A source of major embarrassment for me since my election to the London Assembly in 2004 has been that the government in my ancestral home was a right-wing alliance between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami. So it was with much trepidation that l sent off over the Xmas break to assist the opposition in the general election there on the 29th of December. Little did l expect to see the landslide that resulted against this right-wing alliance, as Bangladeshis voted in their millions for the progressive secularism offered by the Awami League.
The election had been delayed by two years after the BNP-Jamaat alliance had attempted to rig the elections with a false electoral roll, providing an opening for the military to intervene and impose their caretaking government of technocrats. So there was great enthusiasm for a return to democratic rule. On the morning of the 29th of December, even before the polling stations opened at 8.00 am, people were queuing up to cast their vote. By the end of the day over 80 per cent of the Bangladeshi electorate had voted in what turned out to be one of the most peaceful elections in the country’s history, when people had feared much worse.
The BNP-Jamaat alliance tried to garner votes with their campaign to “save Islam“ but the electorate overwhelmingly rejected the claim that Islam was under threat. They turned instead to the Awami League, who promised to counter militancy and religious extremism and establish a liberal democratic society. This was particularly evident among the first-time voters who made up 30 per cent of the electorate. They were a key element in the political tidal wave that swept away the BNP-Jamaat bloc, with the Awami League and its allies winning 263 of the 299 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad, the Bangladesh parliament.
I spent polling day in Sylhet, the area of the country that most Bangladeshis in the UK come from. The district has 19 seats and the crucial battle was in Sylhet I with a contest between two former finance ministers, Saifur Rahman of the BNP and Abdul Muhith of the Awami League. On the morning of election day the Awami League were confident that they would win 12 seats, but when the results were announced in the evening they had taken all of 17. The real bonus was the election of Shafiqur Chowdhury of the Awami League, an NRB (non-resident Bangladeshi) from London, in the Sylhet II constituency, where he defeated a BNP “tough guy” by a majority of over 3,000. The Sylhet results proved to be no isolated victory, as at the same time news came through that we had won all 20 seats in the capital, Dhaka.
The voters had also overwhelmingly rejected alleged war criminals like Nizami and Saeedi, who contested the election on the BNP-Jamaat ticket. This was the result of successful campaigns in the vibrant civil society of Dhaka. These defeats brought the loudest cheer of the evening when the results were announced in the Hafiz Centre, Sylhet Town. Some will say that the trial of these war criminals is the first step to the recovery of a wounded nation and expectations are high that the government will finally deal with this albatross around the neck of the nation, once and for all.
The Bangladeshi electorate has left no one in any doubt what their choice is here, giving a near fatal blow to the Islamist political parties. Plainly put, this is an overwhelming mandate against religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh. The “Talibanisation” of the country, which some commentators aboard had identified as a threat in the past few years, is hardly a realistic prospect now, if it ever was. This is not to deny that the political assassinations that were attempted, such as the August 2004 grenade attack on a rally addressed by Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina, were dark chapters in the life of the previous government, but it would take a lot more than that to Talibanise the Bangladeshi democratic spirit.
The shift towards secularism will clearly have some impact on politics within the Bangladeshi community in the UK, which have for some years taken a predominantly conservative-religious form. This is now badly out of kilter with politics “back home”, which are represented by those of us from a secular-progressive background. Policy wonks in government at local, regional and central level should take note of this development urgently and not be taken for a ride by those supposedly representing the community.
Overall, the Bangladesh general election was a resounding endorsement of democracy and an emphatic victory for pluralism in the world’s second largest Muslim-majority country. Thus, for some, the vote was as historic as the vote in December 1970, which led to the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. That was the election l watched as a small kid when my parents attempted to settle back in our ancestral home. So politics in Bangladesh have now come the full circle, back to where we should be, with the political optimism that greeted the formation of a new state nearly four decades ago now reborn in the 21st century.
Awami League supporters cheer election results