Until 2018, Bangladesh observed 11 parliamentary elections including 1991 and 1996 polls under the neutral “Caretaker Government” system and interestingly all polls were tainted by irregularities and intimidation except those two.
By Md. Kamruzzaman
The history of national or parliamentary elections in Bangladesh under any political government is mostly marred by rigging, polarization and illegal intimidation since its inception as an independent nation in 1971.
The South Asian Muslim-majority delta state of nearly 170 million people held its first national elections in 1973 under the then Awami League-backed government led by the country’s founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This party is also in power now (2023) for the third conservative term under Premier Sheikh Hasina, who is the daughter of Rahman.
The Awami League under Rahman was politically very strong at that time and no political parties had the capability to compete with it. On the other hand, the popularity of Rahman was also enough to defeat any opponent candidate in the polls.
So, there was no need to interfere in the voting process for the Awami League in 1973 to win the race. However, that election was marred with irregularities and intimidation, setting a blemish of bullying in the election under partisan government.
Late professor at Western Michigan University in the USA, Lawrence Ziring, in his famous book “Bangladesh, From Mujib to Ershad: An Interpretive Study” wrote: “Mujib’s ‘army’ routed the leftists and took complete control of the university hostels. Shortly after this incident, the Awami League won the (1973) election to the new parliament, taking 307 of 315 seats in the assembly.”
Professor of Modern Asian History at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, Willem Van Schendel, in his book “A History of Bangladesh”, also noted the irregularities in the 1973 elections in Bangladesh.
“The elections were marred by Awami League attempts to secure a total victory by means of kidnapping, coercion, vote rigging and the stealing of ballot boxes,” Schendel wrote.
Until 2018, Bangladesh observed 11 parliamentary elections including 1991 and 1996 polls under the neutral “Caretaker Government” system and interestingly all polls were tainted by irregularities and intimidations except those two, according to available media reports and other documents.
In such a reality, the then opposition party, Awami League, along with its arch-rival and Bangladesh’s leading Islamist party, Bangladesh Jamaat-e Isami, organized huge anti-government demonstrations in 1995-96 demanding for holding credible parliamentary elections under the caretaker government.
The then government run by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), now the main opposition, was bound to amend the constitution in 1996 and included a Caretaker Government system for holding the elections credible and participatory.
Ironically, after coming to power in 2009 the same Awami League scrapped the caretaker government system amending the constitution in 2011 ignoring huge protests by almost all opposition political parties and civil society members. Later, the Awami League held two national elections in 2014 and 2018 under the Hasina administration despite boycotting the race by most opposition parties including the main opposition BNP.
The BNP and most of the opposition political parties in Bangladesh rejected the 2014 national polls in which 153 lawmakers of the ruling Awami League party got elected without any election or contest, incurring criticism both at home and abroad.
Since then the opposition parties have been demonstrating for fair elections under nonpartisan government.
Before the 2018 national polls, the incumbent Sheikh Hasina administration promised to hold a fair and credible election and finally convinced the opposition parties to join the race. Simultaneously, the government spread panics among opposition activists through a newly enacted controversial and draconian “Digital Security Act”, under which thousands of government critics were detained.
The opposition parties took part in the elections but boycotted it in the middle of the casting due to reported vote rigging, intimidations, and finally the reveal of ballot stuffing on the previous night made the opposition parties heavily aggravated.
– Unrest flaring up
Chief Election Commissioner of Bangladesh, Kazi Habibul Awal, on November 14, 2023, declared January 07, 2024, as the date for holding the country’s 12th parliamentary elections in 300 constituencies across the country, flaring the prevailing political tensions while the country was already going through repeated nationwide blockades and strikes.
The political scenario of the country turned into a more critical course after the October 28, 2023, bloody clashes between the police and BNP activists in the capital Dhaka’s central Naya Paltan and adjacent areas.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch released on November 26, 2023, almost 10,000 opposition activists have been arrested since a planned rally by the BNP on October 28. At least 16 people have been killed during ongoing violence, including 2 police officers. Over 5,500 people have been injured.
Since then police reportedly conducted drives against the opposition activists and its critics and arbitrarily detained thousands of opposition leaders and workers, rapidly escalating the situation. After the October violence, police have been blocking the headquarters of the BNP in Dhaka till date (02 December 2023).
In a statement issued on November 16, 2023, Human Rights Watch called on the Bangladesh government to “seriously respond” to concerns regarding grave abuses and crackdown on civil society.
– Call to stop rights abuses
International rights bodies including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International repeatedly issued statements calling on the Bangladesh government to stop human rights violations.
The United States issued sanctions on the elite force of police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and some other top officials of police in charge of gross human rights violations. Ahead of the 2024 elections, the Biden Administration also issued a new visa policy for Bangladesh that restricts travel permits of individuals who are believed to be responsible for or complicit in undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.
On November 14, UN experts stated that “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, and allegations of harassment, intimidation, and unlawful detention of family members as a retaliatory measure.”
According to Bangladeshi human rights monitors, security forces have carried out over 600 enforced disappearances since 2009. While some people were later released, produced in court, or killed, nearly 100 people remain missing.
Tensions are mounting now in the delta nation that the declaration of the election schedule by the Chief Election Commissioner without creating a congenial political atmosphere and consensus among the rival political parties must escalate the political rivalry. The government is seemingly not in the mood to hold dialogue with the opposition parties over fair elections.
Awami League General Secretary and Minister of Road Transport and Bridges, Obaidul Quader, on November 15 vowed that there is no scope for political dialogue with the opposition parties to resolve the ongoing political deadlock.
He rejected the possibility of dialogue following a meeting with the US Ambassador in Bangladesh, Peter Haas, who visited the minister to hand over an official letter sent by US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, calling for unconditional dialogue among three major political parties – the Awami League, the BNP and the Jatiya Party.
The solution to the prevailing crisis seems to be far ahead as the chief of the election authority in Bangladesh did not say anything about the irregularities in the previous 2014 and 2018 elections during the declaration of the schedule of the 12th parliamentary polls. The opposition parties have repeatedly claimed at all public rallies that they have no trust in the incumbent government about fair elections due to the bitter experiences in the past.
So, it’s very clear now that the country is moving to a great political conflict ahead of the country’s next parliamentary elections in January 2024. International communities are trying to cool the situation through political dialogue between the ruling block and the opposition blocks. But after the declaration of the election schedule by the election authorities the situation is seemingly out of control.
Md. Kamruzzaman is a prize-winning Dhaka-based journalist who frequently writes on refugees, human rights, diplomacy and climate change. https://twitter.com/mkbablu)
The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.