Now, finally, comes good news from Bangladesh: an election. After nearly two years of military-backed emergency rule and seven years since the last parliamentary vote, this is no small accomplishment for a Muslim country with a small but menacing Islamist fringe.
The turnout speaks volumes about Bangladesh’s democratic aspirations. Roughly 80% of 81 million registered voters cast ballots, and about one-third of those voted for the first time. Both major parties—the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—participated, an important step in a country where parties have a history of boycotting politics when they think things won’t go their way. Though the military-backed government discouraged campaigning for much of the past few months, towards the end it did ease up on restrictions. Election day on Monday was generally peaceful.
Election officials say voters handed the Awami League at least 250 of the 300 seats up for direct election—a landslide victory. Many of those seats were won by wide margins. The result gives Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the mandate to overcome the kind of opposition-fuelled parliamentary inertia that’s often paralysed Dhaka in the past.
Monday, 29 December, was a bad day for Islamist parties. Smaller, explicitly Islamist parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami took a drubbing; its seat count fell to two or three from 17 in the last elected parliament. Of the two major parties, Awami League is more secular; the BNP has formed alliances with Islamist parties in the past.
Now, both major parties must act responsibly to consolidate this democratic progress. For the losing BNP, that means accepting the results of a poll scored as free and fair by international monitors. The election wasn’t perfect, with long lines at polling places and scattered reports of mix-ups involving voter lists. But it was good enough that the BNP will only discredit itself if it continues to dispute the results, as some of its prominent members have been doing since the returns started coming in.
The Awami League’s burden is heavier. Its mandate is to deliver clean governance to an electorate exhausted by the corruption that has marred most Bangladeshi governments since independence in 1971. Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia both faced prosecution in the past two years on corruption charges stemming from their earlier turns as prime minister. Those cases fell to the wayside in the election run-up, but neither leader can afford to think voters don’t care.
Hasina will also need to deliver economic reform in a poor country. With the government already cutting its economy growth projection for the current fiscal year to 6.2% from 6.5%, Bangladesh must brace itself for possible fallout from the global slowdown. The main issues in the election were corruption and personality, but the new prime minister’s manifesto also included a pledge to encourage more private investment in sectors such as power and infrastructure. More pro-private sector reform would help the country’s prospects.
Bangladesh’s democratic future is still in the balance. And Islamist elements—including some that might threaten Bangladesh’s neighbours—remain a serious threat. But the election is a sign that ordinary Bangladeshis want to keep their country on the democratic path.
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