Free and fair?

Critics believe that the ruling alliance swept the December 30 elections in Bangladesh by using the government machinery to its advantage.

Published : Jan 17, 2019 12:30 IST

Awamil League supporters taking out a procession in Dhaka ahead of the election.

Awamil League supporters taking out a procession in Dhaka ahead of the election.

As the Awami League-led alliance embarks on a third consecutive term in office, it is difficult to ascertain if democracy in Bangladesh will survive the 11th national elections to the Jatiya Sangsad.

During the campaign and polling, only the ruling party-led alliance appeared to be in the contest. Campaign material of the main opposition combine, the Jatiya Oikya Front, was hardly visible across the country. News reports and information gathered from the ground indicated that there was a coordinated and well-planned effort to ensure that the opposition campaign did not acquire momentum and it had limited access to polling booths. Severe restrictions were placed on the media too ahead of the elections and on the polling day.

A few booths recorded more than 90 per cent polling; one of them even recorded 100 per cent polling. In most other democracies, this would have meant an automatic re-election in these booths. Not in Bangladesh. In several constituencies, the opposition polled suspiciously low number of votes (zero in some booths, one in a couple of booths), and as many as 50 opposition candidates pulled out of the race in the last phase. These are among the indicators that point to rigging, booth capturing and downright intimidation of political opponents. Awami League supporters say opposition candidates leaving the contest midway was more a technicality and had nothing to do with any action by the ruling combine.

In Sheikh Hasina’s constituency, Gopalganj-3, of 2,46,685 voters in 108 polling booths, only 123 voted for the opposition candidate, S.M. Jilani of the Jatiya Oikya Front. As many as 2,29,539 voted for Sheikh Hasina. In constituency after constituency where the Awami League bigwigs or senior leaders of the alliance contested, the story remained the same. The opposition was “decimated” when the ballot boxes were opened and counted. Gopalganj-3 had 93 per cent turnout.

During the campaign, it was clear who had the upper hand. On a visit to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) office in Dhaka, this correspondent was accosted on the street by a policeman in civilian clothes. He enquired about the purpose of my visit to the BNP office. He politely asked me to show him my visiting card. The plainclothesman also noted down the registration number of the car that I travelled in and asked the driver about the locations that I had visited earlier. There were no such problems on the road leading to the office of the co-chairman of the Awami League, though the security person at the building made enquiries about the purpose of the visit.

Ground reality

From multiple accounts, it appears that all rules were interpreted in such a way that the ruling party candidates won. When the results reflected this grotesque reality, a few in the Awami League themselves felt that the opposition should have been given a few more seats. A day after the Awami League swept 97 per cent of the seats in the elections, a report in The Hindu cited party supporters as saying: “ Eta ektu barabari hoye gesse [this is a bit too much].” Perhaps the opposition should “have been given” 50-60 seats to make the election look credible, said some of them without wanting to be named.

From the accounts of several civil society members, it is clear that the ruling alliance swept the elections through the old-fashioned way of capturing critical institutions, including the Election Commission, the police, and the machinery that forms the backbone of elections—government servants who man the booths.

Soon after the elections, an anxious Election Monitoring Forum claimed that the elections were free and fair. The BNP and Transparency International, Bangladesh, said the elections were far from free and fair and demanded a re-election. The Election Commission, however, did not investigate any of the complaints and rejected their demands for re-election.

Sheikh Hasina is not unaware of what has happened, but she appears to believe that the remedy to this lies in the future. “People who remain in power for long become monsters. But we shouldn’t be monsters. Rather, we will have to be humbler because of the trust the people put in us by giving their huge support in the election,” TheDaily Star quoted her as saying while addressing the Awami League parliamentary party’s maiden meeting after the election.

Deep split

But the split in Bangladesh society is deep, and no amount of good governance can fix it. The first problem that the Sheikh Hasina government faces is the challenge from opposition MPs. Seven of them have decided not to take the oath of office. If they persist, they will be disqualified after a certain period of time. As of now, no one from the Sheikh Hasina camp has reached out to them.

The opposition alliance is not sitting quiet, though. It believes that international pressure might help. Dr Kamal Hossein, a principal architect of the Bangladesh Constitution who led the BNP alliance, has appealed to the diplomatic corps stationed in Dhaka to prevail upon the ruling combine to conduct free and fair elections under a caretaker government. He is unlikely to succeed. India has endorsed the Awami League-led alliance’s victory, and many Western nations believe that Sheikh Hasina has done a tremendous job of providing shelter to the Rohingyas.

India appears to be deeply suspicious of the BNP, and going by some of its actions when it was in power, the fears are not unfounded. But that was more than a decade ago. The Indian growth story in that decade has made the world sit up and take notice, while Pakistan has been relegated to being a marginal player in the region.

Unfortunately, two sets of players are refusing to acknowledge the changed realities and adopt fresher approaches in their light. One set is in India: those in South Block, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Cabinet Secretariat, and West Bengal. The other is in Dhaka where the generation that liberated Bangladesh is still in charge of the nation and keeps harping on the pro-liberation versus anti-liberation rhetoric.

India has so far been sympathetic to the Awami League, cosying up to the Qawmi Madrasa system of preachers and recognising degrees that these madrasas offer. Unlike the Alia Madrasas in Bangladesh, which are supervised by the Madrasa Education Board, Qawmi has no government monitoring, supervision or support. A report in The Daily Star puts the number of such madrasas at 14,000.

A couple of pro-liberation leaders believe that the Awami League has made a serious compromise with religious extremists, and there will be no going back from here. This, they point out, will be the biggest problem for the Sheikh Hasina government in the future and will also be India’s biggest headache in the years to come.

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