Bangladesh rising

Something spectacular happened in a small corner of the world on Tuesday. After two years of military-backed rule, a free, fair, incident-free election was held in Bangladesh, with decisive results: a record voter turnout routed the incumbent party in favour of a secular, progressive alliance.

"Two ladies" is the phrase commonly attached to the leaders of Bangladesh's main political parties: Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League - both women, one the widow of a former president, the other the daughter of Sheikh Mujib, leader of the independence movement and first prime minister of Bangladesh.

But lumping the leaders together and calling them the "two ladies" is not just misogynistic and patronising but seriously misleading. There is a real difference between the parties, one that is not only crucial to understanding the internal politics of Bangladesh, but also sheds light on the rise and fall of religious fundamentalism in the world's second largest Muslim nation.

The BNP were at the helm of power in the last electoral cycle. During this time, Khaleda Zia promoted cronies to high positions of power, corrupted the courts with political appointments, and oversaw the theft of government funds on an unprecedented level. In 2007, the party orchestrated a coordinated effort to rig the elections, leading to the army's intervention and two years of military-backed rule.

In this election, the BNP allied themselves with the Jamaat-e-Islami and conducted a campaign of fear-mongering, with slogans decrying the corruption of religious values and predicting a threat to Islam through foreign influence. By contrast, the Awami League ran a campaign that was purposefully secular and progressive. Though no stranger to allegations of corruption, the Awami League cleansed its party of much of the old guard. In the end, it campaigned on a platform of change, promising jobs and economic regeneration. The result was not only victory for the Awami League, but a near annihilation of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

There has been a lot of speculation of late about the direction - political and economic - Bangladesh will take. Will it succumb to Islamic fundamentalism, or will it remain a moderate Islamic country? Will it ever overcome the many obstacles to progress and turn the tide in its favour, or will it remain at the bottom of the charts and development indices, a nation on the brink of failure? When I asked a prominent journalist why the Bangladeshi stock exchange hadn't felt the effects of the global economic downturn, he said: "In order to be drunk, you first have to be invited to the party." In this economic cycle - luckily, it turns out - Bangladesh wasn't invited to the party. But the election results may mean the beginning of a new era of political reform and economic growth.

Bangladesh still has a long way to go. But after all the votes have been counted, this is what remains: in this poor country, where many people cannot read or write, where women are still subject to draconian social and economic realities, where natural disasters strike with brutal regularity, corruption and religious extremism were resolutely routed out. People came by the millions to cast their votes because they knew that on this day, they would have their say. And speak they did, against a regime that had let them down once too many; against leaders who had refused to accept the responsibilities of their offices. Against all odds, Bangladesh is on the move.

Tahmina Anam, the author of A Golden Age.