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 The European Union and the United Nations had withdrawn their election observers, and a spokesperson for Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, expressed hope that the army “will continue to play a neutral role.”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.
The exigencies of Bangladesh’s fractured political landscape have made for bitter rivalries between the two main political parties and some strange bedfellows within their alliances. The incumbent coalition is headed by the Bangladesh National Party, which was founded in 1978 by the military leader Gen. Ziaur Rahman, popularly known as General Zia. Now run by his widow, Khaleda Zia, the BNP has its base among conservatives and those who favor closer ties with Pakistan and an Islamic vision of Bangladeshi national identity. The BNP-led coalition includes the more overtly Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, whose stated goal is to make Bangladesh an Islamic state governed by Islamic law. Jamaat’s growing influence worries secularists.
Leading the opposition alliance is the Awami League, which has its roots in the independence movement that severed Bangladesh from Pakistan in the bloody Liberation War of 1971. Known then as the party of a secular, democratic, socialist Bangladesh, the Awami League was led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, an almost mythical figure known popularly as the Bangabandhu, or “friend of Bengal.” His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, now leads the party, though her seventeen-party opposition alliance has turned off some of the party faithful because it includes the Islamist Zaker Party, as well as the Jatiya Party of former military dictator Gen. H.M. Ershad.
Without an election, it’s difficult to assess exactly how much support each alliance has among Bangladeshis. As protests snarled normal life in Dhaka and across the country this week, however, a certain amount of irritation with both sides was evident among bystanders. “We ordinary people always suffer because of the political parties,” complained Hafez Mohammed Faruque Hossain, an unemployed salesman who missed a job interview on Monday because buses were not running and he couldn’t afford the elevated rickshaw fares charged during the strike. “It is not good for anyone.” It’s certainly not good for Bangladesh’s economy, which was projected to grow 6.5 percent this year. Now, Chittagong’s port is closed, much foreign trade is suspended, investment decisions are on hold.
For many of those who joined the protests, however, the election standoff is not just about one or another political party. Cries of “Joy Bangla!” or “Victory to Bengal!” recalled the hard-won triumph of the Liberation War, when Bangladeshis gained their independence from Pakistan and established their country as a secular democracy. Awami League speakers rallied the crowds by recalling that terrifying, hopeful time and stoking fears that Jamaat-e-Islami is seeking to create an undemocratic puppet state for Pakistan.
“We don’t want to become a Talibanist state or an extreme Islamic state where there will be honor killing of my sisters or daughters,” said Mohammed Faruk Khan, a former opposition member of Parliament, using a bullhorn to be heard over the crowd in the Mohakhali section of Dhaka last Sunday. “It is not only democracy, but it is our economy and it is our very independence that is at stake. We did not fight the Liberation War to become a Muslim country. We fought the Liberation War to become a secular country.”
“Talibanist” is undoubtedly overstating the case. And Islamic parties have far too small a constituency to establish an Islamic state anytime soon. Still, the International Crisis Group warned in an October report that “a creeping process of Islamisation is indeed underway,” and secularists have legitimate worries that threats to democracy could create openings for Islamic extremism in Bangladesh. Attacks on micro-credit and women’s empowerment programs, persecution of minority religions and 2005’s well-orchestrated bombing campaign have forced Bangladeshis to acknowledge that militant Islam has taken root in their secular soil.
Many secularists argue that it’s just a matter of time before the “tolerant mass” will vanquish the small but vocal extremist minority. They may well be right. But it’s also true that the kind of political chaos the country has seen lately doesn’t help the case for democracy. And with the two major parties mired in corruption, criminality and organized violence, Islamic parties like Jamaat-e-Islami benefit from appearing disciplined, efficient and relatively clean.
On Friday the sun warmed the Dhaka streets after weeks of unseasonably cold weather. Under the watchful gaze of armed police and soldiers, people drove carefully and wandered around shopping centers looking rather dazed. A group of men stood outside the windows of a television shop to watch the South Africa vs. Pakistan cricket game. The evening call to prayer sounded from mosques across the city. And, with the resignation that comes from an excessive familiarity with political uncertainty, Bangladeshis waited to see what will happen to them next.