The December 30 election must present a difficult choice for the average middle of the road, secular, democracy loving voter in Bangladesh. Should she give a third consecutive term to the secular Awami League and its increasingly authoritarian leader, Sheikh Hasina, who has cracked down on individual freedoms, jailed opponents, and silenced dissent? Or should she vote for the Jatiya Oikya Front, a rainbow coalition of Opposition parties, led by the Bangladesh National Party, which is right wing, Islamist, flirts with extremist groups and has fielded in this election candidates from the banned Jamaat-i-Islami which collaborated with Pakistan against liberation in 1971?
The dilemma is especially acute as the JOF is led by Kamal Hossain, a liberal, secular icon, a close aide of Mujibur Rehman, who was in the team that drafted the new country’s first Constitution. Adding to the confusion, he is not contesting the election. BNP leader Khaleda Zia herself was jailed earlier this year on corruption charges. Her son, also convicted, can return home only at the risk of being imprisoned immediately.
Hasina has been in power since 2009, the country’s longest-serving prime minister despite the political upheavals in the country, especially following the internationally controversial, and at home hugely polarising, war crimes trials that led to the conviction and hanging of several Jamaat leaders. Subsequently, the Jamaat itself was banned. By her second term, won in 2014 over a BNP boycott, Hasina’s image had shrunk even among her elite liberal backers. If she won international brownie points for hosting nearly a million fleeing Rohingya from nearby Myanmar, she also left no stone unturned to go after critics of her government. The big silver lining for Bangladesh, though, is that despite all the political unrest, the economy has grown at a healthy pace, and its human development indicators are the best in South Asia, one of the reasons Hasina remains a hugely popular, if polarising, leader.
Prime Minister Hasina has been a good friend to India. Her government has cracked down on safe havens of terrorist groups that operate in the Indian Northeast. In India-Pakistan spats, her loyalties are with Delhi. And unlike a Mahinda Rajapaksa or Abdulla Yameen, she has managed to build ties with China without annoying India, even though China has showered Dhaka with financial assistance. In return, Delhi has been determined not to wade into the domestic chaos and international outrage that many of Prime Minister Hasina’s actions have triggered. Her re-election, if it happens, is certain to keep Bangladesh divided and on political edge, even as it is likely to please India.