Sunday's parliamentary election in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country of 155 million, was a debacle. Due to a boycott by the main opposition coalition, voter turnout was visibly low and more than half the seats were won uncontested. Independent candidates made accusations of fraud and ballot box stuffing. While previous elections in Bangladesh had been closely observed and endorsed by the international community, the current round had only neighboring India and Bhutan sending token monitoring teams. Even within the ranks of the ruling coalition, many politicians remain in campaign mode, expecting another election in the coming months.
At face value, the election fiasco is the result of a dispute between the two parties that have dominated Bangladesh's political life for decades. The Awami League, currently in power, is led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh's charismatic first leader. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is led by Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of former president and war hero Ziaur Rahman. But in fact, the discord runs far deeper, with two opposing visions of the nation and two dueling readings of its history.
At its core, the conflict is about Bangladesh's complex relation with India. For most supporters of the Awami League, India is a mostly reliable neighbor and regional superpower with which Bangladesh should be better aligned on development and secular democratic politics and against radicalism. In the BNP's vision, India is an overbearing hegemon seeking to fence Bangladesh in and make it a captive market.
This debate is related to a more fundamental difference. In the Awami League's reading, Islamism denies Bangladesh a level of tolerance and openness that is innate to Bengali culture. According to the BNP, a romantic Bengali elite is attempting to dilute Bangladesh's religious identity as a majority Muslim society. Many Bangladeshis, perhaps even most, see no conflict between the interlaced Bengali and Muslim facets of their heritage. And many view the exploitation of such identity politics with cynicism - a diversion from the endemic problems of governance, corruption, and environmental decay that constitute genuine existential threats to their nation.
The burdens of the past also weigh heavily on Bangladesh's consciousness. The country was born in tragedy. On account of its Muslim majority, it became the eastern wing of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947, separated from its western counterpart by both geography and culture. The election of the charismatic East Pakistani politician Mujibur Rahman as prime minister of Pakistan in 1970 resulted in a coup by the Pakistani military. Mujib's secular socialist Awami League was thus transformed into a national liberation movement, at war with the military and its local supporters, including non-Bengali East Pakistanis (or "Biharis") and Islamists who viewed the independence struggle as an Indian-induced attempt at breaking up Pakistan.