Hasina (and democracy) return to Bangladesh

This week's election ended two years of rule by a military-backed caretaker government.

Saurabh Das/AP
Eager: Supporters of the Awami League sat under a portrait of party president Sheikh Hasina, waiting to congratulate her for her political alliance's landslide victory in this week's elections.
Pavel Rahman/AP
Congratulations: Former Prime Minister and Awami League President Sheikh Hasina (r.) received flowers from supporters at her residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday.

Bangladesh ended two years of rule by a military-backed caretaker government when it voted in a new government Tuesday.

An alliance led by former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League clinched a two-thirds majority in Parliament, trouncing her archrival Khaelda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The elections, postponed since January 2007 after months of political turbulence, had a 70 percent turnout rate. They are being hailed by civil rights groups as Bangladesh's return to democracy.

"People have spoken for a change for the better," says Prof. Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Dhaka-based think tank. "This is the start of a new era in Bangladesh."

The real test now, say analysts, is whether BNP supporters will accept their resounding defeat.

Bangladesh has witnessed violence in previous elections, which paralyzed life in the country and scared investors away from this impoverished nation of 144 million people.

After its latest defeat, the BNP filed a complaint with Bangladesh's Election Commission claiming that voting irregularities and ballot rigging had occurred in 220 polling stations across 72 constituencies.

Bangladesh's chief election commissioner, Shamsul Huda, defended the election as free and fair. The election commission had drawn up a computerized list of 81 million registered voters for this election and purged 11 million fake voters from the roll, he said.

"The voting was arranged in such a way that there is no scope for rejecting the result," he told reporters. "About 1,500 foreign and 200,000 local observers were monitoring the whole election process, and there is no reason for anyone to complain."

The Jamaat-e-Islami, the BNP's key ally in the four-party alliance, won only two seats in this election, down from 17 seats in the 2001 election. The public rejection of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party denounced by many secular-minded Bangladeshis for promoting radical Islamic ideals, sends a strong statement, political analysts say.

Many Bangladeshis repudiate the idea of mixing religion with politics, and in these elections, "anyone even mildly religious-minded, like the Jamaat-e-Islami, was rejected outright by the people in these elections," says Ayesha Kabir, the editor of Probe, a local weekly.

The main issue facing the new government may be to reinvigorate Bangladesh's flailing economy. Nearly 40 percent of Bangladesh's population lives on less than $1 a day.

"It will be key challenge to bring down inflation, which hovers around the 7 percent mark," says Mr. Rahman. "Food prices are currently backbreaking in Bangladesh."

"Another key challenge will be to create employment," he continues. According to the CPD, unemployment in Bangladesh stands at 45 percent.

Even though it won a solid majority and won't be dependent on other coalition partners, Rahman hopes, the Awami League will abide by its promise of fighting the endemic corruption in Bangladesh.

Both Hasina and Zia, who alternated holding power between 1991 and 2006, face multiple corruption charges. Bangladesh is ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Manik Khan, who works in a bakery in Lalbagh, a grubby suburb in the old town of Dhaka, fears that the return to democracy might also bring back graft-ridden politics.

But he enthusiastically ambled through the narrow, grimy lanes of Lalbagh to the polling station Monday, convinced that elected leaders were preferable to a caretaker government.

"The Awami League says if you vote for them, Bangladesh will be heaven. The BNP says if you vote for them, they'll make Bangladesh heaven," Mr. Khan says. "I don't think either party can make Bangladesh heaven, but a government elected by the people is better than a military-backed dictatorship."

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