An extremely flawed general election took place on in January 2014. The main opposition parties, the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, and Jamaat e Islami (JeI) both boycotted it, 153 of the total 300 seats being uncontested, giving the ruling Awami League (AL), led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, an overwhelming victory. The government claimed a turn-out of 48% but others assessed it to have been much lower than that. Before the election, many national and international leaders and diplomats, including Hilary Clinton, US foreign minister, and Mr. Oskar Fernandez Taranto special ambassador to UN took initiatives to make dialogue between AL and BNP reach a consensus to conduct a free, fair and credible election but failed. Since 2014 we appear to have moved to a one party system of so-called democracy in Bangladesh.
The next general election will elect the members of the Jatiya Sangsad, the parliament of Bangladesh, within several months. Barring exceptional circumstances, the Constitution of Bangladesh requires that the elections take place within the 90-day period before the expiration of the term of the Jatiya Sangsad. The current Sangshad first sat on 29 January 2014, so in accordance with article 123(2)(a) of the Constitution, the next election is expected be held on a date between November 2018 and January 2019.
Experience of Local Elections
As the establishment of one-party dominancy by the Awamy League, there is no guarantee to hold a free, fair and credible election. The electoral system of Bangladesh has been largely damaged by the ruling party AL. The local elections under this government have been the example of so controlled and much rigged.
Take the example of the last union parishad election held in 2016. Around 100 people were killed due to widespread electoral violence, which was the deadliest election in our entire election history. The one-sided parliamentary election held in January 2014 became the bloodiest national polls with around 20 people killed on voting day. Most of the local bodies’ elections held in the last five years were also marred by violence and casualties and electoral irregularities.
The way mayoral elections in three cities ended on 30 July 2018, it appears that the apple did not fall far from the tree. The blatant irregularities reported during mayoral elections in Gazipur and Khulna were more brazenly repeated. In the midst of massive irregularities, including violence, ballot stuffing, ousting or barring opposition polling agents from polling stations, physical assault on contestants and media personnel, most mayoral contestants but those of the ruling Awami League, boycotted the polls. The common picture of the election of five cities was the ruling party supporters or activists wearing badges of boat, the electoral symbol of AL, turned up in huge number and took control of the premises, entrances and even inside of the many polling stations in a gross violation of the electoral law. During electioneering, the law enforcement agencies launched a drive to arrest opposition men who were facing cases for various alleged offences. To arrest the accused opposition men, the law enforcers raided their residences. The drives however generated panic among the men of the opposition.
The way mayoral elections in three cities ended on 30 July 2018, it appears that the apple did not fall far from the tree
In the five city corporation elections in question that took place since May, many voters returned home without casting their vote. Ruling party activists created such a violent, rowdy atmosphere in polling centres that women either left the premises willingly or the police asked them to leave to avoid ‘chaos.’ Some voters alleged that their vote had been cast even before they reached the centres. Meanwhile the Election Commission claimed that polls were held peacefully proving the allegation true that it is merely implementing ‘AL’s blueprint’.
In Rajshahi, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party candidate staged a sit-in as his polling agents were ousted from 87 polling stations. In Barisal, the Socialist Party of Bangladesh candidate was physically assaulted by ruling party activists when she caught them red-handed stuffing ballots at the Sadar Girls’ School centre. Five of the six opposition party candidates boycotted polls alleging that the Election Commission and law enforcers were acting as ‘AL’s front organisation’. While in Sylhet, the BNP mayoral candidate is slightly ahead of his Awami League counterpart in a close contest, he too termed the poll as an ‘election of betrayal’ and demanded re-election with army deployment. In the prevailing situation, it is glaringly evident that the incumbents had robbed people of their right to freely choose their representatives in local government and are inherently incapable of offering a free and fair election to people.
The Election Commission has also proved to be weak. All are exposed once again the need for reforming institutions like the EC and law enforcement agencies. Thus the five mayoral elections indicate the rise of a new model of election just five months before the parliamentary polls. Evidently, the ruling quarters and the Election Commission not only missed out an opportunity to win the confidence of people and the opposition political camps but also proved that it does not have the political will to hold free elections due in the last quarter of the year. Under the circumstances, the opposition political camps, as well as democratically oriented sections of society, are left with no option but to mobilise public opinions to dissolve the politically illegitimate parliament, reconstitute the Election Commission and initiate a process of negotiation with all concerned over the composition and jurisdiction of a party-neutral government to supervise the next general elections.
Changing Party System
Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in 1971 from the colonial rule of British and Pakistani rulers over two centuries. At the time of independence Bangladesh started with a single dominant party system. The Awami League (AL) was the dominant party. The party was founded in 1949 and soon emerged as the voice of the Bengali nationalists.
After the independence of Bangladesh, the state started its journey as a parliamentary form of government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the father of Bangladesh) like the west minister model, where the prime minister was the chief executive and president was the state head but titular in power exercise. However, however, within four years, it had altered as a presidential government. Despite the AL’s dominance in the election in 1973 the government moved to a single party system in early 1975. All the political parties were banned and formed a political party named BAKSAL under the leadership of Sheik Mujib. Perhaps, it was a great political mistake in the life of Mujib because most of the political parties (especially leftist political parties) were dissatisfied. The experimentation with the single party system was short lived. Sheikh Mujib with his family members was brutally killed by a group of mid-level military officers in 1975. After the assassination of Bangabandhu and the takeover of the country’s rule by the military open party activities were prohibited under Martial Law proclaimed in November 1975.
During the fifteen years of military rule (1975-1990) we witnessed the emergence of state-sponsored political parties who retained control of government power but allowed multiple political parties to operate in opposition with restrictions on their freedom. After the restoration of electoral democracy in 1991, there was initially (1991-2001) a two-party dominant system which later evolved into two electoral alliances led by the two major parties. Since 2014 we appear to have again moved back to a one party dominant system.
What in the Next?
Political commentators in and outside Bangladesh concur with such a damning reading of the Sheikh Hasina government, especially in the context of the state conducting free and fair elections. There are nearly hundred political parties, but in fact, one party is determined to stay on power at any cost. In the 10-year tenure as the prime minister of Bangladesh, Hasina has been accused of using the state’s law enforcement apparatus as well as the judiciary to suppress the voice of the opposition. Rights groups, both local and international, have reported a deteriorating human rights situation in Bangladesh in recent years.
The free, fair and credible election is one of the prerequisites of democratic governance. The election would be credible, when rules, regulations and laws governing the electoral process will be followed by and ultimately, the credible candidate will be freely and fairly elected to represent the electorate. But unprecedented moves of Awamy government since coming to power threaten to undo much of the country’s democratic progress.
The controversial jailing of former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and the state persecution of dissent have raised fears that the next parliamentary election could turn into a a violent sham. While activists and political workers opposed to the government live under an increasing threat of being jailed or worse, there is widespread concern, even among the common people, over what lies ahead in an election year. The Awami League has suppressed all dissent to such an extent that she doesn’t think “anyone would dare to protest against them”.
All the signs show that Bangladesh is heading toawards one-party system. It will not become theoretically something like BAKSAL, but in practice not less than that.
Writer: A political analyst