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Parties at loggerheads with each other is a basic element of any election anywhere in the world. In Bangladesh though, it comes with a more fundamental fraught. The two main parties, Awami League which currently rules the country and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) have been in a constant confrontation over the very ecosystem in which elections be conducted.
General Elections in Bangladesh next year is an overwhelming priority domestically and the international community too is similarly showering deserved attention to it. The US, the UK, the EU, Japan have been consistently vocal about underlining the significance of free and fair elections in Bangladesh considering the criticality of it not just for the country but the whole region. Only last month, when US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen at Washington, the opening statement by the former indicated the world’s concern at Bangladesh’s next election.
The ruling Awami League and the principal opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are visibly and obviously not at the same page on how to go about the next elections. BNP wants an unelected caretaker or national government under which the elections get conducted. The party along with its ideological partner Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) has been lobbying hard to have the international community by the side of its demand. However, Bangladesh and the region requires reflections on some important background and the country’s troubled track record while it has tried hard to hold on to the flag of democracy.
Between 2006 and 2008, Bangladesh experienced a military-backed caretaker government, which resulted in a backsliding of democracy. The Caretaker Government, in place at that time, abused its role by delaying elections by two years as against the three months mandate, weakening the development of the country. In addition to political violence where many proud Bangladeshis lost their lives and some political leaders from all parties were imprisoned including Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Caretaker government and democratic continuum are antagonist concepts and unreconciling realities.
One cannot question the usefulness of such a system during troubled periods in the history of Bangladesh when the country was transitioning to democracy but the difference between 2006 and the current situation is absolutely not comparable. Currently, the country is not at war or under any such pressure. It is rather showing rapid development on quite a few fronts and more importantly, as a democracy, there has been an electoral continuum.
Bangladesh’s economic and social indicators point in the direction of growth and development, supported by the Bangladesh Vision 2041 plan to become an Upper Middle-Income Country by 2031. International Monetary Fund’s Regional Economic Outlook for Asia and Pacific May, 2023 report puts the country ahead of China in terms of Gross Domestic Product growth this fiscal year.
The strengthening of a pluralistic democracy is a key pillar of any medium and long-term strategy.
Since the last Caretaker Government, the country has gradually moved towards stable parliamentary democracy. In 2022, Bangladesh formed its new Election Commission as part of a substantial move to hold free, fair and transparent General Elections in 2024.
A Caretaker Government is a unique arrangement which has not proven its effectiveness recently in the rest of the world. For example, in case of Libya, elections have not yet taken place because of a caretaker government that failed to take democratic process to the next step. There is inconsistency in this system, its obsolescence, no longer in phase with the era, and Bangladesh does not deserve it. In 2011 the country’s Supreme Court even ruled this practice unconstitutional!
Bangladesh would not be sending a good signal to its neighboring and allied countries, with the return of such an archaic system like caretaker government. It must show the strength of its democratic system to be recognized as a reliable country respecting the international rules.
The country has much to gain from unity. Its people have high hopes to conduct peaceful elections. That holds well for the stability of the country, and more widely of the sub-region. It is also in the interest of all stakeholders of geopolitics around Bangladesh.