Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Era for Bangladesh?

Landslide victories are becoming rarer in our times as distinctions between contesting parties blur and political objectives merge. It was thus all the more stunning when, in the Bangladesh parliamentary election held on December 29, the Awami League (AL) trounced Bangladesh National Party (BNP) 230 to 29 out of a total of 299 seats. In previous elections, the two parties eked out victories over each by the thinnest of margins.

The AL victory was so crushing that even its leaders found it hard to explain. That AL leader Sheikh Hasina appealed to the optimism and aspirations of Bangladeshis, as opposed to the campaign of fear and opportunism that BNP leader Khaleda Zia ran (anyone remember Barack Obama and John McCain?), had much to do with the outcome. While Hasina promoted the idea of a digital Bangladesh and specific goals for economic development, Khaleda tried to rally the people by promising them that she will “save Islam." Bangladeshis are sick and tired of politicians abusing religion to secure power. Not only did they reject BNP’s premise, they dealt all the religious parties a crushing defeat as well.

In the 2001 elections, for instance, the Jamaat-e-Islami party grabbed 17 seats and its leaders, in alliance with BNP, took control of two powerful ministries. Their fanaticism and misogyny brought untold misery to the people. This time, again as BNP's key ally in a four-party alliance, Jamaat's total haul was … 2. All of their leaders were soundly defeated at the polls. Another religious party did not win a single seat. It is a telling sign that two leftist parties – never popular in Bangladesh - won 5 seats, outperforming the Islamist organizations. The message is clear: Bangladeshis do not want to mix religion with politics.

What now? Both AL and BNP governed Bangladesh alternately since its independence, and under the watch of both, the country earned the dubious distinction of “most corrupt nation on earth.” Is it possible that this time it will be different, that Sheikh Hasina and her party will put the nation’s interest above political vendetta, nepotism and personal accumulation of wealth? Will this be the dawn of a prosperous and progressive Bangladesh?

It is a daunting challenge but miracles occasionally occur and sometimes events make the (wo)man. Sheikh Hasina will have a free hand in charting a new course and defining a new era for Bangladesh. There’s hope in that as well as danger. (Let's not forget that Richard Nixon, to cite an example, also won a landslide victory in 1972). If she surrounds herself with sycophants and incompetents as she did in her previous stint as the prime minister, Bangladesh may very well go under. But if she seizes this historic opportunity to help Bangladesh achieve its true potential, she will not only redeem herself and her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the nation, she will have made a lasting contribution to world peace and stability. And how can Sheikh Hasina help Bangladesh achieve its potential? By running a government of civility, law, accountability and non-partisanship, by curbing inflation and creating jobs, by building the infrastructure to harness the power of the Internet, by empowering the honest and the competent, and by enabling the native entrepreneurship of Bangladeshis to flower.

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