DHAKA: To her supporters, she remains Bangladesh’s “Daughter of Democracy”. But by forging ahead with a one-party election, opponents say Sheikh Hasina has killed off political pluralism in the fledgling nation.
The 66-year-old premier, daughter of the nation’s founder, is certain to win a new five-year term when Bangladesh held its 10th election yesterday without any of her opponents standing.
By pushing on with the polls despite widespread pressure, Hasina has shown the iron will which helped her survive assassination attempts and the trauma of her family’s massacre by disgruntled army officers.
She has also served time in prison under an army-backed government on murder and graft charges that were ultimately dropped. But having risked her life to ensure the restoration of democracy in the 1980s and when arch rival Khaleda Zia tried to rig a 1996 election, Hasina now stands accused of overseeing a sham contest.
The election comes after a second term as premier defined by her decision to launch trials against the powerful Islamist opposition over crimes committed during the 1971 independence war.
The Islamists were allied with the regime in Islamabad during the conflict which saw the then East Pakistan break away after a nine-month war.
Her opponents also branded the war crimes trials as a farce, saying they were a politically motivated exercise designed to silence her opponents.
The 18 Islamists who are either still on trial or have been convicted include several senior figures in Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party which Hasina has banned.
Two were members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition.
Instead of healing the wounds of war, the trials have triggered mass protests and clashes.
She showed similar resolve in rejecting opposition demands to stand aside and let a neutral caretaker government to oversee the election.
Ironically it was Hasina who forced Zia to introduce the caretaker system after the BNP rigged a 1996 election win.
She was at the vanguard of protests at that time which forced her nemesis to step down less than two months later and allow a caretaker regime to organise new polls which Hasina won.
But in 2011, Hasina forced through a constitutional amendment which scrapped the caretaker system in favour of an interim government which she would go on to head.
“Her decision to remove the election time caretaker government provisions from the constitution must surely be one of the most reckless and thoughtless in the country’s recent history,” political commentator David Bergman wrote in his blog.
During her first term, she struggled to emerge from the shadow of her father, the assassinated president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Rahman led Bangladesh in its liberation struggle against Pakistan, which was triggered by Islambad’s refusal to recognise the Awami League’s 1970 election win.
But he sullied his democratic credentials in 1975 when he introduced a one-party system after a massive slide in his popularity.
Hasina and her sister were abroad on August 15, 1975, when a group of renegade officers opened fire at the family’s Dhaka home, wiping out the president, his wife and three sons.
She returned from exile in India in 1981 to take over as Awami League leader, beginning a long struggle to restore democracy.
In 1990, she joined forces with Zia’s BNP to help oust dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad.
But their alliance soon soured and their enmity has been played out on the streets for the last two decades.
In Aug 2004, she survived an attempt on her life at a rally in a grenade attack she said was orchestrated by Zia’s son.
More than 20 people died and she suffered hearing loss from which she has never recovered.
The two women, known as the “Battling Begums”, were jailed in 2007 as part of a corruption crackdown by a military government which had taken power in a coup.
They were both freed to take part in the December 2008 polls, which Hasina won by a landslide.—AFP