Bangladesh rarely registers in the minds of most Americans, but US policymakers would be well advised to devote some urgent attention. As things stand, general elections scheduled for Sunday look virtually guaranteed to leave a trail of bitter division, violence and chaos. That’s a surefire recipe for disaster — in the world’s third most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Born of civil war in 1971, Bangladesh’s early history was plagued by cycles of political violence and heavy-handed military intervention. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once derisively labeled it the “basket case” of South Asia. But while chronic instability continues to plague other poor countries, Bangladesh has over the past 25 years made remarkable progress in establishing civil government and democratic norms.
One of the keys to its success was the creation of an institution known as the poll-time caretaker government — a neutral cabinet of technocrats seated 90 days before national elections with the sole purpose of ensuring a free and fair ballot.
Under this system, Bangladesh witnessed multiple democratic transitions over two decades, while turning itself into a center of low-cost global manufacturing where living standards have steadily risen, infant mortality has fallen, and the status of women has improved dramatically.
Now, that progress has been put at great peril.
Kissinger’s basket case looks set to return. The cause, not surprisingly, is politics — particularly, the aftermath of the unilateral decision in 2011 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League to abolish the caretaker government system from the constitution. The reckless manoeuvre has created a violent impasse between the Awami League and its main political opposition about how to hold credible elections, prompting statements of concern from Washington, the European Union, the UN, even China — which almost never takes a position on the internal politics of other states.
Hasina has ignored the expressions of worry and refused to relinquish power to a neutral government to oversee the election. Instead, she formed an “all-party” election-time government in late November that is comprised mostly of members of her immediate past cabinet. Awami League losses in local elections since 2011 gave Hasina a strong incentive to retain control over the national ballot to ensure her party emerges victorious over more conservative and Islamist foes.
Fearing the Awami League will rig the 2014 vote, opposition parties have responded with huge protests. Clashes with security forces have triggered Bangladesh’s worst pre-election turmoil in almost two decades, leaving more than 100 protesters dead and the main opposition party’s leader under virtual house arrest. The government shut down transportation into Bangladesh’s capital and arrested hundreds, including opposition leaders, as part of a wider coordinated effort to block an opposition rally.
Further stoking tensions, the government has orchestrated war crimes trials against leaders of Bangladesh’s main Islamist party and its allies for sins allegedly committed during the country’s founding. Seven opposition leaders have been sentenced to death or executed as part of a campaign that international observers have criticized. In the 1971 war of independence, heinous crimes were committed against the Bangladeshi people. Local collaborators should stand trial as is appropriate for any war criminal but not by a kangaroo court.
The precedent set by the lack of internationally acceptable judicial process in these trials means there is no telling what will come next in the Awami League government’s push against its political opponents.
The largest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), has announced an election boycott. It has also rejected participation in the all-party interim government under Hasina’s control.
Without the BNP, the elections are almost certain to be viewed as a sham. Indeed, a survey of Bangladeshis had projected an overwhelming defeat for the Awami League if elections were held freely with everyone taking part.
Instead, Bangladesh has now been treated to the farce of 154 candidates already being officially certified as victors because they’re running unopposed — securing an Awami League majority in the 300-seat parliament even before a single vote has been cast. Not surprisingly, both the US and the European Union have declined to send election observers.
This is a slow-motion train wreck that everyone can see coming. The democratic process is about to take a major hit in a country where poverty remains endemic and radical Islamists lurk in the wings to exploit any opportunities that may arise. A fuse has been lit. If it’s allowed to go off, it will almost certainly result in an explosion of ever-worsening protests, violence and instability.
The US, the European Union and the UN have repeatedly encouraged the Awami League and BNP to engage in a dialogue. Yet they have consistently stopped short of calling for a neutral poll-time government — the only vehicle with a proven track record of ensuring sustainable elections.
Officials in Washington may fear that voicing support for a caretaker government would be seen as an endorsement of the BNP, and could hurt relations with an Awami League-led government if it prevails. This wait-and-see approach has forfeited significant international leverage to shape a peaceful, credible electoral process.
Though very late, it’s time for the international community to voice support for a clear and proven method for continuing Bangladesh’s democratic elections. The world must denounce the coming electoral travesty and call for a neutral poll-time government to ensure free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.
Time is running dangerously short. But aggressive diplomacy, led by Washington, still stands a chance of avoiding the worst-case outcome and helping Bangladesh’s citizens salvage the legitimacy of a democratic process that they’ve struggled hard to achieve. Though success is by no means guaranteed, the alternative to trying appears grim, indeed.
(M. Ron Wahid is chairman of Arcanum Global Inc and serves on the board of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. The views expressed are personal.)