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What happens when one side boycotts the ballot box?

It has been a caricature of an election. The result was known even before Bangladeshis actually cast their votes on Friday. Even in such a one-sided election, we witnessed instances of stuffing of ballot box, fake voters, ballot box hijacking and other kinds of gross irregularities.

The tragedy is, an election that the ruling Awami League itself says was a mere formality has cost the nation enormously in terms of money, materials and human lives. Thanks to the bullheadedness of the ruling leadership, with an overzealous Election Commission at its beck and call, the farce could not be avoided. Thanks are also due to the opposition because their boycott, blockades and shutdowns supplied the ruling party with a cause to go ahead with this hollow electoral exercise.

In winning an uncontested election, the ruling party should at least be relieved at avoiding the nightmare of ceding power to its arch-rival, the opposition Bangladesh National Party and its dreaded allies. Perhaps the BNP is also glad, having engineered a boycott that led to a near voter-less election which will usher in a government suffering from a congenital legitimacy crisis.

Even so, the Awami League with its three-quarters majority in the 10th parliament (it won 235 of the 300 seats) is set to form the next government. But what next? Will it be business as usual, with the government continuing to function as it has done for the last five years?. Or will it go for another election that will be contested, inclusive and credible?

The BNP has already declared a fresh 48-hour nationwide strike this week, demanding that the government scrap the result of the election. Obviously, the days ahead for the outgoing government and the new one to be sworn in soon are not going to be smooth. The aim is to pressurise the government into re-engaging with the opposition in dialogue.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Cabinet have stated that the just-held election was a mere formality to meet constitutional obligations and that the next step would be to prepare for another general election. But they will initiate dialogue with the opposition only if the BNP cuts all ties with Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Here lies the main obstacle to a legitimate election.

In truth, with its power secured, the ruling party will have hardly any reason to consider holding such a dialogue in the near future. Still, the new government will be eager to silence taunts about its illegitimacy.

So, how long will the BNP be able to sustain its campaign to undermine the Awami League government's right to rule?

Lacking a genuine mandate from voters, the new government would be flirting with disaster if it wielded an iron fist against the opposition and the Islamists. Nevertheless, many in the ruling circle are peddling just such an idea.

Those in favour of cracking down like to cast the opposition and its Islamist allies as anti-liberation forces, in contrast to the enlightened and secular Awami League. But this division is too simplistic. Such stereotyping of the opposition - emphasising the anti-liberation role played by Jamaat-e-Islami in the 1971 war for independence with West Pakistan - holds true only as long as the discourse is limited to electoral politics. Citing it to start a "cleansing drive" using state apparatus is going too far. It is, in fact, a deeper social issue to be addressed and resolved on the political and cultural plane and not through the intervention of the state.

Hopefully, both the ruling party and the opposition are aware of their limitations and will soon find reasons to re-engage in dialogue. The aim should be to hold an election contested by both sides that truly represents the will of all voters. This is the only way for democracy to move forward in Bangladesh.


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