Bangladesh politics has an inglorious tradition: losers never accept the people's verdict gracefully. So, when former PM Sheikh Hasina rejected the October 1 election as a farce, most observers dismissed her repudiation as a vanquished leader's reaction, quite certain that she would eventually accept her defeat.
But the Awami League chief's seemingly inflexible attitude—not to join parliament—and her subsequent ultimatum to the chief election commissioner to "cancel the results by October 10 or else..." has raised fears of renewed instability that has haunted this nation through much of its history. It's unlikely that the commission would give in but the Awami League's threat to boycott parliament could deal a severe blow to the fragile democracy that had just begun to take roots—after nearly two decades of military and quasi-military rule—after the last dictator, Gen Hussain Mohammad Ershad, was swept out in 1990.
Although the caretaker government's role in conducting the election was mired in controversy, Sheikh Hasina's claim of widespread fraud in the polls was disputed by thousands of national and international election observers. "Barring a few, sporadic and regrettable incidents of violence, the polling on October 1, 2001, was generally free, fair, peaceful and orderly," the UN observers group said in a news conference.
According to the latest counts, the four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia has won 201 seats compared to the Awami League's 63.
The outcome was not entirely unexpected but what appears to have stunned even the most seasoned political analysts was the drubbing the Awamis received, especially for a party which led the liberation movement in 1971 and had ruled Bangladesh for the past five years.
"I'm absolutely flabbergasted," says Prof Serajul Islam Chowdhury, a leading commentator, adding, "how can you expect a party with solid roots to face such a crushing defeat." Most independent observers attribute the Awamis' defeat to their high-handedness, boundless corruption, nepotism and the unprecedented terrorism resorted to by its activists.
Ultimately, the sheer arrogance of the ruling party and its utter disregard for the rule of law goaded the electorate to retaliate through the ballot box. Things had come to such a pass that alleged perpetrators of rape, murder, and terrorism got away with impunity simply because they happened to enjoy the blessings of the party bosses. The assassination attempts on two journalists in recent months grabbed headlines for weeks as the police refused to press charges against two influential persons even though they were publicly known to be behind the attacks.
"The verdict is not for a better choice but a reflection of the ordinary voters' bottled up anger," says Prof Chowdhury. "It was a negative vote." Realising the nature of the mandate, Khaleda Zia promptly announced that her most immediate task would be to end terrorism and stamp out corruption.
Although it's too early to say whether she would succeed, especially in rendering the country corruption-free, her statements struck even her adversaries as "conciliatory and statesmanlike". She made an emotional appeal to everyone, particularly her supporters, to remain calm and patient, urging them not to show disrespect to any national leader or besmirch their pictures—an oblique reference intended to honour Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the slain independence leader and father of Sheikh Hasina.
Many observers were also surprised by the absence of anti-India rhetoric during and after the election, something the bnp had often resorted to in the past to whip up public sentiments. "This is not going to work anymore," says Wahiduddin Mahmud, an economics professor at the Dhaka University. "She'll have to deal with India as a responsible government leader."
Some analysts, however, say that the Jamaat-e-Islami, an important ally in the four-party alliance, which won 14 seats, could play a vital role in tilting the Zia government towards Pakistan. They also fear that in that event the isi, the dreaded Pakistani intelligence agency, could gain a fresh foothold along the border and stir up insurgency in northeast India.
Says former foreign secretary Mohiuddin Ahmed: "These are misplaced notions." He feels the Jamaatis are unlikely to have any influence on the bnp as the 186 seats it has won ensures Khaleda a solid majority in the 300-seat parliament. Yet, the possible inclusion of Jamaat leaders in the cabinet could bolster the anti-liberation forces and encourage the isi to revive its activities along the Indo-Bangla border.
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