August 03, 2020
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Turning The Corner, At Last

But the fractured verdict may force Sheikh Hasina to seek the support of the Jatiya Party

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Turning The Corner, At Last

IT is a curious coincidence that the daughter of the man who led Bangladesh to freedom in 1971 should be so close to becoming the prime minister of the country 25 years later. The Awami League, which is led by Sheikh Hasina, is today poised to return to power 21 years after its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was brutally killed in a military coup in August 1975.

The June 12 elections are being widely hailed as free and fair and mark a milestone in the bloody history of this small nation. For nearly 15 years of its short history, the country has had army rulers. "This political transformation through elections has made the constitutional process irreversible. It is not going to be easy to have any unconstitutional change of government in our country," says Abdur Rob Khan of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies.

But having fought long and hard for this moment, Sheikh Hasina finds herself in an unenviable position. The Awami League, it appears, may not get a simple majority in the 300-seat Parliament. The party won 133 seats, followed by is chief rival, Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which won 104 seats. The Jatiya Party (JP) of former dictator and army chief, General H.M. Ershad, emerged as the kingmaker with 29 seats, followed by the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami which received a severe drubbing at the hands of the voters, winning only two of the 300 seats that it contested. (In the 1991 elections it had fared far better, winning 18 seats.) The results from 27 constituencies will be declared after the partial repolling on June 19 ordered by the Election Commission, which has also ordered re-counting in two constituencies. The picture should become clear after June 19.

While the peaceful conduct of the elections has gone down very well with the people, who came out and voted in huge numbers, it looks unlikely that it will end the era of strikes and demonstrations which began two years ago. The ever-elusive political consensus has still not been arrived at. The political polarisation between the BNP and the Awami League is so sharp that it will take a long while to bridge it.

Within hours of the declaration of the results on June 13, the BNP, 16 of whose ministers from the last government lost, challenged the results and demanded rep-olling in 111 constituencies. Sheikh Hasina has emphasised right through the election campaign, and she reiterated this point in the post-election press conference on June 13 when she staked her claim to form the government, that she will seek a national consensus in running the country.

But it seems the "pathological hatred", as the former foreign minister and chief of the Gano Forum, Kamal Hussain, termed it, between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia may prevent this national consensus from emerging. Says Abdur Rob Khan: "The BNP will continue with strikes and hartals though the degree may be less than the last two years. It has become part of our political culture that politicians do not respect the democratic way of doing things."

HAVING been some sort of an anathema to the civil and military bureaucracy in Bangladesh for many years, the Awami League still fears that it might be prevented from coming to power. After the abrupt sacking of the army chief, Lt Gen A.S.M. Nasim, last month by President A.R. Biswas, who was a BNP leader until he assumed office in October 1991, the Awami League has accused him of adopting a partisan posture in favour of the BNP.This sentiment is shared by many observers here.

And though she claimed that once the final results came in, her party would secure a majority, Sheikh Hasina told the assembled national and international press at her house in Dhanmondi in central Dhaka that a "smooth transfer of power" was "one more difficult task" which lay ahead. "At this critical juncture, those heading the different institutions of the republic must assist this process in every way. There should be no attempt to thwart the electoral verdict of the people." 

The Awami League's fear stems from the fact that it is now up to President Biswas to invite Sheikh Hasina to form the government. But he has to be convinced that a party can form the government before he invites its leader. Though the largest party, the League hasn't yet got a majority in the Parliament. However, Mahbubul Alam, editor of an English daily, The Independent, does not think the Awami League has anything to fear. "The president will have no alternative but to call on the Awami League to form the government," he stressed.

But, to form the government, the Awami League will have to seek the help of either the Jatiya Party or the Jamaat-e-Islami. Though Sheikh Hasina has maintained that it is too early, reports indicate that she has already contacted Jatiya Party leaders.

The Jatiya Party, however, says it will only back the party which will agree to release Ershad, who is currently serving a 13-year jail term on corruption charges. Another condition is likely to be vis-a-vis the 30 women's seats in Parliament. Under the Constitution, 30 women are elected by the directly elected MPs. Generally, whichever party has a majority in Parliament takes all 30 seats. The Jatiya Party could demand a chunk of these seats; for, if the League takes all 30 seats, it will not need support from any party to gain a majority in Parliament.

The emergence of the Awami League as the largest party marks some sort of a personal triumph for its leader, who has been under fire from within her own party and sympathisers outside for running the anti-BNP movement in the last two years in alliance with the Jatiya Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Says Alam: "This association has not hurt the Awami League. In fact, it has chipped away at the votes of the Jatiya Party and the association with the Jamaat, which is seen as anti-India, has helped it shed the image of being pro-India, which was always held against it. Both the Jatiya Party and the Jamaat have done badly compared to last time."

 Observers say that the Awami League campaign this time has been far more skillful than in the 1991 elections, as Sheikh Hasina saw this as the last chance for her to come to power. This could explain why she inducted into her party and gave tickets to those who have been traditionally against her party and, more importantly, those who were seen as collaborators or against the 'liberation war'—like Shamsul Huda Choudhary, a former speaker of Parliament in Ershad's time, who contested from Mymensingh, and former judge Nurul Islam, who contested from Manikganj.

The people noticed the change in the Awami League's attitude, which has paid it rich dividends. "The Awami League thought till now that those who were not part of the 'liberation war' were not pro-liberation. That is changing," notes Alam.

Islam in danger was another slogan used against the Awami League by its opponents but its association with the two other opposition parties in the last two years has also helped it to by and large shed this image. Says Kushi Kabeer, a well-known women's activist: "Her election speech on television was such that it will neither raise the hackles of the religious-minded nor will it make the secular minded apprehensive, whereas all the other leaders talked about Islam in their election speeches."

The severe loss suffered by the Jamaat has come as a surprise to many. But Alam feels that "people in India do not understand that the people of Bangladesh are historically and politically secular". The BNP's defeat is being seen as a direct result of the way it ruled, especially the manner in which it organised the farcical elections this February, which were boycotted by all opposition parties. While the Khaleda Zia government had claimed that over 50 per cent of the people voted it in, nobody believed this figure. Says Abdur Rob Khan: "This change, was needed for the good of democracy. In terms of behaviour, the BNP needs to sit in the opposition and the Awami League, which has not been in power all these years, should sit on the ruling benches."

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