More than five years ago, on December 31, 2008, Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina spoke at a press conference at the Bangladesh-China Friendship Conference Centre in Dhaka. She was smiling and had looked confident. Her expression suited the landslide victory of her party in the parliamentary election held just two days ago. She might have understood the people's long cherished expectations as she announced, "We do not believe in politics of vengeance. We want to put an end to the politics of confrontation and present a new political culture to the nation." In the run up to the December 29, 2008 general election, her party in its electoral manifesto styled "A charter for Change" had also promised to inculcate tolerance and decency into politics and formulate, on consensus, a code of conduct for political behaviour.
But over the past five years the government and the party under her leadership could not deliver on the promises. There was hardly any effort to materialise the promises. So the charter for change could not change the country's confrontational political culture. Rather, it changed the AL, a party with a history of long struggle for people's voting rights, to trample on its historic glory by denying the people the right to choose their own candidate. The controversial January 5 parliamentary election put the party in the same league of the BNP and Jatiya Party for holding voter-less elections. The AL had long been blasting the BNP and Jatiya Party for their birth at the cantonment as they were founded by military rulers.
The brute majority the AL obtained in the December 29, 2008 parliamentary election made the party desperate to unilaterally abolish the election time caretaker government system, triggering a political crisis. The day the caretaker government system was abolished through the passage of the constitution's 15th amendment on June 30, 2011, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the parliament announced that her government had ensured 'empowerment of people and their democratic and voting rights' through the amendments. But by holding the one-sided January 5 election, her government has proved something rather contrary to her announcement.
In the January 5 election, the AL again won a brute majority without facing any challenge as, its archrival BNP had boycotted the polls. In the run up to this election, the AL in its election manifesto promised to forge a national consensus to keep the democratic process uninterrupted and make the new parliament effective. But the way the political situation is developing, this promise looks all set to remain confined to only words. The manner in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her colleagues in the party and the new cabinet have been blasting Khaleda Zia and her party the BNP, it will only continue to further pollute the political atmosphere, let alone forge a national consensus. If the Prime Minister sincerely wants to forge a national consensus according to her party's electoral pledges, she must take the lead. She must stop verbally abusing her archrival Khaleda Zia. If she refrains from doing so and urges her party and cabinet colleagues to follow suit, no one will dare make any such remarks to pollute the political atmosphere. If she does so, it will mount pressure on Khaleda and her party leaders to remain decent in their statements. Otherwise, the war of words will keep preaching hatred in politics.
Immediately after the December 29 parliamentary polls in 2008, Hasina had talked about making compromises and changing political culture. But this time, she took a hard line. She has been repeatedly making threats to her political opponents. Even in the run up to the elections to the upazila parishads, she has warned her own party's grassroots level leaders of stern actions against those who will contest the upazila elections as dissident candidates. Lack of check and balance in power always invite danger. The current political situation has already triggered some fear in the public mind of rise of an authoritarian leader. Hasina has already established her supremacy over her own party. The BNP, the AL's main political opponent, is now facing a debacle after its failure to resist the January 5 parliamentary polls. Jamaat has earned a bad name. Another major party, Jatiya Party, has virtually been made subservient to the ruling AL through distribution of favours. So now there is no strong political opponent to the AL and Hasina's leadership in and outside of the parliament. This is a very dangerous situation. This is the hotbed for the rise of authoritarian rule.
Now, all depends on the political wisdom of Sheikh Hasina. She must reassess her strategy before going ahead. She should discard the plan to stay in office for five years with the fractured mandate her party got in the last parliamentary election. She should take some game changing moves to recover the damage done to her party. Such moves will help her party to regain public confidence. Then it may go for a fresh election allowing people to exercise their right to elect their representatives. If the AL gets people's mandate in the fresh election, it will morally uplift the party. She should take some extraordinary measures to bring reforms in some crucial institutions including the parliament, the EC, civil administration, police administration, and political parties to make them what they are supposed to be. She must clarify the mode of the government which will remain in power during the next election. The prime minister may come up with a roadmap specifying the timeframe for their implementation. If she takes such moves, it will of course brighten her and her party's image. But for this she should not take much time. The sooner she does this the better.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.