By Habib Siddiqui 16 January 2023
Bangladesh is known for high voter turnout — in 2008, it was 87 percent, in 2001 it was 76 percent and in 1996 it had recorded 75 percent. In 1991 the voter turnout was 55 percent. The election that recorded the lowest voter turnout of 21 percent was the controversial election of February 1996, which eventually was declared null and void after the opposition Awami League (AL) boycotted it. At that time, Sheikh Hasina was in the opposition who had pressed for the formation of a neutral care-taker government (CTG). (But once in power, she abolished that provision following an amendment of the constitution in 2011.)
In 2014 the voter turnout plummeted to only 51 percent, making it one of the lowest in the history of Bangladesh. The BNP calls January 5, 2014 “Murder of Democracy Day.” According to the international press, the 2018 voter turnout was even lower although the chief election commissioner (CEC) claimed after election that 80% voters had exercised their franchise.
There is little doubt that with the Jama’at banned, the Awami League’s (AL) strategy has been working. It managed to weaken the opposition front severely. The BNP-led 18-party alliance boycotted the 2014 election as its demand for impartial caretaker government (CTG) was not fulfilled, allowing the ruling AL to win the election with two thirds majority and with little opposition. Out of 300 seats, 153 members were elected uncontested, something unseen and unheard of before!
As expected, the BNP called the 2014 election a “rigged and farcical” election. But can it evade its own responsibility for the outcome because of its many errors of strategy and judgment? If it had contested and won just five dozen seats in that “rigged” election, even if the AL-alliance had a two-thirds majority, the ruling alliance’s “illiberal” ambitions would have been put on the check. The BNP-alliance could have used the floor of the parliament to debate and dissent. Instead, it chose the path of violence further alienating them from the peace-loving people who stood in the sidelines.
The 2014 election was one of the bloodiest in Bangladesh’s history; 19 people died in the poll-related violence. The political unrest also immensely hampered the daily lives of the people as shops, offices, educational institutions remained closed for days and the transport sector also remained non-functional, hampering mobility. Also, the economy suffered substantially following pre-poll political violence.
As noted by William Milam, the former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, in a March 11, 2014 article in the Express Tribune, many believed that somehow, somebody or something — the army, the international community, the West, a leader on a white horse — would appear and stop the “defective” election that was in the offing in 2014. But none of those outcomes occurred.
As the dust settled from the melee of the election time violence the opposition BNP-led alliance came to terms that the AL government could not be toppled by mindless violence. Normalcy became the order of the day inside Bangladesh in the post-2014 period.
While the street violence along the political line has significantly died down since 2016, but violence against dissenting voices, especially against perceived Indian hegemony, has spiked. This time the perpetrators are allegedly the rogue elements within the Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling AL.
There is little doubt that Bangladesh has come a long way since five hundred bombs exploded simultaneously in nearly every district in the country in August 2005.
With its leader, Khaleda Zia, behind the bar and the deputy leader Tarique Zia living in the UK, the BNP appeared radar-less and participated in the 2018 election only half-heartedly. The AL, thus, won massively again in that election, which has been dubbed as unfair and farcical by the independent observers, international media and rights groups. In a widely circulated report called “Creating Panic: Bangladesh Election Crackdown on Political Opponents and Critics”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said a week before the election (December 22, 2018) that a “repressive political environment in Bangladesh is undermining the credibility of the process.” “Authoritarian measures, including widespread surveillance and a crackdown on free speech, have contributed to a widely described climate of fear,” the report said, adding that police had failed to act impartially and ignored attacks on opposition figures.
Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said that “the police and election commission should not appear to be acting like extensions of the ruling party.” “The violence during the campaign that has mainly targeted the opposition bears out their misgivings about unfair treatment,” he added.
Five candidates of the BNP and two candidates from its ally Gono Forum were elected, while the ruling Awami League and its close allies bagged 267. The Jatiya Party, an ally of the Awami League, came second with 20 seats.
On January 2, 2019, HRW demanded that an independent and impartial commission should investigate the serious allegations of abuses in the Bangladesh elections. The European Union, the governments of the USA and the UK urged “a full, credible, and transparent resolution of all complaints.”
“International donors, the United Nations and friends of Bangladesh should remember that elections are about the rights of voters, not those in power,” Brad Adams of HRW said. “In a highly divided country, questions should immediately be raised when one coalition wins 96 percent of the seats.”
Such allegations of vote rigging, and authoritarianism are not new in Bangladesh since 1973 when the ruling AL won 293 of the contested 300 seats in the nation’s first election. But what was possible back in 1973 with Sheikh Mujib’s towering personality and immense popularity in the newly liberated nation is no longer possible in a highly divided and polarized country that Bangladesh has evolved into. Sheikh Hasina is not as popular as her legendary father, Bangabandhu.
According to the CNN, opposition figures were not the only ones who felt the pressure before the election day. In October 2018, the government approved a highly controversial new digital security law, which rights groups feared could further erode press freedoms and silence dissenting voices online.
The Amnesty International accused the Bangladesh government of imposing “dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression” and pointed to its potential for use against opposition voices.
The Dhaka-based Odhikar group highlighted a worrying spate of what it called “enforced disappearances” of opposition leaders, students, and activists. In September 2018 alone, the rights group claimed that “30 people were picked up by law enforcement agencies without explanation — a sharp jump from a total of 28 in the first eight months of the year.”
The opposition leader Dr. Kamal Hossain (who as the Law Minister of the new state had drafted Bangladesh’s constitution) rejected the 2018 results, calling it “farcical” and demanding fresh elections to be held under a neutral government. His wish was, however, ignored by the winning party and the Election Commission.
As reported by the Reuters, on January 4, 2019 the United Nations joined the choir calling for an independent and impartial investigation into the election in Bangladesh. “We urge the authorities to carry out prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations into all alleged acts of violence and human rights violations related to the elections, with a view to holding accountable those responsible, regardless of their political affiliations,” the United Nations said. “There are worrying indications that reprisals have continued to take place, notably against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases.” “Reports suggest that violent attacks and intimidation,” the United Nations said, “have been disproportionately carried out by ruling party activists, at times with complicity or involvement of law enforcement officers.”
Before the 2018 election there was some optimism in the air that this time with the participation of the opposition BNP (which sat out the previous general election over its unmet demand for poll-time neutral, i.e., caretaker, government) and the Jatiya Oikya Front (Gono Forum) the election would be fair, thus allowing democracy to take a deeper root in this country of nearly 160 million people. Apparently, all such hoopla came to nothing. Bangladesh will have to live through its ignominy of being an illiberal and a flawed democracy for a foreseeable future!
After all, for democracy to benefit the people, the government must be a participative one of the people, by the people and for the people with checks and balances in place. Democracy cannot blossom when there is no opposition or there is a tyranny of the majority that tramples on the rights and privileges of the minority.
[Excerpted from the author’s book – Bangladesh: a polarized and divided nation? – available in Amazon.com]