Bangladesh: Does it really matter that Khaleda Zia is not contesting elections?

Dhaka, Dec.7: December 2, 2013 was the last date for the filing of nominations for the tenth parliamentary elections being held on January 5, 2014. The BNP, which had declared its intention of not participating in the elections under a Sheikh Hasina led election-time government, confirmed its decision by not filing nominations.

Now, that it is sure that the BNP will not participate in the elections, what is the significance and impact, if any, of this decision?

Some commentators have held that an election without the participation of the BNP will not be credible, and will not be acceptable to the people of Bangladesh and the international community.

But why not?

Elections are intrinsic to democracy. Without periodic elections, there can be no democracy. The people, the ultimate masters, must re-elect their leaders periodically in a free and fair manner. That is the majesty of democracy.

However, to participate or not to participate in elections is a democratic choice of any political party, just as to vote or not to vote is a choice of any voter in a democracy. In fact, in India, this choice has been taken a step further by allowing voters a choice of not voting for any of the candidates in a constituency.

So, why this chest thumping about the BNP not participating in the elections?

The reason is that the BNP is not content just to sit out the elections, which is its democratic right. What the BNP wants is to participate in elections, but only on its own terms, and under rules framed by it.

Worse, being even more difficult, the BNP is trying to force its will on the democratically-elected government by resorting to a series of continuous hartals/strikes, putting the country and the common citizen through hell.

Even if hartals and demonstrations are conceded to be a democratic right, the accompanying violence indulged in by its cadres, and by the cadres of the judicially banned Jamaat and its murderous student body, the Islami Chattar Shibir, are certainly not.

Consider the following:

During the hartals since November 26, almost 40 people have been killed in the violence engineered by the BNP. Some of those killed have been hacked to death in trademark Jamaat style, others have been burnt in buses, while still others have been killed in train mishaps when fish plates were removed.

Minorities like the Hindus, Buddhists and Christians have been attacked in Pabna, Barisal, Satkhira, Bogra, Sirajganj and Chittagong and their property and places of worship destroyed by the cadres of the BNP and the Jamaat.

This as per a press conference held on December 4, 2013 by the Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Unity Council and the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum.

Economic losses run into millions of dollars. Take for example the Bangladesh Railways which has been virtually paralysed in the last month.

Since they are the prime target of violence, passengers have opted out of using this form of public transport.

Hence, the Railways face a double whammy- losses due to destruction of property and losses due to decrease in passenger traffic.

Is this democracy?

Certainly not. And, no political party that seeks power democratically can be allowed to insist on participation in elections on its own terms and use violence to get its demands accepted.

As U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal said on December 3, 2014, violence has no place in the democratic process. Welcoming the announcement of general elections on January 5, 2014, she called for a free, fair, credible and peaceful elections.

There is only one group that is indulging in violence and that is the BNP-led 18-party alliance. Just so everyone gets the message, it has threatened even more ‘serious agitation’ if its ‘demands’ are not met.

The demands are of course the immediate stepping down of the Sheikh Hasina-led government and the setting up of a ‘caretaker government’

As pointed out by this author earlier, it was not Sheikh Hasina that had unilaterally done away with the constitutional provision of a neutral caretaker government to conduct elections.

It was the highest court of the land that had struck it down as unconstitutional in May 2011. Sheikh Hasina merely implemented the court’s order by amending the Constitution suitably.

The moot point is that the BNP refused to participate in deliberations for replacing the caretaker government system.

Therefore, by not participating in deliberations for replacing the caretaker government system, the BNP has lost the right to ‘demand’ a caretaker government. Its ‘demand’ accompanied by violence, flies in the face of logic and reasonableness. It is not democratic.

The Awami League (AL) neeeds to hunker down and stay the course of holding the elections as scheduled on January 5. The AL cannot and must not cave into violence.

The international community must not only ignore the shenanigans of the BNP, but strongly condemn the violence unleashed by it. The international community must be seen to be backing the electoral process.

After all, BNP’s decision not to contest the elections is its democratic choice. No one forced it not to contest. And heavens would not fall when it doesn’t do so.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Salim Haq. (ANI)