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Bangladesh Election Unlikely to Resolve Political Turmoil

Police stand guard at the National Mosque during Friday prayers ahead of the upcoming general elections, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Jan. 5, 2024.
Police stand guard at the National Mosque during Friday prayers ahead of the upcoming general elections, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Jan. 5, 2024.

Bangladesh holds parliamentary elections on Sunday, but opposition parties won't participate, as they say the election won't be fair with the current ruling party staying in power ahead of the vote.

This will be the country's 12th national parliamentary election since it gained independence in 1971.

The parliament consists of 350 members, of which 300 are elected directly for a five-year term. The remaining 50 seats are reserved for women. The 300 members elected on January 7 will, in turn, proportionally elect the 50 women members to the reserved seats.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies, along with some major Islamist parties, are boycotting the election after demanding the resignation of the current government during the election in favor of an interim, neutral caretaker government.

The opposition believes that the last two general elections, held in 2014 and 2018, prove that free, fair, participatory and credible elections aren't possible while the ruling party remains in power.

Only four of the previous 11 national elections were held under a neutral caretaker government: in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008. Those elections were widely accepted as relatively free and fair.

However, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled the use of a caretaker government unconstitutional. The ruling party, Awami League, which had a two-thirds majority in the parliament, changed the constitution to block the caretaker government provision.

The BNP and its allies protested the change and boycotted the 2014 elections. As a result, more than half of the 300 members of parliament elected that year ran unopposed. Voter turnout was very low as well.

The opposition participated in the 2018 election; however, that vote was alleged by the opposition to have been manipulated in favor of the ruling party by law enforcement agencies, the civil administration and the ruling party's sitting members of parliament and ministers.

The government denies the allegations and says that the election was free and fair.

Ahead of that election, opposition candidates were subjected to widespread violence on the campaign trail and many opposition activists were arrested.

The opposition claimed that in most constituencies, ballot boxes were filled with ruling party votes the night before the election. A report by BBC Bangla showed the ballot boxes in one constituency were filled before voting began.

The ruling party has repeatedly denied such allegations. In an interview with VOA Bangla, Awami League leader Mahbubul Alam Hanif said, "There is no evidence to prove that the election was rigged."

Both the 2014 and 2018 elections are largely considered noncredible by both the local and international community.

Crackdown on opposition

During an October 28 BNP rally, party leaders and activists allegedly attacked the chief justice's residence. At least 17 journalists were injured, and a police constable was killed.

According to the Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Ainjibi Forum, a body of pro-BNP lawyers, more than 20,000 opposition leaders and activists were arrested in more than 837 "fabricated and ghost cases" filed after the October violence. The forum also alleged that 8,249 opposition activists were injured in attack and police action, and at least 73,123 opposition activists were accused in cases filed since then.

On December 17, Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, the agriculture minister, seemed to agree with the arrest figures put forward by the opposition in an interview in which he referenced a strike the opposition had called as part of their ongoing protests.

"If 20,000 leaders and workers of BNP were not arrested, would the cars have run on the day of the strike? We had no option other than mass arrests."

The minister also said the BNP leadership was told that its arrested leaders would be released promptly if the party took part in the upcoming election, raising serious questions about the independence of the judiciary and giving more credibility to the opposition's claim that the government is abusing its power.

On November 14, three United Nations experts — Irene Khan, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule and Mary Lawlor — issued a statement raising grave concerns about the severe crackdown against political activists.

"As Bangladesh heads towards national elections in early 2024, we are deeply disturbed by the sharp rise in political violence, arrests of senior opposition leaders, mass arbitrary detention of thousands of political activists, use of excessive force by the authorities and internet shutdowns to disrupt protests," the statement said.

"The weaponization of the judicial system to attack journalists, human rights defenders and civil society leaders diminishes the independence of the judiciary and erodes fundamental human rights," it said.

According to reports published in local and international media, nine activists have died in custody since October 28.

Opposition response

After the election schedule was announced in November, the opposition vowed to boycott the vote and called for general strikes and blockades.

On December 19, the BNP announced a noncooperation movement, urging people to suspend tax payments, as well as water, gas and electricity bills.

The BNP and its allies also launched a campaign to encourage voters to boycott the election and to participate in the noncooperation movement.

The effort led to violent attacks by ruling party activists against opposition activists, while law enforcement agencies made widespread arrests of opposition activists in connection with the protest movement, according to local media reports.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh's Election Commission asked the Home Ministry's Public Security Division to deter people from attending rallies or other political programs that may disrupt the electoral process or discourage voters from exercising their franchise.

The move appears contrary to the Bangladesh constitution, which states, "Every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order or public health."

Staging a "competitive" election

Pressure from the United States, the United Nations and others in the international community have prompted the Sheikh Hasina government to show the world that the election will be free, fair and participatory.

Hasina has asked the aspirant candidates from the ruling Awami League who did not secure the nomination of the ruling party to run as independent candidates to make the election appear competitive.

In public remarks, she also urged candidates who are running unopposed to place dummy candidates in their respective constituencies to ensure that no one is elected uncontested, as happened in 2014.

This has led the opposition to call Sunday's election a "dummy" election.

The Awami League has nominated 263 candidates and supported six candidates from its allies. It withdrew 26 of its candidates in favor of the Jatiya Party, an ally of the Awami League.

However, in most of the 300 constituencies, one or more independent candidates who are also members of the ruling Awami League party are contesting seats.

The ruling party and its supporters say if voter turnout is more than 50%, Sunday's election should be considered a participatory one.

Local media reports accuse ruling party members of coercing voters to come to polling stations by taking away cards that are required to get social services.

Government officials have denied the accusations.

Election aftermath

In a series of interviews with VOA Bangla, a number of political analysts and civil society members expressed concerns regarding the elections. They believe that without the participation of the BNP and other parties, the results will not be credible, and that the 12th national parliament will struggle to complete its full term.

"This is not an election," Badiul Alam Majumder, a prominent civil society activist, told VOA. "In an election there must be options for the voters. Without BNP's participation there is no option.

"This election will not solve our problems, rather it will make our crisis more complex and evident," he said.

Nurul Kabir, a prominent journalist in Bangladesh, told VOA that he thinks the election results are fixed before voting begins, as there is no competition between rival political parties.

"This election is called a dummy election," Kabir said.

There is a growing concern among the people of Bangladesh that the U.S. will take serious actions if the election is seen as unfair, including imposing sanctions.

The U.S. government announced a new visa policy for Bangladesh last year to support free and fair elections in the country. The policy allows the U.S. to deny visas to any individual or entity who obstructs the election process in Bangladesh.

While sanctions may harm Bangladesh's economy, some opposition figures say it may be the most viable option to restore the democratic process in Bangladesh.

In an exclusive interview with VOA Bangla, Nurul Haq Nur, president of the Gana Adhikar Parishad party, said the role the U.S. is playing in ensuring a free and fair election is appreciated.

For Nur, the 2021 sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion, which remain in effect, played a significant role in creating space for the opposition to hold rallies and carry out political programs.

"I think the citizens of Bangladesh have found hope in the role USA has been playing in support of restoring a democratic process in Bangladesh," Nur said.