Bangladesh Elections at Crossroads of Autocracy and Democracy – With Nepal References

IFES; Women Against Violence in Elections in Bangladesh

Hari Prasad Shrestha    30 July 2018

An election is a formal collective decision-making procedure by which people choose a candidate to hold public office. Elections have been a reliable mechanism for modern representative democracy.
In several countries with the weak rule of law, the primary cause why elections do not meet international standards of being “free and fair” is interference from the government. Absolute rulers may use the influences of the executive to remain in power despite popular opinion in favor of removal.

Elections are the foundation of democracy. If the foundation is weak and an election may be legally correct, but if it lacks moral and social acceptance, then the entire process loses its credibility.

Two party politics

Bangladesh and Nepal – both countries’ politics are divided between two major political parties. In Bangladesh, two largest parties are – the Awami League, currently in power, headed by Begum Sheikh Hasina, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Begum Khaleda Zia. Widely known as the “Battling Begums”; the two women have governed Bangladesh as prime ministers since 1991.
Similarly, in Nepal two largest parties are – the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), currently in power, headed by K.P. Sharma Oli, and the Nepali Congress, led by Sher Bahadur Deuba.

Both are neighbor, and peripheral countries of India and its influences on both the countries are based on the nature of the governments and peoples’ feelings. Awami League and Nepali Congress are said to be all weather friends of India compared to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

The constituent assembly adopted Bangladesh’s constitution on 4 November 1972, establishing a secular, multiparty parliamentary democracy. The Constitution of Bangladesh established a unitary, Westminster-style parliamentary republic with universal suffrage. Bangladesh is governed by a 350-member parliament, known as the Jatiyo Sangshad. Three hundred of its members are elected on a first past the post basis, and 50 seats are reserved for female nominees by political parties.

Likewise, the Constitution of Nepal 2015 defines it as an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialist-oriented, federal democratic republican state. According to the constitution, Nepal has a two-chamber Parliament. The House of Representatives has 275 members elected for a five-year term, 165 from single-seat constituencies and 110 from a proportional party list. The National Assembly has 59 members elected for six years term. Among the 59 members, three members are nominated by the President. The remaining 56 are elected from 7 provinces equally (Eight each) including three female 1 Dalits and one from differently-abled groups.

After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Nepal passed through Maoist insurgency, fight for power, Madhesh agitation, corruption, excess external influences, unstable government, centralized development and misuse of power. After promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, all party participated in free and fair general election of 2017 and two-thirds majority government formed in 2017. Majority of people in Nepal are, somehow optimistic towards political stability, the rule of law, prosperity and balanced relationship with both the giant neighbors – India and China.

Although, both country’s governments have been formed through elections but resemble a giant single-party rule, and the government functions without strong opposition. In Nepal, the Nepali Congress (NC), the main opposition party is small and not very strong opposition inside the parliament, and in Bangladesh after boycotting 2014 general election, the main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is absent in the parliament. In such a situation, if the government goes on a challenging track, it becomes impossible to check and balance it.

Which way now?

Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation published its “Transformation Index 2018 (BTI),” and 58 out of 129 developing nations have been rated as autocracies. Bangladesh, Lebanon, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Uganda are considered by Bertelsmann to be “new” autocracies.

Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League Party has rejected the study as baseless. However, the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), claimed that the report reflects the true nature of Bangladesh’s current political climate.

Since independence in 1971, Bangladesh holds elections regularly, but it is suffering from corruption, lack of press freedom, enforced disappearances, violent protests, military rule, elected dictatorships, poorly working checks and balances, and many opposition boycotts. Some experts say whether this country is moving towards the similar path of some of the sub-Sahara countries’ model of elections – by influencing and maneuvering systems and subsystems of the state to win the elections.

Among two major political parties of Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) is the country’s current governing party, after winning a majority in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The party under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, led the struggle for independence, first through massive populist and civil disobedience movements, such as the Six Point Movement and 1971 Non-Cooperation Movement, and then during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
After the emergence of independent Bangladesh, the Awami League won the first general elections in 1973 but was overthrown in 1975 after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Subsequent military regimes forced the party onto the political sidelines, and many of its senior leaders and activists were executed and jailed. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the Awami League emerged as one of the principal players of Bangladeshi politics.

Amongst the leaders of the Awami League, five have become the President of Bangladesh, four have become the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and one became the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has headed the party since 1981.
Another major political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was founded on 1 September 1978 by former Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman after the Presidential election of 1978, intending to uniting the people with a nationalist ideology of the country. Since then, the BNP won the second, fifth, sixth and eighth national elections and two Presidential elections in 1978 and 1981. The party also holds the record of being the most significant opposition in the history of parliamentary elections of the country, with 116 seats in the seventh national election of June 1996. It does not currently have representation in parliament after its boycotting the 2014 national election. However, it controls the Comilla City Corporation, Barisal City Corporation, Rajshahi City Corporation, Sylhet City Corporation or a total of 4 out of the 12 city Corporations.

The Sixth National Parliamentary Elections held on 15th February 1996, and the Eleventh Elections held on of 5th January 2014 in Bangladesh created an environment of controversy and political upheaval in national politics.

Awami league boycotted the 15 February 1996 election, and Bangladesh Nationalist Party won 300 of the 300 elected seats. Khaleda Zia re-elected as prime minister. The voters’ turnout was 21% in the election.
In March 1996, ensuing rising political turmoil, the Parliament passed the thirteenth constitutional amendment to agree a neutral caretaker government conducts new parliamentary elections; former Chief Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman was named Chief Advisor (equivalent to Prime Minister) in the interim government. New parliamentary elections were held in June 1996 and were won by the Awami League, and Sheikh Hasina became the Prime Minister.

Incidents of election boycotts

Similar election of 15 February 1996 boycotted by the Awami League, the national parliamentary elections of 5 January 2014 was boycotted by Bangladesh Nationalist Party and other opposition parties.

In general, boycotting may be used as a form of political protest where voters feel that electoral fraud is likely, or that the electoral system is biased against its candidates, that the polity organizing the election lacks legitimacy, or that the candidates running are very unpopular.

In general elections, individuals and parties will often boycott to protest the ruling party’s policies with the hope that when voters do not show up the elections will be deemed illegitimate by outside observers.
Oppositions in following countries had boycotted general election in different periods. However, two times election boycotts in Bangladesh tops the lists.

In November 1961 the opposition in Portugal withdrew from the coming parliamentary elections and urged citizens not to vote, to avoid the false appearance of a fair election.

In Uganda, in April 1962, the rulers of Ankole, Bunyoro, Toro, and Busoga threatened election boycotts to gain full federal status for their territories.

That same month all major opposition parties boycotted the federal elections of the Central African Federation (also called the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), as part of their eventually successful campaign for the federation’s breakup.

In April 1962 the opposition party in El Salvador refused to take part in the presidential election, declaring that the election of 1961 had been fraudulent: the government’s candidates had won all seats.
Militant Vietnamese Buddhist leaders in mid-August 1966 called on their followers not to vote in the election of a constitutional assembly on September 11, charging that the Ky government was trying to exploit the election in order “to form a dictatorial régime to serve foreign interests.”

 

As Khaleda’s BNP party did not participate in the 2014 elections, Awami League’s candidates declared victors in 154 of the 300 uncontested seats by avoidance in Bangladesh. And the remaining uncontested seats, the Jatiya Party led by Rowshan Ershad won 20; the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal won three, the Workers Party won two, and the Jatiya Party (Manju) won one. The voters’ turnout was 22% in the election; it means more than 50 percent of the voters have not voted to choose their representatives.

The primary reason given by the BNP for not contesting the 2014 elections was the abrogation by the Awami League-led government in 2011 of a constitutional provision enacted in 1998 that allowed for a caretaker government to take the reins of the state in the run-up to the elections. The caretaker government was meant to ensure free and fair elections, this provision of the constitution scrapped by two-thirds majority government of the Awami League. In the name of the two-thirds majority, the scrapping of constitution provision of caretaker government by Awami League was the primary cause of an election boycott by the BNP.

At least 18 people died in election day violence after security forces fired on protesters and opposition activists torched over 100 voting centers. In total 21 people died on the day, and about 400 voting centers were disrupted.

Before the election, the government restricted opposition broadcasting. In 2013, ruling Awami League shut down TV stations and detained a prominent newspaper editor. The government said the measure was necessary to curb violence, but opposition saw this as politically motivated. Because of violence and the opposition boycott voter turnout was 22%.

The United States, United Kingdom, European Union and the United Nations criticized the election.

Forthcoming election

The next elections for the Bangladesh Parliament, the countdown will begin from October 10, 2018, which are to be held no later than 28 January 2019. The upcoming general elections seem to be an excellent challenge for the long-term stability of Bangladesh. Whether the parties who boycotted the 2014 general election would take part in the forthcoming general election even after barring Khaleda Zia to contest in the election? Besides, 2018 is the very crucial year as a lot of debate and discussion is going on concerning the upcoming national elections. Will the history of 2014 be repeated? Or will all the parties happily participate in this election?

The Special Court decision of 8th February 2018 handed a five-year sentence to Khaleda Zia in connection with graft and is barred from contesting the elections to be held before 28 January 2019. BNP’s expectations to come back to power in 2019 had again dimmed by this decision. However, the Supreme Court has granted her not to arrest for four months.

Bangladesh has gone through the devastating experience of millions died during the liberation movement in 1971. It has also gone through long military rules, selection of parliament members in the name of elections and dynasty rules. More rigidity from both the sides could escalate unexpected violence, and it would not be surprised if politics goes out of the politicians?

While the BNP claims to be the protector of Bangladeshi nationalism, the AL has tried to depict itself as the only player and guardian of Bangladesh’s liberation.
Due to current political tension, violent escalation would be detrimental to political stability and economic development in Bangladesh. Its tremendous progress in the economy would be derailed, and the scale of rural poverty would increase if political crisis continues for a more extended period.

Consensus for stability

Nepal also has bitter experiences of the violent insurgency of Maoist and agitation in Madhesh. Thanks to the long-term political vision of all political parties, it successfully arrived in this juncture of peace and stability through political consensus by promulgating a new constitution and conducting general elections with the participation of all political parties, who earlier boycotted the polls. However, it must go a long way to be economically prosperous.

The 2017 election of a federal parliament and the provincial assemblies expected the end of political transition and beginning of stability and economic development in Nepal. Political revolution completed and there are challenges ahead for speedy economic prosperity.

Following a decade-long Maoist insurgency (1996-2005) and the peace process that followed it, Nepal elected political representatives at all three levels of government: the local election held in three phases, followed by an election for seven provincial assemblies, and the lower house of federal parliament in 2017.

The elections have revealed three priorities for the Nepali electorate: the search for political stability and peace, the demand for fast and comprehensive development and assertion against India.
The much contentious issues resolved during the writing of Nepal’s Constitution 2015 and the elections in 2017 based on the consensus of all major political parties.

Even though Nepal is economically impoverished, but the distribution of national resources are comparatively fair. The education, health, social awareness, women and marginalized employment and participation in domestic affairs percentages are among highest in South Asia, which we can observe not only in urban areas but also in its rural areas.

After the restoration of democracy in 1990, Nepal has witnessed all general elections free and fair, up to great extends. There is no record of election boycotts even after the violent demonstration, dissatisfaction among the minorities. All ethnic groups have been given proportional representation in the parliament based on their population structures.

According to the House of Representatives Members Election Act, 2017, State Assembly Member Election Act, 2017, 50 percent women should be selected and nominated in the PR system, and the political parties must ensure 33 percent women reservation in the total number of Federal Parliament members including women from all castes and ethnic groups. The Acts have allocated 31 percent reservation for Brahmin-Kshetri (Khas-Arya), 29.7 percent for indigenous people, 15.3 percent for the Madhesi community, 13.8 percent for Dalits, 6.6 percent for Tharus and 4.4 percent for the Muslims.

For the provincial proportional representation, in the provincial parliament, the percentage for different religious and ethnic groups have been determined based on some population of each group in the province.

In local level government, local level election bill of Nepal makes it mandatory to field the candidacy of at least one woman either for the post of chief or deputy chief at village councils, municipalities and district coordination committees. The bill also includes a mandatory provision on electing at least one Dalit woman in the post of ward committee member. Likewise, the local poll bill has reserved four seats for women and two seats for candidates hailing from the Dalit or marginalized communities in the village councils. In the case of a municipality, five seats have been reserved for women and three for Dalits or the marginalized, while the number is at least three in the event of the district coordination committee.

Even after constitution promulgation in 2015, there were significant hindrances to its implementation. The Nepal India border blockade, India’s dissatisfaction in constitution and Madhesh agitation were significant challenges to implement the constitution. According to the constitution, it was mandatory to hold all elections – local, provincial and federal before 21 Jan 2018. Otherwise, a constitution vacuum would have been created automatically; it was a perilous and challenging situation for Nepal. At the last moment, due to changing regional political scenario and foresightedness of major political parties, the government decided to hold all level of elections, and the county started to move on the right track for constitution implementation and political stability.

Way forward

In Bangladesh, all political parties should be severe in settling political deadlock of boycotting elections. The opposition should not overestimate their street power, and the government should also not underestimate by undermining oppositions. Moreover, the constructive role of all national stakeholders including the judiciary could bring the distorted politics on the right track.

The prospects for political compromise are rapidly diminishing, as political battle outlines turn out to be continually more deep-rooted. Therefore, political parties must have the political will to give a stable election system. A middle way, acceptable to all parties must be sorted out to save the country from being more violent and extremist expansions. It is about time to strengthen democratic institutions through a national consensus if failed Bangladesh could be the new long-lasting epicenter of violation and conflict in South Asia region and could end the two-party system here?

The political parties should avoid the hate campaign against each other and they must start practice also inner-party democracy and should be attentive to peoples’ aspirations for a representative democratic system in which every voter- oppositions, minorities including Hindus could proudly participate in voting. Moreover, there is a need to ponder and evolve a measure to find a permanent solution to the disputed issue of election time government.

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