Khaleda Zia has publicly rejected the election results as celebrated by media yesterday, where the Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina won in a landslide. The party now has over 283 seats out of 300- the largest majority in the parliament since 1973. Keeping in mind that both women have been arrested on corruption charges, and both parties have been notorious in such controversies since the birth of the nation 37 years ago, obtaining truth in any matters relating to elections in Bangladesh is not absolute (Zia stated: “We are collecting details of more irregularities and will give them to the media and appropriate authorities over next few days,”). Nevertheless, the photos of lines of voters extending miles making it the largest turnout in history, is telling.
The past two days has been a television marathon in most Bangladeshi households, both in the country and outside of it, people like my parents following it obsessively like I have in this year’s historic U.S. election on campus. In Jubail, Saudi Arabia, there have been election parties downtown where many Bangladeshi laborers who have left the country have gathered together to watch the historic change from two years of military-backed rule. While American citizens, the amount of nationalism my parents have for their original roots was proven this week.
I went to one of the malls today here in the Royal Commission in Jubail where my mother is familiar with many of the shopkeepers who happened to be Bangladeshi or Indian. Many have been here for decades, others for a few years, all migrants. Some who came with prospects for sharing some of the Gulf wealth but instead were put on twelve hour shifts at boutiques or restaurants. Many are married and see their family once every two years, many less.
At one of the stores in the makeup section, we were talking to one gentleman who told us that he had to move to Saudi Arabia five years ago for political reasons. He had to drop out of Dhaka University in his final year because of his affiliations and actions against the government at the time, and had no choice but to run away. His mother refused to speak to him afterward. This was someone who had attended the best university in the country, full of potential. And now he was working as a store manager, learning Arabic and Hindi within the first year that has allowed him to move up the ranks quickly. He dreams of returning, giving us an ironic smile as he doubted that situations would change in the country even after this election.
In all the stores we went, my mother’s random familiar clerks would greet her and ask about elections. An Indian man from Kerela congratulated us at a handbag’s boutique. That was all they would talk about. More Bangladeshis my mother knew gave us ridiculous discounts in honor of the elections. I met another man who was probably in his late twenties at a cookware store- another manager- who had also had to escape Bangladesh few years ago because he was black listed, as he termed it. He went to Victoria College and was part of the opposition governmental voice. Before anything serious happened he decided to move to Saudi Arabia. He told us this while wrapping our purchase beautifully in paper- a skill he learned by watching because he “had to”- all the while exclaiming how proud he was of Bangladesh. A former political science major who had once secured a job in the export/import business in Dhaka, he also exclaimed his extreme boredom.
Foreign newspapers have called the election a “return to democracy”- this is yet to be seen, especially since Zia has yet to accept the result. What is democratic are the many Bangladeshis that have turned out to vote in what was a festive atmosphere around the country in one of its coldest days- a feat that cannot even be promised in the United States that prides in its democratic history and yet has a historical voter turnout that rarely exceeds 50%. It is a promising atmosphere that has been missing. And an atmosphere whose effects can be felt around the world for the millions of Bangladeshi migrants who more than ever can hope for change.