FeaturedInternationalVolume 14 Issue # 11

Bangladesh: Too much of a muchness

The ruling Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh won a third consecutive term, bagging 288 of the 298 parliamentary seats contested. Her party only left 10 seats for the opposition. In her own seat, the prime minister won by 229,539 votes to 123. The incredible results speak for themselves.

Awami League’s over 96pc seats in the election are unprecedented in the history of democratic countries. The ruling party was accused of attacks on opposition party members, voter intimidation, rigging, and partisan behavior by election officials in the pre-election period and on election day. The pattern is reminiscent of countries, which are ruled by dictators. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who is accused by his detractors of acting like a despot, could gain only 52 percent of the popular vote but over 87 percent of eligible voters turned out to elect him in the June 24 election last year. Russian President Vladimir Putin bagged 77 percent and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi 97 percent votes in elections in their respective countries in March 2018.

Opposition parties, journalists and voters alleged serious irregularities in the Bangladesh polls, including ballot stuffing, voters being denied access to polling places, ruling party activists occupying polling places and casting ballots in the place of voters, electoral officials and the police behaving in a partisan manner, and violations of voter privacy in an atmosphere of blatant intimidation. The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) said its polling agents were denied access to 221 constituencies.

According to the Human Rights Watch, an independent and impartial commission should investigate the serious allegations of abuses in the elections. “The pre-election period was characterized by violence and intimidation against the opposition, attacks on opposition campaign events, and the misuse of laws to limit free speech. Reports of ballot stuffing, intimidation of voters, and ruling party control of voting locations on election day mean that an independent and impartial commission should be formed to determine the extent of the violations,” it said in a report. Thousands of opposition supporters were arrested before the election, and journalists described having to censor their reporting for fear of arrest and violence. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission required all telecommunication operators to shut down 3G and 4G internet services ahead of the election, preventing communication and information sharing. At least 17 people were killed in violence related to the voting on election day. A mother of four said she was gang raped because she cast her vote for the opposition. Families held a news conference demanding the safe return of four university students who have not been seen after they were detained in Dhaka on December 29, allegedly by plain clothes security forces.

Instead of investigating irregularities, Bangladesh authorities arrested journalists for their reporting. On January 1, 2019, plainclothes police officers arrested Hedait Hossain Molla, a Khulna-based correspondent for the Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune and Probaho. Hossain Molla had reported the total number of votes cast in the Khulna-1 constituency was higher than the total number of actual eligible voters. Journalist Rashidul Islam was also named in the case. The two journalists are accused under the draconian Digital Security Act, which criminalizes peaceful speech and places undue restrictions on investigative journalism. Journalists were forced to delete videos documenting voter intimidation by Awami League supporters. Kafi Kamal, a reporter with the Daily Manab Zamin said he was beaten up while filming an attack on voters at a polling place. A BBC journalist in Chittagong captured images of what appear to be stuffed ballot boxes before the polls opened. Other media reported that in some constituencies, in defiance of the rules, polling places closed for lunch in a clear attempt to suppress turnout. Voters in various parts of the country told the media they had been turned away by officials or were joined in the voting booth by ruling party activists, who voted on their behalf. A large number of similar accounts by journalists and other witnesses have emerged from across Bangladesh.

The European Union said that “significant obstacles to a level playing field, throughout the process, have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote,” and called for “a proper examination of allegations of irregularities.” The United States State Department noted “credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence in the pre-election period that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely,” and that election-day irregularities “undermined faith in the electoral process.”

Experts have warned of repercussions of the landslide victory of the ruling party in the “over-managed” elections. “It’s hardly surprising that Sheikh Hasina’s party won the elections. The scale of her victory, however, is literally unbelievable. The polls were, after all, preceded by a long period in which political opponents were intimidated, jailed or exiled. The leader of the opposition Bangladesh National Party, Khaleda Zia, is in jail. Her son and heir apparent is in Britain and faces a life term if he returns to Bangladesh. While political violence has long been a feature of Bangladeshi politics — as in West Bengal, on the Indian side of the border —the past year has been particularly bloody. Worse, among the offenders have been the security forces, which seemed to have become an arm of Sheikh Hasina’s reelection campaign. The country has few remaining independent institutions that can serve as a check on this sort of blatant subversion of democracy. The judiciary in particular has been packed with Awami League sympathizers,” a Bloomberg report said.

Fox News warned an overwhelming majority in parliament could create space for Hasina to become even more authoritarian. The Washington Post noted that Bangladesh’s landslide election result is bad for its democracy. “The margin of victory is unexpected in a democratic nation such as Bangladesh. Hasina has consolidated her grip on power but at the cost of her own electoral legitimacy,” it observed. CNN said the disputed election outcome could plunge Bangladeshi politics, already poisoned by bitter and often violently expressed partisanship, into a new and dangerous era.

Local experts say the opposition has every reason to be furious because it has faced a systematic campaign from the government to dismantle it. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has become a shadow of its former self, yet it defied the crackdowns to campaign and contest the election and it is hard to imagine it will sit quietly in the face of a suspiciously lopsided electoral result.