Bangladeshi citizens were denied a genuine opportunity to exercise their democratic franchise on Sunday January 5, as national elections marred by violence, boycott and political tensions overshadowed the vote. The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had been campaigning for months to discredit the January 5 vote, claiming that the ruling party, the Awami League, was organizing biased elections. In previous electoral events, the vote had been overseen by a caretaker government, something which the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, refused to set up for this particular election. As a result, opposition parties, led by the BNP, boycotted the election massively – nearly half of the 300 seats up for grabs were acclaimed prior to the vote starting. According to the New York Times, this implies that nearly 50% of Bangladeshi citizens did not have a chance to participate in the election of their representative.
Amid violence pitting ruling party and opposition supporters, many polling locations were closed or almost empty, as voters stayed away. According to the major Bangladeshi daily media outlet, The Daily Star, “In at least 41 centres in 11 districts, not a single ballot was cast.” Current estimates indicate that somewhere around 30% of voters participated in the poll – far lower than the typical 80% or so participation rate. Other media report that somewhere between 18 and 22 people were killed – including at least four individuals by police.
When – and if – the Awami League forms a new government, its mandate will be weak. Bangladesh, a county of 160 million people, has only known two prime ministers in the last 22 years – Sheikh Hasina, the current head of state, and Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP. In this context of fierce political rivalry, Bangladeshi people are losing out.
The current political climate – including the ongoing attempt to marginalize Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamist party in the country – could lead to increased radicalization. In addition to banning Jamaat-e-Islami from the election, the crackdown on its leadership has lead to unprecedented demonstrations and protests over the course of the past year. Meanwhile, there are real socio-economic challenges which Bangladesh must address – for instance, the weaknesses of the garment industry, which produces 80% of the country’s exports, were exposed to the world in 2013 following tragic incidents involving massive loss of life. The political strife in Bangladesh, which ranks 147th out of 187 countries in the 2012 Human Development Index, is unfortunately causing the leadership to place less emphasis on key issues like economic diversification, planning for the inevitable challenges of climate change and promoting gains in human development.
While the outcome of the January 5 election was no surprise locally or internationally, it is still a major setback for democracy and badly needed effective governance in Bangladesh.