By Gwynne Dyer
It always looks bad when the ruling party jails the opposition leader just a few months before the election. If only Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had decided to boycott this election like she did the last one, she’d probably still be a free woman. But she decided to run, and so was sentenced to jail time on various implausible corruption charges.
Even with her rival in jail, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took no chances. She arranged a ‘landslide’ in which her Awami League and its allies won almost all the 300 seats in parliament. The BNP got only seven seats, which is also pretty implausible.
After a decade in power, the Awami League is getting arrogant and careless. In Chittagong, the country’s second city, a BBC reporter actually saw the pre-stuffed ballot boxes being delivered to a polling station. (Hint: when pre-stuffing ballot boxes, ensure that they are opaque, not see-through.)
When Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan 48 years ago after a bloody war, it was seen as an economic ‘basket case’, because its only natural resource was its people. But the pessimists were wrong. Bangladesh works.
It is still a very poor and corrupt country, but its economy is growing at almost 8%, second highest rate in the world. Unemployment is low, and it has its population growth under control. Even more impressive is Bangladesh’s literacy rate, up from 47% to 73% in the past ten years.
Sheikh Hasina may have locked up her rival, arrested hundreds of BNP party workers and rigged the election, but the country is doing fine. It just has this endless civil war going on between its two main political leaders, both now in their 70s.
The ‘battling begums’ (‘begum’ means a Muslim woman of high rank), did not start out as enemies. Shortly after the country got its independence in 1971, it fell under military rule for almost two decades. Sheikh Hasina’s father was the prime minister murdered in the first coup; Khaleda Zia’s husband was the ruling general assassinated in the second coup.
The two women managed to cooperate in removing the last military ruler in 1990, but they quickly became first rivals and then enemies. Nevertheless, they alternated in power in a more or less functional democracy until 2014, when Sheikh Hasina decided she would prefer to stay in power permanently.
She declared that it would be her own government, not a neutral and temporary caretaker government, that ran the 2014 elections. Khaleda Zia protested that the Awami League would rig the election, and her party boycotted the vote. That was a bad mistake: she handed everything to Sheikh Hasina on a plate.
This time she tried to correct her mistake and said that the BNP would run in the election – so Sheikh Hasina jailed her, and rigged the election so ruthlessly that the BNP only won seven seats out of 300.
So what? The country is doing well by all the usual indicators, isn’t it? Yes, it is, but the street violence grows with every election, and BNP supporters everywhere are afraid to let their views be known.
Bangladesh is now effectively a one-party state where about half the population hates and fears the ruling party. For the moment the fear predominates, but sooner or later the Awami League will stumble and the hate will be expressed in actions. It would have been better to stick with democracy, even if that meant winning only part of the time.