Return of the Bangla Begum

BlogHer Original Post

The Bangla ladies are back at the helm.

As the Middle East grapples with a new crisis in the New Year, 37-year-old Bangladesh, quietly returned to democracy after a two-year military-backed rule, electing former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed and her Awami League party to power. Bangladesh became the third South Asian country in 2008 to shed autocratic regime -- Nepal turned democratic and Bhutan a constitutional monarchy.

Photo credit: Liincoln, via Flickr

On December 29, India's eastern neighbor went to the polls after seven years, in a remarkably peaceful and efficient manner, much to the surprise of observers. The Awami League and its allies made a clean sweep of 250 of the 300 contested seats, leaving little scope for the opposition's cries of rigging to be taken seriously. It was an almost festive day for the country, with 70 percent of eligible voters showing up to make their voices heard.

No surprise that several bloggers were on the ground, sending in dispatches from far-flung regions. Farhan, at Unheard Voice (via Rezwanul's blog), wonders why so many people turned up to vote (in Sylhet), and has a few answers. Makes total sense to me as a South Asian (emphasis mine):


By the time polls closed at 4 pm it was clear, Sylhet 4 had seen record turnouts. 90% at places. I was curious why. Was it an endorsement against the CTG / Military backed government? Most people didn’t seem to say so. I don’t think they would be against a longer tenure of the present government. Was it huge support for one of the candidates? No evidence of it. Was it great organisational “get-out-the-vote” efforts? No. Matter of fact that was one bottleneck according to organisers of both the parties. Was it a confidence that a change will come and lives will improve? Most voters I met were not hopeful of that. Was it a desire to elect a government for themselves? Well yes mostly. Somehow they were infused with belief that voting was their right AND requirement as a citizen. [...] It were the forceful drives to get voter enlisted and photo id cards issued that showed to the person in a remote village that their vote was important and it did matter. [...]
Another reason for high turnout in Sylhet 4 was the improvement of the road network. People did not have to put in a lot of effort to get to places. And electricity and media proliferation meant that more people got to know about their duties as a citizen.

Now that the party is over, the problems begin. Given Bangladesh's tumultous political history, democratic governance is going to be no cakewalk.

Bangladesh and the 'Battle of the Begums'
: A country ravaged by natural and political disasters since this Bengali Muslim-majority region broke away from its parent Pakistan in 1971, Bangladeshi polity has been a constant struggle to make democracy work: every interested party seems to believe that only it can make democracy happen, including the army. It began with the first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led a democratic Bangladesh from 1971 but soon turned it into a single-party executive presidency.

He is, incidentally, the father of the newly-elected PM, Sheikh Hasina.

He was assassinated in 1975, and then followed a series of coups that led to the emergence of the Army Chief of Staff, General Ziaur Rahman (also an independence war hero like Hasina's father), who was elected to a five-year term in 1978, only to be assassinated in '81.

Photo credit :KaushiK, via Flickr

The General also gave Bangladesh her other begum, Khaleda Zia, who would later become the country's first woman PM as leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, making it pretty much a two-woman contest for the country ever since.

The General's death saw another coup, and a new military head who managed to get one thing done: unite the sparring ladies, who then successfully overthrew him. In 1991, Khaleda Zia came to power.

For the next 15 years, by any account, Bangladesh politics became a series of violent protests, with one lady trying to throw the other out of office: the ladies alternated as PMs during the period.

Following that trend, it's Hasina's turn this year.

Unique interim government and a failed attempt to end the reign of the ladies: Much like the transition administration in the U.S., Bangladesh provides for an interim government: only this one comes before an election. The idea is to prevent the party in power from swaying or rigging the polls. The last such interim government -- which was appointed in early 2007, backed by the military and headed by the central bank chief --- found itself overseeing violent protests and face-offs between the two major parties. It was a chaotic Bangladesh. The interim government called off the scheduled general elections, promising to clean up the corrupt system and stem the violence.
For the next two years, the caretakers tried everything in their power to break the two-party hold over the country's politics and send the ladies packing. They tried propping up a third front by encouraging other leaders to come up. Both Hasina and Zia were charged with corruption and even jailed. But the IG failed. The women had, it seems, grown strong roots that overwhelmed the interim government, forcing them to call for elections.

They did, Bangladesh voted, and Hasina is back in power.

The women need to deliver: Bangladesh -- stricken by poverty, nature and more recently Islamist millitancy, has also given the world one of its finest economists, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, and an iconoclast in exiled writer Taslima Nasrin. To say the least, the country needs help, and and it has help, among its own citizens. The problem, as always, is about with governance. And both Hasina and Zia thus far have legacies of running corrupt and incompetent governments.

Bangladesh has given itself another chance to get on the right track and both the ladies -- who will be occupying the seats of power and the opposition -- will have to deliver.

If anything, the elections have pointers to what Bangladeshis want and what the leading ladies have to ensure:

  • A high turnout in a largely peaceful elections

  • Sheikh Hasina's appeal to the youth for change paid off

  • Khaleda Zia's alignment with Islamic parties cost her crucial seats. The party's Islamic ally -- Jamaat-e-Islami -- was booted out, a sign that Bangladesh would much rather be a moderate or liberal if not a secular Muslim democracy. This is good news not only for Bangladesh but also for neighboring India and other nations that fear the country may become another breeding ground for fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.

Highlighting the increasing role women are playing in Bangladesh politics, Maskwaith Ahsan blogs at Deshi Voice (link via GlobalVoices):

It's no longer a dream. Breaking centuries of silence, the women of Bangladesh have finally stood up to contribute to society alongside men.
Bangladesh hopes that its society will finally be able to breathe change and develop radically due to the dynamic presence of women in the government and political arena.
The people of Bangladesh voted for change and they have
their hopes pinned on these women leaders to bring in a new era of prosperity and development.

Criticizing the clubbing of the leaders as "the two ladies", author Tehmina Anam argues in The Guardian (link via SepiaMutiny) that the parties have fundamental differences:

In this election, the BNP allied themselves with the Jamaat-e-Islami and conducted a campaign of fear-mongering, with slogans decrying the corruption of religious values and predicting a threat to Islam through foreign influence. By contrast, the Awami League ran a campaign that was purposefully secular and progressive. Though no stranger to allegations of corruption, the Awami League cleansed its party of much of the old guard. In the end, it campaigned on a platform of change, promising jobs and economic regeneration. The result was not only victory for the Awami League, but a near annihilation of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Bangladesh still has a long way to go. But after all the votes have been counted, this is what remains: in this poor country, where many people cannot read or write, where women are still subject to draconian social and economic realities, where natural disasters strike with brutal regularity, corruption and religious extremism were resolutely routed out.

Tulip Rizwana Siddiq traveled with the Bangladesh PM on her campaign trail. She blogs about it here (NOTE: She is a England-based political activist).

"Will Women Prevent Bangladesh's Descent to Islamism?" wonders Muhammad Hussain.


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