarding the internal affairs of Bangladesh. The only exception is India. India is unwilling to see democracy in Bangladesh be hampered, even though the election is a sham. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon sent his envoy twice to broker a deal. This was the message conveyed by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Ms. Hasina.
Hasina must understand this is not 1971 when the people of Bangladesh unanimously responded to her father’s call to battle Pakistan. The voice of contemporary Bangladesh is resonating though the world in calling for burying the beasts of the past and moving forward.