January 02, 2019 Maaz Hussain
While Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is preparing to form a government for a record third consecutive term, her party’s landslide win in Sunday’s general elections has been tainted by violence and allegations of vote-rigging.
After reports began piling up of alleged manipulation of votes and voters, as well as reports of opposition party polling agents not being allowed to enter voting centers by ruling party supporters, the Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF), the largest opposition alliance, has called for Sunday’s election to be declared null and void.
JOF chairman Kamal Hossain said a “vote robbery” had taken place across the country.
“We reject the reported results of this farcical election and are calling for a fresh election under a nonpartisan government,” Hossain said.
The election authority, however, rejected the accusation of vote-rigging and said Sunday’s polling would stand.
‘Cannot conduct another…election’
“Across the country, huge number(s) of people enthusiastically took part in the election in a peaceful environment. The 30 December polling has now made way to the formation of a new government. … No, we cannot conduct another fresh election now. This is no way possible at all,” said Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner, Nurul Huda.
After the Awami League (AL) and its allies won 288 of the 300 parliamentary seats in Sunday’s polling, the election commission said the ruling party would form the government. The main opposition alliance of JOF won six seats.
The country’s first contested election in a decade has been marred by weeks of violence, allegedly unleashed by ruling party supporters, a mass arrest of opposition party leaders and activists, and the deaths of at least 17 people on Sunday.
The government had promised the election would be free, fair and all-inclusive. Weeks before the election, however, opposition party candidates began reporting attacks by supporters of the ruling Awami League party.
Opposition candidates filed hundreds of complaints with election authorities, alleging ruling party supporters were not allowing them to carry out their campaigns.
Video clips, which claimed to show AL leaders violently threatening opposition party supporters to stay away from polling places, circulated in social media during the run-up to Sunday’s election.
Allegations of intimidation
The opposition alliance alleged tens of thousands of its polling agents, intimidated by ruling party activists, were forced to stay away from polling stations around the country Sunday.
The alliance also alleged that in the presence of election and security officials, Awami League polling agents and supporters illegally stuffed ballot boxes at many voting centers. One JOF candidate reported that he witnessed AL activists stuffing ballots at a voting center in his constituency. His claim could not be independently verified.
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir claimed Sunday’s election was massively rigged by the Awami League and the rigging began starting Saturday evening. BNP, the largest opposition party in Bangladesh, is a member of the JOF alliance.
“We were reported (on Saturday night) that police had entered different voting centers, accompanied by Awami League leaders and activists, before leaving the place after half or one hour. In the presence of the election officials, they stuffed the ballot boxes during the night,” Alamgir said.
Senior AL leader Mahbubul Alam Hanif said the charge of rigging was baseless.
“Can they present any evidence of rigging? Can they show any evidence of any booth being captured by force or some people casting votes fraudulently? They cannot present any evidence in support of their charge. Yet, they are claiming that votes have been rigged,” Hanif told VOA.
Despite Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner saying no to new elections, JOF chairman Hossain said Tuesday that his alliance would submit a memorandum to the election commission Thursday, calling for a fresh election.
In a statement Tuesday, the European Union said that “Violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the process and have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote.” The EU called for “a proper examination of allegations of irregularities.”
Forming new government
Yet AL is also preparing to form the new government, with winning candidates taking their parliamentary oaths on Thursday. An official noted the process would be completed by January 10.
After declaring victory, Hasina said in an address that her aim is to work for the “welfare of the people” of Bangladesh.
“(Victory in) this election has given me a chance to work for the country for five more years. … I am thankful to all for this,” she said.
Despite the pace of forming a new government, many rights issue groups say the allegations of vote-rigging cannot be ignored.
Iftekharuzzaman (who uses one name), executive director of anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh, called for a judicial probe over the reported cases of rigging in Sunday’s election.
“Conduct of fair probe of such incidents by the EC to determine its deficit and making this public are essential in our view,” Iftekharuzzaman told VOA.
“In addition, ensuring justice through a judicial probe of the allegations of immense value for the credibility, self-confidence and public trust in the government, that is being formed in the wake of an unprecedented outcome of an unprecedented election,” he added.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of the international rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said reports that people were not allowed to vote as they wished is a very serious allegation.
“Some were told, inside the polling booth, to vote in a particular manner; others were excluded from voting itself. These are all very serious allegations and the opposition is already calling for a re-poll, and the government must address all these concerns as soon as possible,” Ganguly told VOA. “The international community cannot ignore these allegations and should take them seriously.”