Awami League is poised for a third consecutive term in power, which is unprecedented in Bangladesh's history. The country went to the polls yesterday after ten years of wait for a participatory election, and the AL achieved a landslide victory. Questions about the election notwithstanding—and there are quite a few, and important ones at that—the fact is that this is a remarkable political feat. It seems that voters have opted for stability and continuity, and to AL's credit, its manifesto of growth and economic development has won the day. But there are criticisms to AL's 10-year tenure—from governance issues to human rights abuses. In its third term, we can only hope that these issues are the ones which will be prioritised to allay the continuous concerns of citizens.
A third term gives the AL chief Sheikh Hasina a mandate to build on the high points of her successes. These include: the trial of war criminals, the widely-acclaimed humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis, the fairly successful anti-militancy drive, getting major development projects off the ground, a fairly stable economy, focus on digitalisation, an unprecedented success in regard to socio-economic indicators, among many others.
All these accomplishments are laudable; however, their sustainability is dependent on one of the biggest challenges of her leadership: to combat the scourge of corruption in almost every sector and widespread allegations of human rights abuses. The series of mega-projects including the upcoming metro rail that promises to alleviate at least partly the impossible traffic congestion, can only succeed if the governance issues regarding timely completion and proper utilisation of funds can be ensured. There are also the adverse consequences of concentration of power that seem to plague this administration resulting in abuse and excesses by affiliated bodies of the party with complete impunity. These are prickly but crucial issues for the 10-year legacy of the party's rule which are counterpoints to its development achievements.
While the economy has been fairly resilient to various shocks, and inflation has been contained to an extent, the undeniable crises in the financial sector will have serious repercussions unless major steps are taken to address the anomalies. This include the pilling up of bad loans, continued bailouts by the central bank, and nepotism in the top-management, which have all contributed to the spiralling cycle of failing financial institutions.
Failure to address the shrinking of space when it comes to freedom of speech and assembly, tolerance for divergent opinions, forced disappearances, extra-judicial killings and rising inequality has seriously taken away from the AL's achievements.
That this election has been subjected to legitimate questions since the polling schedule was announced earlier this month is beyond doubt. The opposition coalition, the Jatiya Oikyafront, has alleged throughout the campaign that a large number of its candidates weren't allowed to campaign freely, with several of them and thousands of activists allegedly arrested by police in the days leading up to the election.
The Election Day was marred by allegations of gross irregularities such as ballot stuffing. Several polling centres were found to be closed down for voters waiting in long queues before polling was supposed to end. The Daily Star reported how at least three centres were closed midday for “lunch break”.
BBC reported its correspondents saw officials carrying filled ballot boxes in a centre in Chittagong even before voting began in the morning. Our correspondents visited a number of polling stations in Dhaka but found no agents of the opposition camp present anywhere. There was an overwhelming presence of Awami League activists and supporters wearing the “Nouka” (Boat) badge in and around all stations. The experience with EVMs was not fully satisfying either. Reports have emerged that voters had their votes cast in the machines' screens by people already inside the secret booth. The Oikyafront, in a press conference, has rejected the results of the election and urged that a fresh election be held. Above all, the atmosphere of the election—while largely “peaceful”—seemed controlled.
However, the Awami League-led coalition has got an unprecedented mandate with this landslide win, and so the pressure to deliver will be that much high. It's too early, however, to comment on the constitution of the next government or its priorities. Awami League will naturally have both short-term and long-term goals, and there will be new challenges from time to time which it will have to face and devise ways to tackle. But the immediate focus should be on the 21-point pledge that the party made in its election manifesto.
The manifesto offers a poignant reminder of Awami League's development vision for the country, which it extended over the last ten years. It made some lofty promises and pledged reforms that should ideally secure Bangladesh's position in the club of developing countries. It vowed to show zero tolerance for corruption, make a stronger electoral system through reforms, alleviate poverty, create employment, ensure a service-oriented and accountable administration, and put more focus on infrastructure development.
But the pledges that we are more interested in seeing fulfilled are the ones about institutionalising democracy and empowering the National Human Rights Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the mass media and the judiciary, as well as ensuring good governance. Fulfilling these will be a gigantic challenge, and we cannot but ignore the fact that Awami League comes with a questionable record on the front of human rights and basic freedoms. Can Awami League redeem itself and learn from its failures? Normally, we wouldn't be so easily convinced; but no party has won such an unprecedented mandate in the past either. Sheikh Hasina seems to be well aware of that: "I promise to build a more beautiful future by learning from the past. We will build a non-communal, Golden Bangladesh, free from hunger, poverty and illiteracy, as cherished by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman," she said, during her manifesto speech.