OPINION polls are relatively new in Bangladesh. Yet, the predictions made by some research groups on the eve of the June 12 parliamentary elections were not too far off the mark. Among the four main parties, as predicted, the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina emerged as the single largest party, winning 146 seats; followed by Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which bagged 116 seats. The Jatiya Party of jailed dictator Lt Gen Hussain Mohammad Ershad came third with 32 seats.
Although the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, as forecast, finished fourth, its miserable showing has caught even the most virulent anti-Jamaat observers by surprise. Winning only three seats out of the 300 it contested, the party has virtually been wiped out. Not only has it won less than the 18 seats it did in 1991, it also lost ground in its share of popular votes. In only five years its vote base has shrunk by nearly 4 per cent—from 12.13 per cent in 1991 to 8.71 per cent in 1996.
The outcome has demolished Jamaat's pre-poll claims that it would fare better this time and has left many observers wondering about the causes at a time when fundamentalists are gaining ground in many countries. Most political analysts believe that this debacle is largely due to the fact that Bangladesh politics has been sharply polarised between the two main parties—the Awami League and the BNP. They also say that as far as religion is concerned the voters find the two main parties no less religious than the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Says Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury, a leading commentator: "Both the Awami League and the BNP have made special efforts to make it appear that they are indeed God-fearing." This strategy, he says, appears to have worked, undercutting the Jamaat's claim of being the sole upholder of Islam.
Others say the Jamaat has never enjoyed popular support in Bangladesh because the people are basically moderates and are not inclined towards fundamentalism. To the majority population, they say, religion is a private affair and they don't like people who use it for partisan purposes.
Explaining Jamaat's good performance in the 1991 polls, journalist Abed Khan says it was mainly due to the BNP forging an unwritten alliance with the Jamaat to stop the Awami League from coming to power.
The heavy voter turnout (73 per cent) this time, especially among the women, also appears to have gone against the Jamaat. "The women are most unlikely to vote for the Jamaat," says Khushi Kabir, a veteran women's rights activist and the head of Nijera Kori, a leading NGO working for the empowerment of rural women. In fact, the contribution of NGOs in Bangladesh in raising the political consciousness of women has been tremendous. The attacks on women by fundamentalists, especially after the Taslima Nasreen case, has give an additional impetus to the efforts of NGOs in opposing groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami.
After years of being cloistered in their homes, a large number of rural women have begun to taste relative freedom and a measure of financial security. Voting for Jamaat, Kabir points out, could mean retrogression.
The vigorous campaign led by several socio-cultural groups aimed at rekindling the spirit of the liberation war, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of independence this year, has also done a lot of damage to the Jamaat-e-Islami which was against the war of liberation, says Kabir.
To be sure, the Jamaat hierarchy refuses to accept, at least in public, the outcome as a disastrous performance. Party leaders are spinning conspiracy theories, saying they don't consider this either a debacle or a rejection by the people. "The Jamaat's defeat was not because of popular rejection, it was due to a partisan role of the administration, NGO machinations, massive rigging and use of black money and terrorism," said Maulana Matitur Rahman Nizam, secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who himself lost miserably. Despite such public posturings, the Jamaat leaders have reportedly held several soul-searching sessions trying to understand what went wrong.
Senior party leaders reportedly met in Dhaka for an emergency session immediately after the results were announced. Sources say that some leaders blamed the defeat on a major miscalculation in not making anti-Indianism a crucial campaign issue during the election. More seriously, they think, the Jamaat didn't attach much importance to attacking the Awami League.
In their campaign meetings, Jamaat leaders targeted the BNP, partly because they had banded together with the Awami League and the Jatiya Party in the two-year struggle against the BNP which culminated in the resignation of Khaleda Zia in March.
But Jamaat supporters love to hate India because they see it as anti-Islamic. They also think that India is the natural ally of the Awami League and both should have been targeted. The whole Jamaat strategy seems to have resulted in many of the party's sympathisers looking for alternatives, leading to the disastrous showing in the polls.