Bangladesh’s recent elections succeed despite obstacles

The images from Bangladesh that have been broadcast around the world lately have not been pretty. The country’s opposition parties boycotted the recent Parliamentary elections and their thuggish supporters resorted to violence, arson and intimidation.

Nevertheless, the government managed to conduct elections that were fair, free and transparent. This was a remarkable testament to the government’s commitment to the young nation’s democracy and rule of law. It was also a bold rebuke to those who sought – and still seek -- to drag Bangladesh backward into a political dark age of theocracy and corruption.

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Much has been made in the international media about the long-term political and personal rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, head of the ruling Awami League party, and Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister and head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition party prior to the election.

But such an analysis is superficial. The deeper and more serious problem is that Zia and the BNP have aligned with a terrorist organization masquerading as a political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BNP abandoned the democratic process by boycotting the election and by authorizing a campaign of violence against those who wanted to vote. Jamaat is an extremist, Islamist group that opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan during the War of Liberation in 1971. Having lost that fight, Jamaat now opposes a democratic Bangladesh, favoring instead the rigid and primitive rule of Sharia law.

During the month-long run-up to the recent Parliamentary elections, BNP sought to destabilize the government through its boycott. Jamaat went an angry and dangerous step further. It acted as the BNP’s enforcer on the streets, creating a climate of fear across the country. Jamaat engaged in a systematic and widespread campaign of arson, electoral sabotage, needless work stoppages and personal attacks. These aren’t merely allegations. News services have filed numerous photographs of Jamaat hoodlums setting fire to Awami League offices and polling stations, trashing buses, derailing trains and attacking Awami League supporters with weapons. Tragically, more than 200 Bangladeshis lost their lives as a direct result of the BNP-Jamaat violence that was designed to disrupt the election and keep voters from reaching the polls.

Despite this, the government conducted an admittedly diminished but remarkably effective election. The turnout was lower than anyone wanted -- about 40 percent, according to the Election Commission. But that percentage is larger than the turnout for the Parliamentary elections in 1996 when Zia was prime minister and her BNP was the ruling party.

The Bangladeshi people persevered and largely overcame the terror tactics of Jamaat. Millions of people heroically made their way to voting booths on January 5. Jamaat violence and sabotage caused suspension of voting in only three percent of the nation’s more than 18,000 polling stations.

It is true that the BNP’s boycott meant that a lot of seats in Parliament – 153 all told – were uncontested. But that did not mean the election was a clean sweep for the Awami League. Even without the BNP, eleven other parties participated in the election and many of them got their candidates elected to Parliament. Voters had choices. In addition, Awami candidates lost their bids for Parliament, including an incumbent, and several independent candidates won. This proves the robustness of the electoral system and the enthusiasm of an informed electorate.

Politics aside, the true cost of this election was paid with the blood of Bangladeshis. We all mourn the deaths of our countrymen and women who lost their lives in the needless, senseless violence perpetrated by Jamaat. In order to make certain this never happens again, we urge the BNP to break its toxic alliance with the backward-looking Jamaat and help build the future that we all yearn for -- a safe, stable and fully democratic Bangladesh.

Qader is Bangladesh’s ambassador to the U.S.

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