Bangladesh’s largest opposition party has decided to boycott next month’s general elections, saying that it cannot participate in a “sham vote.”
Pro-democracy activists and analysts have expressed concern that there is no possibility the elections will be free and fair.
Saying that “democracy is dead” in Bangladesh, Abdul Moyeen Khan, a member of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s largest opposition party, said that under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government, there cannot be “any free and fair election.”
“The Awami League government has completely monopolized the civil administration, police administration, the judiciary as well as all the independent public institutions in the country, including the election commission. There is no way to ensure free, fair and neutral elections in Bangladesh under the present setup,” Khan told VOA on Thursday.
“The BNP finds it pointless to take part in such a farcical election,” he said.
'Successful election' seen
Obaidul Quader, the general secretary of the Awami League, said it was not his party but the BNP that was the “main obstacle” to next month’s general election.
“However, they will not succeed to stop the 'train' of the general election. The train will reach its destination on time,” Quader said last week.
“Although the BNP is not joining the election as a party, at least 30 of its former members of Parliament are taking part in the election," he added. "Also, people are spontaneously participating in the election. It will be a successful election.”
The BNP is the largest among 17 opposition parties that are boycotting the January election.
Ali Riaz, professor of political science at Illinois State University, said that the BNP decided not to participate in the election largely because its demand for the installation of an election-period neutral caretaker government, “which is supported by many political parties and a large segment of the citizens, was not met.”
"It is beyond any doubt that a fair election cannot be held under the incumbent,” Riaz said.
The BNP boycotted the country’s 2014 general elections, accusing the ruling Awami League of a massive crackdown on the opposition, including the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of BNP leaders. The next general elections, in 2018, were marred by widespread allegations of vote-rigging and ballot-box stuffing by the Awami League.
After opposition parties and pro-democracy activists expressed concerns about the neutrality of the coming election, other countries began urging Hasina's government to conduct the January 7 balloting freely and fairly.
In September, the U.S. authorities said they had started “taking steps to impose visa restrictions” on Bangladeshis who were found complicit in “undermining the democratic electoral process” in Bangladesh.
Caretaker government sought
Since last year, the BNP has staged street demonstrations demanding Hasina’s resignation and the installation of a neutral caretaker government around the election that, the opposition party said, would ensure a free and fair election.
The Hasina government rejected the BNP demand, calling it unconstitutional. Hasina repeatedly said that her party always came to power after being elected fairly.
Since the Hasina government did not resign and the caretaker government was not installed, the BNP has kept itself away from the elections, said BNP Senior Joint Secretary-General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi.
“Filing false cases, the government arrested almost all senior BNP leaders and thousands of party activists over the past weeks. Hundreds of them were also convicted in false cases during the period. The arrests and convictions are part of a conspiracy to destabilize our party so that it cannot utilize maximum strength to contest the elections,” Rizvi told VOA.
“There is no level playing field for the opposition,” he said.
Mohammad Faruk Hossain, spokesperson for the Dhaka metropolitan police, rejected the accusation of false cases being filed against the opposition.
“The opposition activists indulged in vandalism, arson and other criminal activities. We filed cases against them only after our primary investigations found that they were involved in crimes,” Hossain told VOA.
“All cases are filed following the law. We always work within the legal frame.”
Since Hasina came to power in 2008, her terms in office have been increasingly marked by authoritarian measures against all forms of dissent or political opposition.
Human Rights Watch, in a November 26 report, called the government's action against the political opposition a “violent autocratic crackdown.”
“The government is claiming to commit to free and fair elections with diplomatic partners while the state authorities are simultaneously filling prisons with the ruling Awami League’s political opponents,” Julia Bleckner, senior Asia researcher at HRW, said in the report.
BNP figures 'violently targeted'
The state machinery is being used in favor of the ruling party to “eliminate” the political opposition, said Rashed Iqbal, the acting president of Chhatradal, the student wing of the BNP.
“BNP leaders, activists and even their family members are being violently targeted by the police and the ruling party activists just because they are associated with the opposition party. The government is in an all-out attack to crush our movement to restore democracy,” Iqbal told VOA.
The Awami League has come under severe scrutiny for the recent emergence of new parties — known in Bangladesh as “King’s Parties” — which appear to be opposition parties but serve Awami League interests.
Riaz told VOA that “enticing and coercing individuals and parties to join the election and setting up dummy candidates to provide an impression of an inclusive election indicate that January 7 will be a stage-managed show.”
The Awami League has “plotted a process to keep the BNP out of the electoral process,” he said.
“Arrests of the BNP’s central leaders and over 20,000 activists over the past six weeks, the conviction of more than 800 leaders and activists in lightning speed over the past three months and sealing off 56 of its party offices across the country, including the party headquarters in Dhaka, by the police are testimonies to this plot,” he said.
“All these facts indicate that the ruling party wants to hold an election not only without the formidable opposition but also with handpicked parties and individuals.”
Badiul Alam Majumdar, founder of Dhaka-based pro-democracy group Citizens for Good Governance, told VOA that it was now “certain” that Bangladesh would have a one-sided, “engineered” parliamentary election on January 7.
“The engineering is done by the government’s appointing of a partisan election commission, politicizing the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies, and capturing all other institutions,” Majumdar said.
“The only two major brands in Bangladesh’s politics are [Awami League] and BNP. With the absence of BNP from the electoral arena, Awami League is without doubt going to win the coming election notwithstanding the participation of the King’s and marginal parties and its own dummy candidates.
“Such a one-sided, engineered election is going to create serious legitimacy crisis for the new government and may cause an economic meltdown.”