Last week they held an election in Bangladesh, and nobody came.
Well, practically nobody.
World View with Gwynne Dyer
Turnout was down from 70% in the last election to only 20%. Some stayed away on principle, but others were frightened away by the violence: More than 100 polling stations set on fire, and 200 dead in political violence in the last two months.
The past is back with a vengeance in Bangladesh.
In the past 20 years, the country has seen rapid economic growth, a steeply falling birth rate and the advent of universal primary education. Average life span is 70 years, and average income has doubled since 1975.
Not bad for the world’s most densely populated large country, with few natural resources and 160 million people crammed into the same area as the Maritime provinces.
But the narrative is changing again.
The problem is politics. Ever since the return of democracy in 1991, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two women who loathe each other.
Sheikh Hasina, currently prime minister and leader of the left-leaning, secular Awami League, is the daughter of the country’s “founding father,” Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in 1975 with almost all his family by rebel army officers.
Her opponent of 20 years is Khaleda Zia, leader of the conservative, more religiously inclined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She is the widow of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who became president after several more military coups and was himself assassinated in yet another coup in 1981.
Zia’s husband was not one of the plotters who murdered the father of Sheikh Hasina, but the latter sees him as from the same stable.
Nevertheless, the two women have generally shown enough respect for the democratic process that the country has prospered while they alternated in power since 1991.
Even in 1996, when the Awami League boycotted the election and the BNP won by a landslide, the two leaders managed to finesse their way out of the crisis.
The new BNP-dominated parliament amended the constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to take over and supervise new elections, which the Awami League won.
But this time the things have gone off the rails.
Sheikh Hasina, who has been prime minister since 2009, abolished the neutral caretaker system in 2010. So when she announced an election on January 5 that would be run by her own Awami League government, the BNP assumed the election would be rigged and declared it would boycott it.
The Awami League won 127 seats where there was no opposition candidate and 105 of the 147 contested seats. It holds more than three-quarters of the seats in the new parliament, but it has no democratic credibility.
This outcome is all the more surprising because Sheikh Hasina was in precisely Zia’s shoes 17 years ago, when the BNP rigged the election and the Awami League staged the boycott.
She must have known her rival would respond exactly the same way, and that the only escape from the resultant crisis would be to bring back the neutral caretaker to supervise a rerun of the election.
She knew that, and yet she did it anyway, which means she must be determined to ride out the protests and not allow any caretaker government or election rerun. This is a formula for escalating violence and an eventual military coup. Bangladesh is in trouble.
Dyer is a London-based freelance journalist.