DHAKA - Armed with a massive parliamentary majority, Bangladesh’s new prime minister Sheikh Hasina finally has a chance to lead the country away from its paralysing culture of revenge politics.
But analysts both here and abroad warn that a still-polarised electorate and a deep legacy of corruption have the potential to unleash the sort of violent confrontation that forced the military to step in two years ago.
“To prevent a return to the winner-takes-all style of politics, the government will have to reach out to the opposition and try to work with it for the next five years,” said Michael Shaikh, a senior analyst from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).
“The challenge for the two main parties is to manage this temptation for revenge.”
This is Hasina’s second stint at the premiership after ruling between 1996 and 2001.
Hasina, whose secular Awami League party won 230 out of a possible 300 seats in parliament, has indicated she wants to end the confrontational politics that has crippled the country in the past.
But analysts say the real test is yet to come.
“There is a danger with any government that has an absolute majority,” said Manzoor Hasan, director of BRAC University’s Institute of Governance Studies in Dhaka.
“The possibility is that it will steamroll the opposition and do whatever it wants to do.”
Unlike previous elections, the December 29 polls were largely peaceful, but police say there have been four election-related deaths since then, with media reporting at least 11 dead.
“If the violence spins out of control, the military could step in again and it is unlikely to do another softly-softly state of emergency. Martial law is more likely next time,” Shaikh said.
The last government, which ruled with a state of emergency in place for 23 months, tried but failed to exile Hasina and her bitter rival, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader and ex-premier Khaleda Zia, instead jailing them for a year on corruption charges then releasing them to take part in the elections.
Zia’s party won just 29 seats in last month’s vote.
Since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladeshi politics has been marked by nationwide strikes called by political leaders, boycotts of parliament by opposition parties and widespread corruption.
Shaikh said the BNP’s seats in parliament did not accurately reflect its support base, after it won 32 percent of the popular vote, compared to the Awami League’s 48 percent.
“The BNP represents a lot of Bangladeshis, about 26 million voters,” he said.
“Sheikh Hasina has made the right noises about reaching out to the opposition but that’s different from actually doing it. For all the graciousness we’ve seen there is still a lot of bitterness.”
Zia won the previous election in 2001 with a two-thirds majority by forming an alliance with the then increasingly popular Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
But that union cost her enormously in the latest vote after JI’s increasingly conservative voice in the moderate Muslim-majority nation alienated younger voters, according to commentators.
The JI won 17 seats in 2001 but managed just two this time.
Zia, who initially rejected the election results, has said she will work with the new government, but stands by allegations of voter fraud.
“The initial statements have been very positive but will they carry on being magnanimous? The fact that Sheikh Hasina won by such a big margin, that has gone to politicians’ heads before in Bangladesh,” Gareth Price, head of the Asia programme at British-based think-tank Chatham House, said.
“It’s just waiting and hoping that lessons have been learnt and that mistakes by the opposition and the government won’t be repeated.”