Vitiated polls

Bangladesh is moving towards a flawed general election which is scheduled to be held on January 5. With no signs of a meeting point between the Awami League government led by prime minister Hasina Wajed and the opposition led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Khaleda Zia confrontation and violence has escalated in the days before the polls. The country is in turmoil with large-scale protests organised against the government.

There is an indefinite blockade of roads, railways and waterways which is intended to stop all movements of officials and polling materials to the booths and to prevent people from reaching them on the election day. Khaleda Zia has made it clear that she would not accept anything short of the conduct of elections under a neutral caretaker government or their postponement. Postponement would also pose a serious problem because it would not be possible to hold elections, if the date is missed now, before the expiry of the present parliament’s term.

Hasina Wajed does not seem to be fazed by the boycott of elections by the opposition and the attempts to scuttle them.  Holding elections under a national government led by her, rather than a neutral government, is not illegal as an earlier constitutional provision for a neutral pre-poll regime does not exist now. But it is morally and politically questionable. The Awami League will form the government after the elections because its candidates will be elected uncontested from about half of the 300 seats in Parliament.

There is no major challenge for it in the remaining seats. Khaleda Zia is under house arrest and another important opposition leader and former president H M Ershad is in custody. A major opposition party, Jamaat-i-Islami, is barred from contesting elections. A victory in these circumstances will bring no credit to the victor.

Bangladesh has a highly polarised society. Politics has been violent, irrational, personal and vindictive. Action on the streets has always been a reality.  In spite of this, it was felt that democracy had finally taken roots. Sheikh Hasina has tried to strengthen the secular basis of the society as against the BNP’s fundamentalist leanings. The Awami League government has also been friendly to India. But by sticking to a position without a compromise and getting ready to accept its flawed consequences as normal, she has harmed the cause of democracy.

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