Western nations — the United States, United Kingdom and Europe — have been demanding free, fair and participatory elections in Bangladesh over the past few months.
These nations have been leaning heavily on the Sheikh Hasina government to accede to the Opposition’s demand and step down in favour of a neutral caretaker regime to conduct the forthcoming parliamentary elections in January next year.
Though the US has now backed off and is going easy on Dhaka at the intervention of New Delhi (read this), the pressure from the European Union (EU) continues.
The principal opposition party — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — is unlikely to participate in the elections since its primary demand that the polls be held under a caretaker government has been rejected.
This means that the elections, which will see a largely one-sided contest with the powerful Awami League fighting off meek challenges from smaller opposition parties, will bring Sheikh Hasina back to power for the fourth time.
That will be good not only for India, but the rest of the world as well.
No matter how unfair, authoritarian or anti-democratic it may seem, free and fair elections in Bangladesh will not result in a happy outcome for the world, including Bangladesh.
That’s because such elections could well bring radical Islamists to power in Bangladesh. The reality is that there is a groundswell of resentment against the ruling Awami League (AL) and equitable elections will result in certain defeat for AL.
After having stayed in power for nearly 15 years (Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister in January 2009 and has ruled the country uninterruptedly since then), the Awami League government faces a huge amount of anti-incumbency.
Inflation is at a record high and prices of all commodities, including essentials, have skyrocketed in recent months.
The country’s forex reserves have hit rock bottom and the Bangladeshi Taka is on a freefall against the US dollar — a thousand Bangladeshi Taka is trading for a little over nine US dollars now.
This has made imports expensive. According to the latest CEIC data, Bangladesh’s imports in August 2023 totalled US $5.4 billion.
The country is deep in the red and a serious debt crisis looms on the horizon. The country’s external debt is estimated to be over US $100 billion and economists say that from next year, the country will find it quite impossible to meet its interest payments and other debt obligations.
Though Bangladesh has made some impressive progress in terms of infrastructure, a lot of that — roads, bridges, rail lines etc — are being financed by loans taken from China that carry a high rate of interest.
Coupled with this dismal economic situation that has made life hard for the common man, the ruling Awami League has virtually snuffed out all opposition.
Opposition leaders have been arrested and put behind bars on even flimsy charges, and many have been bought over or threatened into silence.
This authoritarianism has bred deep resentment among the masses. The Awami League is perceived to be corrupt. Its uninterrupted and unchallenged rule for the last 15 years has bred largescale corruption, nepotism and malfeasance.
Awami League leaders and functionaries have amassed huge properties and this has also alienated the masses who are reeling under poverty that has worsened due to high inflation.
The Awami League, though avowedly secular on the outside, has encouraged Islamist outfits like the Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh as a counter to the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami which is closely aligned with the BNP.
Also, the Awami league has been infiltrated by Islamists and this large scale infiltration has turned the lower and middle ranks of the ruling party toxic.
Awami League’s silent encouragement of the Hefazat has amounted to the party playing with fire and creating a Frankenstein’s monster that is now out of the Awami League’s control.
The Hefazat has emerged as a highly radical force and has developed close ties with the Jamaat-e-Islami, with the two often acting in unison.
The Hefazat and other Islamist organisations have, through the madrassas and masjids under their control, radicalised a huge number of people, especially the younger generation. These radicalised lot are also viscerally anti-India and anti-West.
In the absence of a strong political opposition that could have articulated and represented the anger and resentment of the masses, it is the Islamist parties which have filled the Opposition space.
Political analysts in Bangladesh say that the Awami League’s short-sighted policy of severely weakening its primary rival — the BNP — through harsh persecution and strong-arm tactics has strengthened the Islamist parties.
“The mullahs have become the primary opposition and are openly furthering an Islamist agenda. The Jamaat, Hefazat and Islami Oikyo Jote occupy the primary opposition space in Bangladesh today. Implementation of strict sharia laws and making Bangladesh a completely Islamic nation on the lines of Afghanistan are the principal objectives of these Islamist parties,” political analyst Sharyar Islam Babul, who used to teach political science at Dhaka University, told Swarajya.
Given the acute incumbency against the Awami League and the groundswell of anger caused by harsh economic conditions in the country, 'free and fair' elections will bring these Islamists to power in Bangladesh.
Though the Jamaat-e-Islami has been banned from contesting elections by a 2013 court order — this order was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court earlier this week — it will not be difficult for Jamaat nominees to win as Independents or on tickets from other parties.
In 2018, Jamaat nominees contested the parliamentary elections on BNP tickets and many of them won. Since most BNP leaders are behind bars or on the run now, it is expected that many Jamaat nominees will be given BNP tickets this time as well.
And if the January elections are completely equitable, all of them stand a good chance of winning. Analysts and political observers say that non-partisan elections will be swept by the Islamists and bring the mullahs to power.
“Large sections of Bangladeshis, especially the youth, have been radicalised by the Islamists. People are angry with the Awami League for rising prices, corruption and misgovernance. Living conditions have become very grim and the cost of living, especially for the middle class and the poor, has become very high. Farmers and fishermen are in distress. There is practically no political opposition and the entire opposition space is now occupied by Islamist parties. So if completely free and fair elections are held now, the Awami League will face a crushing defeat at the hands of the Islamist parties,” the editor of a widely-circulated English daily, who did not want to be named for fear of persecution, told Swarajya over phone from Dhaka.
If Islamists come to power in Bangladesh through ‘free and fair’ elections, it will be a setback for India. The Islamists will, surely, take Bangladesh into the orbit of Pakistan and China, and harm India’s interests.
The coming to power of Islamists in Bangladesh will pose a grave danger not only to India, but also the world at large.
Bangladesh will become another breeding ground for jihadis, and may quickly degenerate into a failed state. The world can ill-afford to have yet another country become a failed state ruled by Islamic fundamentalist.
Thus, it is in the world’s interests to allow the election process to proceed without too much interference. It will be better for the world if the elections, however flawed they may be, result in the Awami League returning to power.
A caveat would be in order here: India and the Western nations must now extract an iron-clad promise from the Awami League to keep China out of Bangladesh, curb Islamist forces in the country, allow a responsible and secular opposition to flourish and purge the ranks of the Awami League itself of Islamist elements.
Let the elections be flawed and unfair, and let Awami League return to power. But after that, ensure that the ruling party (AL) makes Bangladesh a truly democratic and secular nation.
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