1 JANUARY 2019
After the Awami League landslide, she must repair Bangladesh’s bitter political divisions
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party was always going to win Sunday’s parliamentary election. She remains immensely popular, her government sought a fresh mandate with a formidable record of economic growth and social progress and her party, the Awami League, set the agenda for the election and dominated the campaign. Still, the scale of the victory would have taken even her supporters by surprise. The party’s Grand Alliance won 288 of the 299 seats contested, more than the 234 seats it won in 2014 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the poll. This time, the Opposition coalition Jatiya Oikya Front, led by the BNP, secured only seven seats. But there are conflicting claims about the way the election was conducted. As soon as the results were known, Kamal Hossain, the leader of the Opposition coalition, called it a farcical election and demanded that the Election Commission call a fresh poll. More than 40 Opposition candidates pulled out of the race after voting began on Sunday, alleging rigging. However, the Election Monitoring Forum and the SAARC Human Rights Foundation, which includes both local and international observers, said in its preliminary evaluation that the election was “much freer and fairer” than previous ones. In the past, Bangladesh had seen governments declining to hold elections, one being cancelled and called again, and others being delayed amid violence. This time the election was called on time. Participation was higher, with the turnout at 66%, compared to 51% in 2014.
The challenge before Ms. Hasina is daunting. To begin with, she has to heal a country rattled by political divisions and violence. The government and the Election Commission could have held the election without being open to charges that it was manipulated. There was a crackdown on the Opposition in the run-up to polling day. Pro-Opposition websites were taken down, thousands of activists were jailed, and political violence was unleashed to target BNP members. The situation was so grave that even one of the election commissioners said there was no level playing field. The Election Commission should conduct a fair investigation into allegations of rigging to restore faith in the poll process. Ms. Hasina should reach out to the Opposition. Her otherwise impressive record has been marred by her government’s authoritarian character. The victory is a chance for Ms. Hasina to mend her ways, to be more inclusive and run a government that respects the rule of law, the basic rights of citizens and institutional freedom. For India, Ms. Hasina’s victory is good news. New Delhi and Dhaka have deepened economic, security and strategic ties under her leadership. This should continue, no matter what the general election outcome in India in 2019.
A liberal move
Rajasthan strikes a blow for democracy by removing educational criteria for local polls
Among the first decisions taken by Ashok Gehlot’s government after assuming power in Rajasthan was to scrap minimum educational requirements for candidates contesting local body elections. This is a progressive move and will restore the right to contest, at least in theory, to a large section of the population in the State, where the literacy rate, according to the 2011 Census, was 52% for women and 79% for men. The previous government headed by Vasundhara Raje had stipulated, first through an ordinance in December 2014 and then through the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act passed in 2015, educational prerequisites to stand for local polls. It was made mandatory for candidates contesting for the post of sarpanch to have cleared Class 8, and for those in the fray in zila parishad and panchayat samiti elections to have passed Class 10. The move was ill-considered from the very beginning. At the time, the amendment was seen as a bid by the then BJP government to lower the average age of those in the fray based on the assumption that its voters tended to be younger. It was, however, an act of paternalism that militated against the basic assumptions of a liberal democracy. It penalised the people for failure to meet certain social indicators, when in fact it is the state’s responsibility to provide the infrastructure and incentives for school and adult education. And it defeated the very purpose of the panchayati raj institutions, to include citizens in multi-tier local governance from all sections of society. These requirements had the effect of excluding the marginalised.
The Rajasthan government’s decision should also force a rethink in Haryana, where the newly sworn-in BJP government had, also in 2015, legislated a series of eligibility requirements for panchayat elections, including education levels and a functional toilet in the candidate’s home. The Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 was upheld that year by the Supreme Court in Rajbala v. State of Haryana. And the temptation to expand educational eligibility requirements remains. Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, for instance, has previously spoken of persuading other Chief Ministers to take the cue from Rajasthan and Haryana, as an incentive for women to study. The decision of the new Congress government in Rajasthan should force a recasting of the debate on finding ways and means by which elected bodies are made more representative. In a liberal democracy, governments must desist from putting bars on who may contest, except in exceptional circumstances, such as when a candidate is in breach of particular laws. To mandate paternalistically what makes a person a ‘good’ candidate goes against the spirit of the attempt to deepen democracy by taking self-government to the grassroots.