Today, Shiekh Hasina, as leader of the majority party in the Jatiya Sangsad, will take oath as prime minister. Later, the president will swear in her cabinet. With this, a post-election government will be in place. Naturally, all political agitation as well as related violence, which have plagued the people for almost two years now, should end. The people now need and deserve to live in peace for the next five years. But is this going to happen from tomorrow?
Not likely. The 18-party alliance led by BNP has called a programme of indefinite blockade (oborodh). More violence is expected. By not participating in the just concluded elections they had lent their support to the demand for a non-political caretaker form of government, which they felt would have been best able to deliver a free and fair election. The BNP has over 40 % of the electorate with it.
But the 14-party alliance led by Sheikh Hasina and AL aborted this by amending the constitution (15th Amendment) and introducing a system of interim government to oversee elections. The catch was that the interim government would be led by the prime minister. The BNP boycotted such an election. The result was that AL snapped up 153 out of 300 seats uncontested. In the end the AL took 232 seats, thus getting more than 2/3rd majority in the House. So when the 10th Parliament sits on January 25, the House would be almost a sea of Awami Leaguers.
The election result has not gone down well with the people in general. Nor has it been appreciated by the international community. No country or international organisation sent any election observers. Only India and Bhutan did so in a token manner. An election where the voter cannot exercise his choice is indeed a flawed election. No congratulatory message has been officially received by Shiekh Hasina. It is unlikely that in the near future the new government, which is to be sworn in today, will be easily accepted both within and outside the country.
There are good reasons for that. The turnout of voters, by all estimates, was very poor. Although the Election Commission (EC) claims 40% of the total voters turned up in the 145 constituencies where elections were held, local observers say it was much lower. The BNP think it was between 10% and 15 % only. Sheikh Hasina said that whatever the turnout, what matters most is that, in spite of hartal and oborodh on election day, the polling was held, votes were cast and results could be announced. In fact, AL stalwarts in some constituencies were even defeated. The refrain goes that the election was indeed well contested. What an empty boast indeed.
Then there was the matter of ballot stuffing, violence within some polling stations and the failure of some law enforcers and polling officers to take action against miscreants who vitiated norms on election day. Of course, the defeated candidates can file specific complaints before the EC and seek redress. So, in all fairness, when an audit of the 10th parliamentary election takes place, the verdict would be worrisome to hear. To start with, participation in the polls was not inclusive. It was also not violence free or even fair. Intimidation was used to achieve political ends.
The question that begs an answer now is, can we live with an election whose result does not reflect the will of the people? Unfortunately, we cannot. Bangladesh is a country on the throes of an economic take off. It has many challenges and opportunities before it. It cannot afford to run on the back of a flawed electoral system that rewards malfeasance and punishes good practice. International acceptability of an election is important in this difficult and competitive world. The US and the European Union, besides Australia, Japan and China, have urged in post election messages for arranging a mid-term election after negotiating with BNP to make it more participatory and transparent.
Is the government that is taking oath today likely to listen to these urgings? It is too early to say what Shiekh Hasina's intention is. She is unlikely to give away what she has gained through the elections so easily. If she agrees to a re-election during this term she will first take her pound of flesh. The BNP should be ready to give it. It does not have much of a choice. It is literally now wallowing on the street. It will not be in the government at least for the next five years. Nor is it in the opposition in parliament. It can only cry foul and appeal to governments and agencies that have the patience to hear it out. An opportunity can be available to it if its leaders can negotiate a snap election where it can show its mettle. But mind you, the people are fed up with violence in the streets as well as abstention from work. BNP has to find out a new strategy to address this issue. It needs to work to get its popularity back to fight a mid-term election and win.
However, AL must not itself fritter away the strength that it has in its grip. It needs to see that violence is not used as a tool to achieve political ends. It needs to see whether releasing political prisoners, allowing free political activities and bringing in the rule of law endears her more to the people. She can whittle away the popular support which BNP enjoys in this way. The goal for AL should be to win the hearts and minds of the people by doing development work, and go for mid-term polls with the goal of winning.
Let both the parties and their allies bring Bangladesh back to work.
The writer is a former ambassador and a commentator on contemporary issues. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org