Bangladesh's Contentious Path Toward Elections

5 MINS READAug 6, 2013 | 18:50 GMT
Bangladesh's Contentious Path Toward Elections
Bangladeshi security personnel stand guard in front of the high court Aug. 1 after the verdict was released banning Jamaat-e-Islami from next year's elections.

In the latest setback for Bangladesh's largest and most powerful Islamist party, the Bangladeshi Supreme Court rejected Jamaat-e-Islami's Aug. 5 plea against the High Court's Aug. 1 ruling banning the organization from future elections. So far this year, Bangladesh has experienced significant social and political upheaval as a series of war crimes tribunals relating to the 1971 war for independence have coincided with intensifying competition between the country's two traditional political forces: the incumbent Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The Supreme Court's decision to ban Jamaat-e-Islami from the political process will have immediate consequences for Bangladesh's political and social stability, and undermining a key element of the country's political opposition could trigger unintended long-term consequences for the ruling Awami League.

The current Awami League-led government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009 after a landslide electoral victory, replacing an extended military-backed caretaker government that had ruled the country since 2007. The Awami League and its allies won 263 of 300 seats in the Bangladeshi parliament. The party's electoral mandate has since faltered; most recently, the Awami League lost a string of mayoral and local elections in June and July, including the mayoralty of Chittagong, the country's economic center.

Brought to power on a wave of popular frustration with the Islamist and military-aligned Bangladesh Nationalist Party, expectations were high for Hasina's government. Initially, the Awami League enjoyed broad support for the ongoing war crimes tribunals linked to the war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, but perceived leniency in sentencing some of the more controversial figures has led to a decline in support for Hasina. Ghulam Nizam, who led Jamaat-e-Islami during the civil war, received a life sentence rather than the expected death penalty on July 15. Jamaat-e-Islami's supporters quickly went to the streets to protest the verdict while their opponents saw this as another failure of the Hasina government to institute change.

Moreover, the government's swift and severe police reaction to the protests sparked human rights concerns from both domestic and international observers. Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands injured in political clashes that have swept across the country since the war crimes tribunal began delivering sentences in early 2013.  

Jamaat-e-Islami's Position

Bangladesh's largest Islamist organization and political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, was a visible and ultimately controversial participant during the war for independence from Pakistan. During the war, the group fought on behalf of Pakistan against the largely secular-minded supporters of independence. These activities led to the current war crimes tribunals. Jamaat-e-Islami later joined with both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in the political fight to oust the military regime of former President Hussain Muhammad Ershad in 1990. The Islamist party quickly allied itself with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Begum Khaleda Zia, following the reinstatement of the democratic process, with both parties in opposition to the current ruling Awami League. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party's nationalism reflects the country's majority Muslim identity, and its center-right political ideology makes it easier to attract support from groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and factions of the military, especially after Zia's marriage to former military chief Ziaur Rahman.

The Awami League and Hasina's left-of-center and secular Bengali nationalist policies, as evidenced by their reinstating Bangladesh's secular identity into the constitution, are in opposition to the Islamist political philosophies of Jamaat-e-Islami. The Awami League-backed Bangladesh Tarikat Federation, a Sufi-organized political party that promotes secularism within Bangladesh's political sphere, filed the original petition to have Jamaat-e-Islami banned from politics, claiming its Islamist charter violates the nation's constitutionally backed secular nature. The federation also provides critical political cover for the Awami League because it can ill afford to seem anti-Islamic in Bangladesh's increasingly polarized political arena.

The Upcoming Elections

The current government's term ends Oct. 25, and according to the constitution, general elections must be held no later than 90 days after Oct. 26. The decision by the top body of the Supreme Court — whose nine members, including the chief justice, are Awami League appointees — to deny Jamaat-e-Islami the ability to operate as an independent political body could undermine the Islamist group's traditional support for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party ahead of the elections.

As support for the Awami League has faltered in the wake of recent local elections, political competition with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has intensified. Jamaat-e-Islami has sought to position itself in the middle of this competition again to play its traditional role of kingmaker — something the Awami League and its allies seek to prevent.

However, the Supreme Court's decision to allow Jamaat-e-Islami to persist as a social organization reflects the organization's widespread support and the limits of Bangladesh's political system to deny the group space to operate within Bangladeshi society, especially given the likelihood of destabilizing protests and violence should the group be banned altogether. Hasina hopes that nationwide support for the war crimes tribunals will help insulate the government against the risks of outlawing the Islamist group, despite Jamaat-e-Islami's impressive social networks.  

Meanwhile, with the upcoming elections the Awami League is attempting a first in Bangladesh's post-independence history: the transfer of power between civilian governments without a military-backed caretaker government overseeing the transition. Since coming to power, the Awami League has not only changed the Bangladeshi Constitution to reflect a secular national character but also removed the role of an independent caretaker government in overseeing elections and transitions between governments. This has drawn criticism from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and challenged the military's traditional role as the arbiter of political stability. Putting the military in an uncertain position carries a risk that the military's future involvement in politics will be a coup instead of constitutional action. Rising public unrest is putting the military's ability and desire to remain outside the political system increasingly into question as Hasina struggles to hold support within her party and among Bangladesh's voters.

By itself, the Supreme Court decision is unlikely to give the embattled Awami League another decisive political mandate or to fully unravel the already shaky foundations of the civilian political system. As the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and other members of the political opposition continue their demands for an independent caretaker government to oversee elections and the transition period between governments, Hasina and the Awami League will await a potential military challenge to the legal and constitutional limits they have placed on what the Supreme Court has described as "un-elected caretaker governments." The Awami League is hoping that the military will be wary of launching an outright coup without judicial and constitutional cover, creating an opening to negotiate a future political settlement in its favor even as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami will attempt to encourage social unrest and instigate enough destabilizing violence to force the military's hand.

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