An ugly past returns to Bangladesh

Eight days ago, they held an election in Bangladesh and nobody came.

Eight days ago, they held an election in Bangladesh and nobody came.

Well, practically nobody: turnout was down from 70 per cent in the last election to only 20 per cent. Some of the absentees stayed away on principle, but others were just frightened away by the violence: more than a hundred polling stations set on fire, and 200 dead in political violence in the last two months.

The past is back with a vengeance in Bangladesh.

In the past 20 years, the country has seen rapid economic growth, a steeply falling birth rate, and the advent of universal primary education. Average life span is 70 years, and average income has doubled since 1975. Not bad for the world’s most densely populated large country, with few natural resources and 160 million people crammed into the same area as the Maritime provinces.

But now the narrative is changing again.

The problem is politics.

Ever since the return of democracy in 1991, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two women who utterly loathe each other. Sheikh Hasina, currently prime minister and leader of the left-leaning, secular Awami League, is the daughter of the country’s “founding father,” Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in 1975 together with almost all his family by rebel army officers.

Her opponent of 20 years’ standing is Khaleda Zia, leader of the conservative, more religiously inclined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She is the widow of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who became president after several more military coups and was then himself assassinated in yet another coup in 1981. Khaleda Zia’s husband was not one of the plotters who murdered Sheikh Hasina’s father, but the latter sees him as having come from the same stable.

The animosity between them can get very petty. For example, none of Khaleda Zia’s official documents list the date of her birth as Aug. 15, but that is when she chooses to celebrate her birthday. It is the date when Sheikh Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman, her mother, and all her brothers were massacred. The argument about whether it is really Khaleda’s birthday has been taken as far as the High Court.

Bangladesh might have moved on from its tragic early history much faster if both women had chosen other careers. Nevertheless, they have both shown enough respect for the law and the democratic process that the country has prospered while they alternated in office ever since 1991.

Even in 1996, when the Awami League boycotted the election and the BNP therefore won by a landslide, the two leaders managed to finesse their way out of the crisis. The new BNP-dominated parliament quickly amended the constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to take over and supervise new elections — which the Awami League won.

But this time the whole thing has gone off the rails. Sheikh Hasina, who has been prime minister since 2009, abolished the “neutral caretaker” system the following year. So when she announced an election on Jan. 5 that would be run by her own Awami League government, the BNP assumed that the election would be rigged and declared that it would boycott it.

The Islamist Jemaat-e-Islami Party, the BNP’s usual election ally, went even further and began to make violent attacks (mostly beatings and fire-bombs) against both Awami League rallies and election officials. As the death toll mounted, the army and police started shooting at violent protesters, and it went up even faster.

In the end, the Awami League won 127 seats where there was no opposition candidate, and 105 of the 147 contested seats. It holds more than three-quarters of the seats in the new parliament, and its political allies and some independents hold the rest. But it has no democratic credibility at all. (The European Union, the Commonwealth, and the United States all refused to send observers to monitor the polls.)

This outcome is all the more surprising because 17 years ago Sheikh Hasina was standing in precisely the shoes Halida Zia is wearing now. Then it was the BNP that rigged the election and the Awami League that staged the boycott. Hasina must have known that her rival would respond exactly the same way this time, and that the only escape from the resultant crisis would be to bring back the “neutral caretaker” to supervise a rerun of the election.

She knew that, and yet she did it anyway. Which means that she must be determined to ride the protests out and not allow any caretaker government or election rerun.

This is a formula for escalating violence and an eventual military coup.

Bangladesh is in trouble.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Just Posted

Women’s marches underway in Canadian cities, a year after Trump inauguration

Women are gathering in dozens of communities across the country today to… Continue reading

Red Deer councillor balks at city getting stuck with more funding responsibilities

Volunteer Central seeks municipal funding after being cut off by government

Olds chicken barn burns to the ground, no livestock harmed

More than 100,000 chickens were saved as fire crews prevent the blaze from spreading

Bear video meant to promote conservation: zoo owner

Discovery Wildlife Park says it will look at other ways to promote its conservation message

WATCH: Setters Place grand opening in Red Deer

Red Deer’s Setters Place officially opened to the public Saturday afternoon.… Continue reading

In photos: Get ready for Western Canadian Championships

Haywood NorAm Western Canadian Championships and Peavey Mart Alberta Cup 5/6 start… Continue reading

WATCH: Red Deer city council debates cost-savings versus quality of life

Majority of councillors decide certain services are worth preserving

Got milk? Highway reopened near Millet

A southbound truck hauling milk and cartons collided with a bridge

Stettler’s newest residents overcame fear, bloodshed to come here

Daniel Kwizera, Diane Mukasine and kids now permanent residents

Giddy up: Red Deer to host Canadian Finals Rodeo in 2018

The CFR is expected to bring $20-30 million annually to Red Deer and region

Ice dancers Virtue and Moir to carry flag at Pyeongchang Olympics

Not since Kurt Browning at the 1994 Lillehammer Games has a figure… Continue reading

Beer Canada calls on feds to axe increasing beer tax as consumption trends down

OTTAWA — A trade association for Canada’s beer industry wants the federal… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month