Bangladesh: How safe is the current Awami League government?


Why hold a free and fair election which you risk losing, when you can rig it to ensure certain victory, and get away with it? 

This was clearly in the mind of the Awami League in Bangladesh which three weeks ago won 293 of the 300 parliamentary seats in what must be the country’s most rigged national elections as the party won its third consecutive term in power. This weekend, Sheikh Hasina organised a victory rally in Dhaka where she told her supporters, “Please remember, retaining victory is harder than earning it.”

In the fifteen years between 1996 and 2009, Bangladesh’s three national elections, though violent, were relatively fair, resulting each time in a change in government. This had nothing to do with the just disposition of the country’s politicians but because three months before each election a neutral caretaker government took over power and ensured a level playing field.

In 2011, however, through a constitutional amendment, the Awami League government, newly in power, ditched the arrangement (which, ironically back in 1996 it had originally campaigned for), claiming that political governments like its own could now hold free and fair elections. The Awami League’s decision was widely unpopular at the time and the opposition boycotted the 2014 election, fearing voter manipulation – however, as a result the Awami League returned to power uncontested, with the party’s contention that it could hold free and fair elections remaining untested.

However, with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party deciding this time to take part in the December polls as part of a National United Front with a number of smaller parties, we found out the answer. 

This was not just ordinary rigging – it was systemic and systematic involving corruption at every level of the state including the election commission, presiding poll officers, the police and the army. 

The Awami League had started the rigging weeks before the electionwith widespread arbitrary arrests of activists from the opposition parties and steps taken to stop their campaigning. The control of the ruling party was so absolute that the capital city of Dhaka looked like it was hosting an Awami League festival as opposition posters, banners and festoons were effectively banned.

In Bangladesh, though, elections are won through the control of polling centres and this is what the Awami League did on the day of the vote using the police, army and ruling party activists. As leaked documents showed, “core Awami League” presiding officers were put in polling centres, and “strict policing” was organised to ensure “slow casting” of votes. This stopped opposition supporters from voting and allowed thewide spread stuffing of ballot boxes (which also reportedly took place the night before the vote). 

One might think you can get an indication of the extent of ballot stuffing by comparing the average 80% voting levels found in the 294 constituencies which used paper ballots (where stuffing was possible)with the average 50% voting levels in the six constituencies which used voting machines (where stuffing was not an option.) This suggests that there was on average at least 30 percent of votes which were the result of stuffing (or just made up).

However, one can’t in any way depend on the voting machine levels to be accurate – since the Election Commission gave assistant presiding officers an extraordinary power, the ability to use their own finger prints to vote on behalf of 25 percent of voters in their polling station

The voting levels of opposition candidates in some polling centres were so small – for example in the constituency of Barisal-1 where the opposition candidate received 0 votes in 26 centres, 1 vote in 9 centres and less than 10 votes in 40 centres – that one can only assume that opposition ballots must either have been removed from the boxes, or were simply not counted.

All of this polling booth rigging could only occur because the opposition polling agents were prevented from being present at polling stations during the vote and the count, as is required by electoral law.

In most countries, the government would not get away with this. But the Awami League has been in power now for ten years and in that period has decimated the opposition though arrests, extra-judicial killings anddisappearances, put in place partisan Awami Leaguers to run just about every state, law enforcement and judicial institution, and have a hugely restricted the independent media.

As a result, those who would want to protest the rigging do so at great peril. Just about the only independent organization who has risked publishing a report on the election, was immediately threatened with a government investigation.

However, state repression does not fully explain the lack of protests of ordinary people.

Whilst most people in Bangladesh are well aware of the rigging, they have little positive incentive to put themselves in any kind of jeopardy on behalf of the principle opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Whilst the Awami League has a clear political narrative linked to its role in the 1971 war of independence, and the idea of implementing the “spirit of liberation”, the BNP has no winning alternative narrative or policy programme. Moreover, it remains linked to the country’s main islamist political party (the Jamaat-e-Islami), was widely corrupt when it was last in power between 2001 and 2006, and has a history of involvement in violent protests. 

Whilst the BNP does of course have its loyal supporters, the main reason why many people vote for the party is due to their dislike of the Awami League – not for anything positive that the BNP could offer. And whilst this might have been enough for it to have won a free and fair election now (though polls, which many disbelieve, suggestedotherwise), it is certainly not enough to bring people out on the streets in its support.

The lack of any positive alternative helps explain why the United States and Western countries, which have criticised the elections, are unlikely to take much action against the Awami League government. And with Indian and Chinese support for the new Bangladesh government, Western pressure is far less relevant than it has ever been before.

There is therefore no immediate threat to Sheikh Hasina’s premiership – though the rigged elections does create a certain brittleness to her party’s control in the country.

Hasina’s main claim to legitimacy is a booming economy with between 6 to 7 percent growth, but she will not only have to maintain this in the future but also create millions of jobs for the over two million young people who come onto the job market each year. This will not be easy in an economy with decreasing private investment and an education system where most students finish without employable skills. If the economy does not create tens of thousands of new jobs, it could find itself with serious problems. 

The banking sector is also in real jeopardy. Awami League’s business cronies have been allowed to take over private banks and take out huge loans that they will never pay back. Officially over 10 percent of all banking loans in the private and state sector are said to be non-performing, though the actual figure is thought to be closer to 20 percent as corrupt banks allow defaulters to reschedule their loans. It is perhaps a matter of time before one or more of the banks collapses – and this could cause significant public disruption.

So even though it certainly appears that the new Awami League government is unassailable, the government will remain fearful that discontent could trigger wide public protests. That is why we will see the government continuing to take action to dismantle the two main opposition parties the BNP the Jamaat-e-islami and come down heavily on media criticism.

So whilst Bangladesh moves further towards an authoritarianism, which strips away any pretence of independent judicial or state institutions, the Awami League government is under no threat, and the streets are peaceful. However, with anti-Awami League sentiment remaining strong, the lack of any electoral legitimacy does makes it vulnerable in future crises. Yet, the government is likely to remain safe until the opposition to the Awami League can turn itself into a positive alternative which people can believe in and are willing to fight for.

The article appeared in the Bangladesh Politico on Tuesday, January 22, 2019

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