Bangladesh: the people’s republic?

Sabria Chowdhury BallandJanuary 3, 2019

Mockery, death of democracy, dictatorship, authoritarianism – these are amongst a plenitude of other terms that have been used to describe the 11th. parliamentary election in Bangladesh which took place on December 30, 2018. This is not just the perspective of the opposition parties and their supporters. Unless one has been living under a rock in total isolation, the mockery of the word ‘democracy’ was clearly obvious to anyone following the election process.

This process did not just begin on election day. A great deal went into setting the stage, starting from five years back in the last parliamentary election of 2014. The leading opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Mrs Khaleda Zia, in accordance with the constitution of Bangladesh, called for a caretaker government to be put in place during the electoral process. This was so neutrality could be maintained towards both parties and to avoid any bias during the campaigning and voting processes and, most importantly, to ensure that the Election Commission would remain neutral and fair to both parties.

Unfortunately, this did not happen as the ruling party, the Awami League (AL), led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, asserted that there was no need for a caretaker government and that it was very capable of ensuring a fair and credible election. Quite understandably, the BNP decided to boycott the election. Rather than reaching a happy medium through negotiations between the two parties, the election took place, without any leading opposition and the 300 parliamentary seats almost entirely uncontested, went to the AL.

This election (in 2014) was rejected by the vast majority of the Bangladeshi people who felt, rightfully so, that they had been robbed of their right to a fair election. The AL declared itself the uncontested winner. Although Bangladesh has seen undoubtable economic growth with the AL government in power, there has, within many Bangladeshis, always been a rejection of this government which has been seen as an unlawful, self-declared winner in a non-participatory election. Added to this was rampant corruption and the fact that with each passing day, there have been more and more crackdowns on free speech and media, and a witch hunt of the members of the opposition. The lack of an opposition party created a situation with absolutely no checks and balances on the government, which began to govern with a free rein.

Thousands of protests have been brushed off or subdued violently. There was no attention given to even the student protests in August 2018, in which schoolchildren protested peacefully for road safety after two of their counterparts were run over on a sidewalk by a reckless bus driver. The AL government responded by cracking down on the children’s protests with extraordinary violence. Once again, the absence of an opposition party was felt very strongly by the people of Bangladesh, who waited patiently thinking that since the next election was scheduled just four months away, they would be able to vote in the kind of leadership they wanted and needed.

That was not to be. The preparations for the 2018 election were made with strategic precision. A justice of the Supreme Court was insulted and exiled because he opposed the lack of balance of powers, stating that he refused to accept that the executive branch of the government would have superior decision-making powers than the Supreme Court.

Next, the leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia, was found guilty of corruption – and imprisoned. Many believe that the charges were fabricated and or exaggerated and that Mrs Zia, at the age of 73, did not deserve the severe punishment that she received. Needless to say, all her appeals were denied, rendering her incapable of standing in the election.

The BNP, a party widely believed to be shattered with their leader imprisoned and widespread crackdowns on its members, made a stunning comeback just two and a half months before the election. All opposition parties along with the BNP formed an alliance under the umbrella of the newly formed Jatiya Oikya Front (the JOF) headed by one of the most well-respected and renowned legal minds of Bangladesh, Dr Kamal Hossain, who was also instrumental during the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Dr Kamal, as he is lovingly known to Bangladeshis, was chairman of the Bangladesh Constitution Drafting Committee.

With a complete makeover under this new leadership, the JOF promoted freedom of speech, freedom of choice and an absolute turnaround from the oppression, forced disappearances, corruption and extra judicial killings imposed on the people under the ruling party. This was a breath of fresh air not only for supporters of the opposition but also for those who wanted to live freely to exercise their democratic rights and for the youth, many of whom were first time, extremely enthusiastic, voters and who make up one third of the electorate.

However, during the campaigning process, opposition members were slapped with lawsuits, imprisoned, physically attacked, threatened, harassed and their homes or offices torched. They were not allowed to give speeches, hold rallies or distribute flyers and brochures. If any flyers or posters of the opposition were found anywhere in the country, they were torn and thrown away by ruling party sponsored groups, such as its student wings.

The night before the election, ballot papers were stuffed and in the majority of constituencies, irregularities were found. The rigging was clearly facilitated by government agencies, the police, other law-enforcement agencies and most significantly, the election commission officials.

Countless accounts of voting irregularities, many with video footage, are circulating on the news and social media. People were not allowed to vote, anyone voting for the opposition was threatened or beaten up, all opposition polling agents were thrown out of the polling stations, people were told that if they were not intending to vote for the ruling party, they could not vote, several polling stations were closed for several hours for lunch, the media was not allowed into the polling stations, the internet service across the country was turned off, many foreign election observers were not granted visas – the list goes on and on. Many opposition leaders boycotted the election on election day seeing how lawless the situation had become.

The result was exactly as planned: the ruling Awami League captured 288 out of 300 seats, winning an extraordinary 96 percent of the seats in parliament. This in and of itself is impossible, particularly in a country in which the vast majority of the population wanted change desperately.

As a consolation prize, a mere seven parliamentary seats were granted to the opposition, seats which they have rejected by stating they refuse to take an oath, judging from the fact that the ‘election’ of the ruling party is seen as illegitimate thus rendering an oath taking ceremony meaningless.

Currently, we are back to square one. The AL rules over the government and all branches of the administration. There have been no protests or even demonstrations since the election thus far but this may very well be the calm before the storm. As has been so accurately said: “You can fool some people sometimes but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

The writer is a teacher, writer, political columnist and member of the US Democratic Party. Email: sabriacballand@gmail.com

Twitter: @sabriaballand

The article appeared in The News International on 3 January 2018

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