From East, and West, birth of new hope

EAST Ham MP Stephen Timms, this week discusses the elections in the USA and Bangladesh, in his exclusive Recorder column. He writes: WE have all been taken up in the excitement of the US elections. For almost a year, candidates battled it out to become the 44th Presi

EAST Ham MP Stephen Timms, this week discusses the elections in the USA and Bangladesh, in his exclusive Recorder column.

He writes:

WE have all been taken up in the excitement of the US elections. For almost a year, candidates battled it out to become the 44th President of the United States - and for the first time, the election of a woman or a black President was a serious possibility. We all sensed the unmistakable optimism as Barack Obama was sworn in to office a couple of weeks ago.

Obama's election has already changed the tone of world politics for the better. But the 2008 election was also a triumph for democracy. Apathy and cynicism gave way to idealism and hope, and turnout surged.


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Less noticed, but just as important to many in Newham, were December's elections in Bangladesh. As in the USA, a successful election has ushered in a new optimism, and raised the spirits of everyone who wishes Bangladesh well.

Since 1991, power in Bangladesh has alternated between parties led by two women: Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, daughter of the man who led Bangladesh to independence from Pakistan, and Prime Minister between 1996 and 2001; and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, daughter of another early national leader, who was Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996 and 2001 to 2006. I met both when I was in Bangladesh in 2006, and Sheikh Hasina came to see me in East Ham when she visited the UK subsequently.

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In Bangladesh, before an election is called, the outgoing government hands over to a temporary caretaker government, which then runs the election.

When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's term of office expired in October 2006, the party handed over to a caretaker government.

Violent clashes followed, and the Awami League complained that the elections - scheduled for January - would not be free and fair. Many feared for the future of Bangladesh.

In January 2007 a state of emergency was declared, and the caretaker government ruled for almost two years, with military-backing.

There were complaints when leading politicians, businessmen and civil servants - including both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina - were arrested, political activity restricted, and parties banned from holding meetings.

But there was also a major crackdown on corruption. A huge effort was made to compile a reliable voter register, to ensure that future elections would be fair.

In December, the election was finally held - Bangladesh's first since 2001. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina led the two main coalitions. There were high levels of security to ensure polling was peaceful - which it was. As in the US, turnout was very high, with polling stations forced to stay open late to cope with long queues.

The Awami League won a convincing victory, securing the country's largest parliamentary majority since 1979. I have written to Sheikh Hasina to congratulate her on victory, and to wish the new government well.

Coupled with impressive economic growth, the success of Bangladesh's election has ushered in new hope for the country's future. It has proved a triumph for democracy, and set a great example to the rest of the world.

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