LIKE THE great, restless rivers that snake across Bangladesh, the country’s democracy seems to change shape with every season. Its people have voted in ten national elections since independence in 1971, but on each occasion the political landscape has looked radically different. There have been times of single-party dominance, of army rule, of fiery protest and boycott, and also times when, after millions of voters have peacefully cast their ballots, parties have politely alternated in power.
One constant, since the 1990s, has been the bitter rivalry between two powerful women, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the leader of the Awami League and current prime minister, and Khaleda Zia, a two-time former prime minister and head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who is now in prison. Another constant is that when the electoral game has appeared to be fair, voter turnout has been strong. When it has looked tilted, voters have stayed at home.
Only weeks ago it seemed a safe bet that the 11th election to the 350-seat parliament, which is due to be held some time in the next three months, would be of the low-turnout, low-credibility sort. The Awami League, which came in on a landslide in 2008 but has grown fat and bossy after so long in power, seemed determined to secure a third consecutive five-year term by hook or by crook. All of a sudden, however, the mood has changed. The country’s 165m people might just get a competitive—although certainly not fair—election.
October brought not one, but two big surprises. In mid-month the BNP, which had appeared to be on the ropes, dropped its long-standing alliance with far-right Islamists and instead joined a coalition of smaller, secular parties to form a broad opposition group. Known as the Jatiya Oikya Front, its figurehead is 82-year-old Kamal Hossain, a widely respected constitutional lawyer. More surprising still was that the increasingly authoritarian Awami League, which has relentlessly hounded the BNP, turned suddenly sweet. The police (who, like the country’s army and courts, are beholden to the government) took a pause from arresting BNP activists by the van-load, and instead granted permission for Oikya rallies, even in the capital, Dhaka. As Awami League thugs stopped ripping down every rival election poster, Sheikh Hasina herself invited the new front’s leaders for talks, promising to consider their demands for guaranteeing fair elections.
With both big parties scrambling to lure smaller players, and the contest shaping into a rivalry between big coalitions, two rounds of these talks have been held, the most recent on November 7th. Although signalling graciousness, Sheikh Hasina shows little inclination to meet Oikya’s demands. These include ending the trials and imprisonment of her political opponents, among them Ms Zia (pictured), who was jailed in February and is serving a ten-year sentence on charges of embezzling from an orphanage; dissolving parliament and forming a neutral caretaker government during the election period; and ensuring security for and oversight of the voting.
The Awami League has suggested that it may consider releasing prisoners and that it intends to shrink its own government to an election-period skeleton administration. But it says it will not bend the constitution to suit opposition demands—despite the fact that, from 1996 until 2011, when the Awami League itself changed the rules, the constitution required caretaker governments to oversee elections.
The Oikya Front has hinted that it may call for street protests if there is no accommodation, yet it is clearly also hesitant to provoke a clampdown or declare a boycott. The BNP still has a strong grass-roots following, and by all accounts the relentless persecution of recent months has stirred a surge of sympathy for it. Moreover, aggressive tactics backfired on it in the election of 2014 when, angered by the Awami League’s rule changes, it first sponsored violent street protests, then boycotted the polls.
The experience of being excluded from parliament has been a bitter one for Ms Zia and her followers. Their absence allowed the Awami League not just to extend tentacles of influence throughout the state and to threaten the business interests of wealthy BNP loyalists, but also to clobber the BNP rank and file. By the BNP’s count, the Awami League has instigated no fewer than 90,000 lawsuits against it, entangling some 2.5m party workers in endless litigation. During the month of September alone, the party reckons that more than 4,500 of its members were arrested on trumped-up charges. Ms Zia herself is fighting 34 separate cases; her son Tarique, the party’s acting chairman, lives in exile in London. He is sentenced to life imprisonment at home.
But for all Sheikh Hasina’s polite talk, the Awami League may be less inclined to compromise than the BNP. Like the BNP leader, who is the widow of a murdered former president, the Awami League’s boss is a survivor of tragedy. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the country to independence from Pakistan, was murdered along with most of his family in 1975. In power, Sheikh Hasina has appeared increasingly vindictive not just towards political rivals, but towards a growing range of perceived enemies. “She has lost her moral compass,” whispers a middle-aged writer in a noisy café, reflecting fears felt broadly across Bangladeshi society.
Four decades after Bangladesh’s liberation war, the Awami League pushed through constitutional changes allowing for the trial and execution of old men who had fought against Sheikh Hasina’s father. Since May police have been licensed to shoot suspected drug dealers on sight. The tally of extra-judicial killings so far stands at 264. When students in Dhaka protested in August against lawless driving, the party sent club-wielding thugs to quell them. When a prominent photojournalist documented the attacks live on Facebook he was dragged from his house by an anti-terror squad. Now in prison, he was derided by Sheikh Hasina in an interview as “mentally sick”. Besides, she noted, his great-uncle had been a pro-Pakistan minister. “Sometimes blood speaks, you understand that,” she said, as if in explanation.
But the Awami League does not have to rely on ruthlessness. Under its rule the economy has enjoyed unprecedented growth. Last year GDP expanded by 7.3%, faster than India or Pakistan. Opinion polls show broad satisfaction with the government. A decade of assiduous pampering of police and army officers has bought loyalty, and put paid to fears of coups. The country’s most powerful neighbour, India, tends to support the Awami League. And despite her 71 years Sheikh Hasina is clearly capable of change: ignoring her party’s staunchly secular roots, she has lately outflanked the BNP by winning over the Hefajat-e-Islam, an organisation of arch-conservative clerics. Will these advantages persuade her to let democracy run its natural course, or will she instead keep trying to tame the current?