Bangladesh’s robbed elections and debauched democracy; A Model for Aspiring ‘Democratic’ Autocrats?

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By Dr. Esam Sohail     12 February 2019

In present-day Bangladesh, telling blunt truths about government shenanigans can result in long residence behind bars. Ask globally renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam, he will tell you. This gentleman dared telling truth and he ended up in jail without any valid reason except that he unearthed government’s brutalities in global public space and more importantly, he also termed the government which has been ruling since 2014 without actually winning an election, “an illegitimate government without an exit plan”.

 In view of the above, government became too conscious about how to ‘win’ without actually winning but make it look like a legitimate win. Realizing that the brute manipulation of election results through blatant rigging alone is not considered polite these days, ruling Awami League perfected more of a ‘portfolio management’ approach to elections which they experimented during the municipal elections of the summer of 2018, with its apogee in the southwestern city of Khulna whence the moniker of the model was born.

The Khulna model reduced reliance on the crude stuffing of ballot boxes with bogus votes. Instead, took the art of election manipulation to a different level, mainly to avoid exposing rigging under public glare.  There were five key elements in the Khulna model: cut off the source of the trouble (prior to the election, arrest local Opposition leaders), disrupt their voter reaching-out options by isolating Opposition candidates from their voters, frighten voters that are not reliably in the Government camp, get the civil service to drag its feet on relevant instructions from the ‘neutral’ Election Commission, and, if all else fail, fill up ballot boxes the night before the poll. By all accounts the model succeeded spectacularly as ruling junta candidates swept almost all city corporation polls in 2018 without the government having to resort to too many overtly strong arm tactics like old fashioned rigging ballot counts. One exception was the city of Sylhet where, thanks to strong diaspora connections the foreign media was watching closely and, despite valiant efforts of the police and administration, the Opposition mayoral candidate squeaked out a victory of a third of a percent.

This was the model of election management that the ruling party, the Awami League developed during the 2018 municipal election which was finessed further by a sixth element–creation of artificial election monitoring organizations that they put to work for the December 30 national parliamentary elections. So how failsafe was the election stealing model? How did it work? Remarkably well, as we know already. Here are some details.

Knock off the contestant before the bout

By reliable accounts of both the Opposition released data and the international media what we know now that in the four week timeline between the announcement of election date and the Election Day itself, more than 10,000 district- and constituency level leaders of the Opposition, including half a dozen candidates themselves, were summarily arrested on charges ranging from ten year old dormant corruption cases to the spurious ‘hurting the feelings of people’ nonsense. In Bangladesh, unlike in modern judicial systems, an arrest warrant from a court is not needed to detain people if such detention is deemed to have compelling state interest which, of course, is determined by the Home Affairs minister, himself a ruling front candidate for the elections.

Cut off communication/reaching-out channels

The second pillar of the model included targeting the communication and/or reaching-out channels between Opposition candidates and the population. The government appointed magistrates allowed very few permits for Opposition rallies and almost all of those that were allowed, were set upon by the ruling party’s vigilante arm “BCL” which had been equipped with crude weapons and basic firearms to pose life-threatening terror to the opposition and their sympathizers.   Ruling party rallies, of course, needed no permission and were fully protected by the police and paramilitary forces. As the elections neared, Opposition websites were shut down, private television channels and newspaper editors were warned not to run paid Opposition campaign ads, and a couple of television stations who could not be counted upon to follow the directives were taken off the air till the elections were over. Many Opposition candidates found their homes and businesses surrounded during the day by the police, BCL, and security intelligence services, making it physically impossible to venture out to campaign. Those who did brave the cordons into the campaign mode, often had their campaign material confiscated and canvassers beaten up.

Terrorize opposition voters

Closer to the actual date of the election, the third pillar came to the fore, as police and plainclothesmen paid visits to localities known for large numbers of Opposition voters and randomly harassed many and arrested dozens on long dormant collective warrants (in Bangladesh, any number of ‘unnamed suspects’ can be included in charge-sheets for crimes). Almost automatically any applications for bail were routinely denied subject to the long appeal process with the High Court where logjams of several years are normal. These activities were conducted with much publicity with a clear intent to send a message to those who were still thinking of voting against the ruling party. In fact in several cases, sitting MPs and ministers were caught on camera openly advising that Opposition-leaning voters to stay home on December 30, that is  if they knew what was good for them.

Dodging complains of malfeasance

The fourth pillar of the model was playing subtly in the background from the day the elections were announced to the time that the results were officially published: the Awami League appointed Election Commission slow-walked all the thousands of formal complaints of administration bias and BCL intimidation by assigning these to district and national level sub-committees of bureaucrats which rarely met due to a professed lack of time.  On the one hand, this subterfuge allowed the Commission to display an openness to accepting complaints, while at the same time killing them in the bowels of an already overtly politicized civil service.

Ballot stuffing

Given the increasing success of the first four pillars –as was evident by the fact that by the weekend before elections about a quarter of the Opposition candidates were either incarcerated, or too terrified, or too frustrated to campaign anymore, the fifth pillar of actual ballot stuffing was hardly necessary. Nonetheless, the Awami League did not want to leave anything to chances, and the election eve ballot box stuffing did take place in scores of constituencies, as reported by several respectable organizations including Transparency International.

Managed Election Observers

To be sure to have a defense of sorts in the post-election scenario, the Bangladeshi regime added a sixth and a new element to the above five tools and this was done to make the election look ‘legitimate’, internationally:  this time, it focused on including in its election strategy, the idea of ‘impartial election observers’. In this the government was given an opening by the European Union which declined to send observers and left the job of credible election monitoring to local, regional, and Asian observers. With the local civic society organizations already under pressure from intimidation tactics, the real work was left up to the Asian Election Monitoring group whose members suddenly had their visas put on a slow track to the point that the organization had no choice but to pull out, as the visas had not been cleared by the weekend before the election. This engineered gap in the international observer space was gleefully filled by the government initiated  and hastily created phony organizations with dubious bona-fides who simply hired random civil servants and various functionaries from India, Nepal, Australia, and the Canadian prairie provinces to ‘observe’ the elections and give it a clean bill of health. By the time the ruse was discovered and these hoodwinked foreign observers were rushing to do their mea culpas, the elections were long over and the ruling party front, in true art of election manipulation, had won 96 % of the parliamentary seats and in the wake, created a new model of what can be termed, a debauched democracy.

Debauched democracy: A Model for aspiring ‘democratic’ autocrats?

To give due credit for originality, a slow cooking approach to transforming a budding democracy into an authoritarian regime without officially becoming a dictatorship is perhaps an invention of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. The robust two-party parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary that Zimbabwe started with in 1979 was slowly, steadily, and methodically transformed into a one-party, one-man banana republic under the careful tutelage of Mugabe who purged the courts, locked up opponents, took over civil society organizations, and used vigilante groups like the “War Veterans” to terrorize dissenters, extra-judicially. Even when he agreed to hold ‘free elections’, the supporters and potential votes of the pro-democracy Opposition movement MDC were hounded, intimidated, raped, and killed by the thousands in a reign of terror that shook even Mugabe’s patrons in the South African government. The Awami League in Bangladesh, simply adapted and perfected this political terror in an art form.

Thus ended what the Economist–the white shoe London magazine hardly given to hyperbole–called the 2018 election of Bangladesh, a ‘transparently fraudulent’ election.  While the Western democracies were figuring out how to find nuanced responses to the increasing authoritarianism in Bangladesh, the country had transitioned from authoritarian to dictatorial in the space of weeks.  A conceptual model of election manipulation had been tested, perfected, and found ready to be deployed en masse wherever dictators would need the veneer of ballot box legitimacy in the 21st century.

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