In Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections Sunday, everyone lost. The vote was marred by bloodshed, boycotted by the opposition and notable mostly for a dearth of actual voters. The results reveal only that the country’s bitterly divided political parties need to try again.
Running largely unopposed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League had won a majority of seats even before polls opened. Yet no government that forms out of these elections ― which Hasina’s own son admitted were “half-baked” ― will ever command solid domestic or international support.
At the same time, the opposition Bangladesh National Party, led by Hasina’s arch-rival Khaleda Zia, has undermined its own legitimacy in recent months with a campaign of disruptive strikes and business shutdowns. Its Islamist allies have staged deeply unpopular attacks on civilians as well as political workers; hundreds have died in political violence in the last year. Although, in a fair vote, anti-incumbent sentiment would probably have carried the opposition to victory, a strong showing wasn’t guaranteed; at least one pre-election poll showed the BNP barely favored over the Awami League.
Continued confrontation threatens both camps. The BNP appears to hope that if the instability continues, the army will intervene in its favor. The ruling party, for its part, seems to believe that its generous handouts to military brass have bought loyalty, leaving the government a free hand to suppress the opposition. Both assumptions are dangerously optimistic; an army takeover might not be bloodless ― or short.
The military has ruled Bangladesh for nearly half its 42-year existence. Now, though, the country has more to lose than it once did. Since the 1990s, Hasina and Zia have traded power relatively peacefully, despite their vicious differences, and during that time, Bangladesh has reduced poverty and improved health and education. Life expectancy now stands at 69.2 years ― almost 3 1/2 years more than India, where per capita GDP is almost double that of Bangladesh. Infant mortality levels have dropped in Bangladesh, too, while women’s participation in the workforce ― particularly in the critical garment industry ― has risen drastically.
Political chaos threatens all these gains. In part because of the turmoil, both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have lowered growth forecasts for the country. Moody’s has warned of a possible credit-rating downgrade.
That prospect should focus minds in Dhaka and outside. New elections are needed, as even members of the ruling party acknowledge privately. The opposition refuses to take part unless a neutral caretaker government oversees the country during the run-up to the polls, as was required by the constitution before the Awami League amended it in 2011. This is a reasonable demand, favored by most Bangladeshis. Another option would be an “all-parties” coalition government with a neutral figure serving as prime minister.
The details matter less than getting the two sides to sit down together soon, before the violence that claimed at least 22 lives Sunday spirals further out of control. Although both Hasina and Zia are tightly surrounded by family members and sycophants, outside voices can penetrate the bubbles.
India, which has sided with the ruling party in its battle against Islamists, has sway with Hasina, while leaders of the powerful garment industry should be able to make clear to Zia the cost of continued unrest. Their message to the party leaders should be stark: Find a more civil way to carry on their competition. Bangladesh has lost enough.