In a Muslim-majority country with more people than Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories combined, democracy is dying a slow, tortured and obscure death.
Bangladesh, an impoverished South Asian nation that rarely breaks out of the “world briefs” sections of foreign newspapers, is going through an election crisis that threatens to plunge its population of 147 million into chaos, stunt its desperately needed economic growth and create a breach for Islamic extremists to step into.
After weeks of crippling nationwide protests against his administration’s handling of the upcoming election, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency late Thursday and stepped down from his role as head of a caretaker government charged with overseeing a democratic transition. The Bangladeshi Army moved in to enforce the open-ended emergency, which curtails many of Bangladeshis’ constitutional rights and imposes a nighttime curfew. The election, originally scheduled for January 22, has been postponed.
Several months of pre-election turmoil came to a head after the opposition alliance announced earlier this month that it was withdrawing its candidates and boycotting the election to protest a voter list it claims the incumbent coalition padded with millions of fictional names. More than forty-five people have been killed and hundreds injured in pre-election clashes across the country over the past few months.
In a country that has seen two military dictatorships in its thirty-five years of independence, the possibility of an army takeover always lurks in the background of any political crisis. Whether the army’s intervention will be temporary or long-term this time remains to be seen.
President Ahmed’s resignation followed statements from representatives of the United States and Britain saying the election would not be credible without opposition participation. The European Union and the United Nations had withdrawn their election observers, and a spokesperson for Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, expressed hope that the army “will continue to play a neutral role.”
For months Ahmed resisted opposition demands to postpone the election, saying he had a constitutional obligation to go ahead with it as scheduled. Bangladesh’s unusual election system charges a neutral caretaker administration with taking over government and overseeing a democratic transition, and the Constitution requires an election within ninety days of the handover of power. The handover was October 27, which made the deadline January 25. Opposition parties argued that serious constitutional violations by the caretaker government — one being that Ahmed, a member of the former administration, put himself in charge — had mooted the time requirement.
Ahmed’s resignation does not by any means resolve the standoff between the two main political factions. Indeed, it’s possible that the “chaos, bloodshed and terrorism” that Ahmed said he was trying to end with his resignation may actually escalate.