Dhaka. Flickr Creative Commons/Niloy

By Antoine Levesques, Research Associate for South Asia

The hanging on Thursday of Abdul Kader Mullah, a prominent Bangladeshi Islamist sentenced for four- decades-old war crimes, is the latest test to the resilience of secular representative democracy in the country with the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population. Yet for all the growing street unrest and heated political climate, Bangladesh remains on track to head to the polls on 5 January to elect a new parliament and decide who will be its prime minister until 2019.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) leader, Khaleda Zia, and 17 smaller allies say they will boycott the polls because there is no monitor to ensure their impartiality. For her part, Sheikh Hasina, the outgoing Awami League (AL) prime minister and Zia’s rival, argues that the lack of an interim setup is lawful. With the two ladies of Bangladeshi politics mustering all the resources patronage can get them, increasing numbers of ordinary people are suffering the costs of not taking sides. This state of affairs could force a prolonged crisis, rather than a negotiated compromise. If push came to shove, delaying the polls, possibly to April, could be one option to avoid a constitutional crisis.

Regardless of whether the AL go to the polls unopposed in 19 days, observers both inside and outside Bangladesh are already assessing the damage this situation might cause to the country. Among these are two former BBC journalists and experts, who discussed the background and circumstances of the political crisis in a forward-looking talk at the IISS earlier this month.

Frances Harrison, former BBC correspondent in South Asia and author of a recent book on Bangladesh, drew attention to the findings of her recent work on Jamaat-e-Islami. The socially influential but fringe conservative party, to which the Islamist Abdul Kader Mullah belonged, could still be a vote-swinger and kingmaker from the political sidelines, if not from the streets, since it has been barred from contesting the polls since August. She argued however that for all of Jamaat’s ability to capitalise on the two ladies’ failings and play up religious sentiment in politics, the war-crimes trials were an ‘unprecedented crisis’ for the party, if only because two-thirds of its members were born after the 1971 independence war. Harrison was concerned that provincial protests, shutdowns (‘hartals’) and other unrest, resulting from the heated climate of political mobilisation, had diluted law and order sufficiently to result in worrying localised gaps in security.

Kamal Ahmed, former editor of the BBC’s Bangla Service, traced one cause of the political fever to the nature of Bangladesh’s winner-take-all democracy, which forces losers into more than a political exit. He welcomed the first high-profile call from a foreign official – on 30 November by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – for all parties to reach an amicable settlement. But failing this, and if the AL were to go it alone, he predicted that participation would be low. He implied that a political solution would ultimately have to be found. The military had little appetite for getting involved, even though both BNP and AL leaders had reportedly told US officials in 2007 they would prefer the military to step in than to accept victory of the other.

The discussion also touched upon other issues in Bangladesh’s crisis – such as the succession from the current generation of political leadership or the controversial reforms of the country’s religious schools.

Listen to the audio recording of the event.

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