Rupa Huq writes in Tribune:
WHEN choosing the highlights of 2008, most people I know were unanimous: Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain, with all its associated symbolism, was their favourite pick. The American election galvanised many on this side of the Atlantic as well as in the United States. As a fellow Tribune contributor I met at a public meeting in London on the eve of Obama’s triumph put it: “Of course I’ll be watching. I want to know who’s going to be running our country.”
However, I want to turn to another election in a different part of the globe which may not have received the same wall-to wall media coverage, but still offers hope in its outcome. An elderly, bespectacled sari-clad figure, Sheikh Hasina Wajid may not have the same powerful imagery attached to her as the youthful and iconic Obama, but her dramatic success in Bangladesh’s first elections for seven years may turn out to be just as significant. For a start, an election held in peaceful conditions with no real contestation of the final outcome surprised many. The record turnout has parallels with the scenes witnessed last November of people voting in droves for the man who is now President-elect of the United States.
The politics of Bangladesh have been dominated by dynasties for aeons. While commentators have continually made the claim that the ideological difference between the defeated BNP (that’s the Bangladesh National Party) and the Awami League were fairly negligible and based more on the personalities of the two leaders, the now vanquished Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajid, clear dividing lines did emerge throughout the election campaign. The BNP, always the more right-wing of the two parties, ran in coalition with the religious grouping Jamat Islamia – despite the founding principle of Bangladesh as a secular state. It is interesting that the two leaders are both female in a culture where people invariably assume women are downtrodden specimens chained to the stove. In fact, women in south Asia have been heads of state in India and Sri Lanka, as well as in Pakistan and Bangladesh (twice).
When I went to hear Sheikh Hasina Wajid address a packed lecture theatre at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in May 2007 as part of a lecture series entitled “Democracy and human rights”, she and her BNP counterpart were both in exile. Sheikh Hasina dramatically told her audience: “It’s only by the grace of Allah that I am here.” We were then treated to the frightening details of 19 previous assassination attempts, including a hand grenade incident where party workers had been killed forming a human shield around their leader. All this has taken on a new relevance in the light of the shocking circumstances surrounding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. And one of the curious by-products of the US election aftermath was the moment when bookmaker Paddy Power declared it would no longer be taking bets on how long it would be for Obama to be assassinated.
Bangladesh is a young democracy that is located precariously in terms of its human rights record, electoral history and ability to meet the challenge of climate change. All have been patchy at best. In March last year, I was in Bangladesh as a member of a Foreign Office delegation which was part of the “Engaging with the Islamic World” strand of the FO’s work. The team took in a range of visits to university campuses, broadcasting studios, a rural school in Sylhet backed by the British Council and a voter registration centre on the outskirts of Dhaka. The queues of colourfully-attired women and children waiting patiently in line to be enfranchised were a memorable sight. At the time, it was not known when the election might be or what it might bring. International observers will now attest that the elections of 2008, which were originally due have taken place early 2007, went off remarkably peacefully. The BNP is not seriously disputing the results or, at the time of writing, rioting in the streets – which was feared.
As someone on the outside, I am not really qualified to enter too deeply into the political science of it all. But I can report my observations of how I see Bangladesh shaping up for the future. At that School of Oriental and African Studies meeting the comment: “I’m not pro-Awami League or BNP, I’m just pro-Bangladesh”, got the biggest cheer of the night. It is a common cliché to claim that election results change nothing. Naysayers are already repeating the line in the US. However, after both the US elections which dominated the world’s media and those in Bangladesh, which barely registered in Britain, the prospects look good. Obama has to be better than George W Bush. In Bangladesh, after years of uncertainty and near-paralysis with rule by a caretaker government, things also appear to be on the up. Military rule – something that has often been associated with Bangladeshi politics – is coming to an end. Let’s hope that corruption, which has also sadly been associated with Bangladesh all too often, can be consigned to the past as well. After all, it is a new year and so ambitious resolutions should be the order of the day.