Published in Guardian December 30th, 2008
Two miracles happened in Bangladesh yesterday. Firstly, 80% of the Bangladeshi electorate – a record number – voted in one of the most peaceful elections in the country’s history. Secondly, they voted for a party that believes in secularism and by a majority big enough for it to control 85% of the parliamentary seats.
It’s a resounding endorsement of democracy and an emphatic victory for pluralism in the world’s second-largest Muslim majority country. Although International media finds it easy to do a stereotypical portrayal of the “dysfunctional two begums“, the real story of Bangladesh, however, is in the details.
In focusing so much on the two Battling Begums and the occasional stories on Islamic extremism, the media tend to overlook the progress Bangladesh has made under the two begums, its vibrant civil society and its “dysfunctional democracy”. Yesterday’s election and its outcome is a continuation of that progress.
What was even more remarkable in the election yesterday was the strong signal sent to the political parties by the voters: reform or perish. They have abandoned the parties that ran a fearmongering campaign, used religion in politics and showed no intention to reform themselves. On the other hand, they embraced the party that nominated a group of fresh politicians, talked about a vision of a pluralistic and developedBangladesh and championed separation of religion and politics.
However, those who expect an overnight full-scale reform will be disappointed unless they accept that such reforms come through a slow and iterative process. They should take heart in the fact that the electorate is aware and powerful and will not hesitate to obliterate a party to send a message unless they change. No one found this out more painfully than Khaleda Zia, the head of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who failed to reverse the downfall of her party even after a hard-hitting campaign where she sought forgiveness from the public for past mistakes.
The public were in no forgiving mood, not only reducing its seats by 90% but almost wiping out its alliance partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders have been accused of war crimes.
Does this mean a new beginning for Bangladesh? That will depend partly on how well the secularists can deliver beyond the rhetoric and continue the institution-building; and partly on army’s staying away from extra-constitutional intervention. Our dreams may be in for a rude awakening in a few months like so many other times. But today, as Bangladeshis, we are believers. We are daring to dream again.