No Winners in Bangladesh

People look at burnt textbooks after a primary school which was supposed to be used as a polling booth was set on fire, in Feni January 4, 2014 (Courtesy Reuters).

People look at burnt textbooks after a primary school which was supposed to be used as a polling booth was set on fire, in Feni. Nearly 60 polling stations in Bangladesh were set on fire and three people were killed on the eve of Sunday’s election January 4, 2014 (Courtesy Reuters).

I’ve been an optimist about Bangladesh for some time now—its national development miracle, amazing social entrepreneurs, strong civil society and women-led microfinance, 160 million-strong brand of moderate Islam, and consistent economic growth. Just a few years ago Goldman Sachs put this hardworking, against-all-odds country on their list of Asia’s “Next 11” ready for takeoff. But after Sunday’s election—and I write this with a heavy heart—I’m deeply worried.

I’ve blogged previously about Bangladesh’s divisive politics, and the great costs its political woes present for its growth and development trajectory. Sunday’s national election gives everyone a lot more to fret about. First, on the nuts and bolts of politics, mediation efforts over the course of the past year, including those of the UN’s experienced diplomat and Assistant Secretary General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, to reach agreement on an election process between the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), did not succeed in time to affect the January 5 election. Politics is about compromise and tradeoffs, and both sides refused to do either.

Second, the end result was a most peculiar national election since the BNP boycotted the process, calling it a “fraud,” and called a series of general strikes and transportation blockades, including on election day. Of the assembly’s 300 generally elected seats (an additional 50 are reserved for women nominated by their parties), only 147 seats were contested. And voters did not exactly overwhelm the polling stations: According to the Daily Star, voter turnout “dipped from the highest of 87 percent just five years ago to around 30 percent.” The Bangladesh Election Commission has put the turnout figure at40 percent.

Of course, the strikes and transportation blockades called by the BNP and its allies, specifically to prevent voting, made it difficult and in some cases dangerous to trudge out to polling stations—so it’s not clear whether the poor turnout figures reflect sheer apathy, voter rejection of the election, or fear. While Sheikh Hasina can rightly say that her party has been returned to power, it has been under circumstances which damage the credibility of the election itself, as noted by the U.S. Department of State’s January 6 statement. But by the same token, an opposition party which not only boycotts an election but seeks to prevent citizens from voting isn’t furthering a democratic process at all. There are no winners here.

Third, the descent into violence is an ominous development for Bangladesh. Indeed, the Daily Star called January 5 the “bloodiest election in Bangladesh” and throughout the run up to the date, there were reports of buses or trains and polling stations set ablaze and an election official hacked to death, said to be the work of BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami workers. Reports of the government using force, arbitrary detention, and indiscriminate firing surfaced as well. This has two immediate effects. Between the recurrent hartals and blockades which sacrificed seventy-one working days throughout 2013, there’s economic damage to contend with. Bangladesh, the world’s number two ready-made garment exporter, should be concerned that international brands and retailers will look to places without the risks of their orders being trapped in a transportation blockade.

The other fear that this phase of escalated violence raises is the potential loss of Bangladesh’s well-deserved reputation as a moderate majority-Muslim country that has made great progress in tackling terrorism, and which has created its own inspirational path of progress and human development.

In recent years Bangladesh has come to symbolize the progress that can be achieved through good development policy choices. It would be a great pity to see the investments made by (and in) the people of Bangladesh come unraveled. Sheikh Hasina has said she is willing to hold fresh elections if the opposition ends violence. Another election would certainly be a better outcome than the other possibility often mentioned: the army stepping in to disrupt a total law and order breakdown. A country born in blood, and which braved violence to realize the meaning of democracy in 1971, deserves better.