A discredited election threatens the stability of Bangladesh and its surrounding regions
Bangladesh, the South Asian populous country that has about half a million strong Diaspora community in the UK, has entered into a new phase of political crisis. In spite of popular demands from the country’s main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its 18-party alliance led by former prime Minister Khaleda Zia, for the recent general elections (5th January 2014) to be held under a non-partisan interim government, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina unilaterally bulldozed her decision and conducted elections under her handpicked Election Commission. The result is obvious – an opposition-free parliament.
Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as prime minister for second straight term. Amazingly, 153 seats out of 300 in the parliament were already won unopposed by the ruling party, Awami League, before any vote was cast.The opposition boycotted the elections and called it a ‘scandalous farce’.
To understand the need for a non-partisan interim government to run elections in Bangladesh, one has to look back at its political history and the character of the Awami League that Sheikh Hasina leads. During its 1972-75 rule, the then Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (father of Sheikh Hasina), turned a budding democracy into one party brutal dictatorship. Thousands of opposition political party members disappeared and all other political parties and most of the newspapers were banned, before Sheikh Mujib was killed, along with most of his immediate family members, by a group of junior army officers in 1975.
The opposition felt that in the absence of a neutral caretaker government, the ruling party cannot be trusted to oversee free and fair elections. The caretaker government system was constitutionally adopted in the 1990s to ensure free and fair elections under a non-partisan body headed by a Chief Advisor. Past Chief Advisors have included Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. The system successfully oversaw several elections in Bangladesh with participation of all political parties. The ruling Awami League unilaterally abolished the caretaker government system in 2011.
The absence of opposition parties has raised serious concerns about the credibility of the elections. On December 29, 2013 the opposition called for a “March for Democracy”, but its leader Khaleda Zia was put under house arrest by the government. Ershad, leader of Jatiyo Party, was confined by authorities in hospital after he withdrew from the elections and decided to boycott. The leadership of the Islamist opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami have all been confined behind bars.
The situation became so dire that the Asian Human Rights Commission, in a recent open letter to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, urged him to act immediately to save supporters of Bangladesh’s political opposition from extra-judicial execution by state agents in the lead up to the general election.
In the run up to the election night raids of opposition homes were reported by the Bangladeshi press and witnesses across a number of districts. The raids led to many arrests of men women and in some reports children, in addition to destruction of private property and looting. Meanwhile, violent raids by state security on opposition stronghold regions have left death and devastation in their wake.
The EU, Commonwealth and the US did not send observers to monitor the polls because “they are not credible”. Following the elections they have all expressed their disappointment and reaffirmed the discredited nature of the elections, expressing the need for dialogue and fresh inclusive elections to be conducted with all parties taking part.
Along with non-participation, the elections were marred with violence, the death of at least 24 people since polls opened with at least 15 shot dead by the police, reports of vote rigging and voter intimidation as well as attacks on polling booths. Bangladesh’s Fair Election Monitoring Alliance have reportedly suggested a less than 10% voter turnout.
India alone remains committed to supporting Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and its unilateral elections, proclaiming them to be a constitutional requirement. This support of a discredited and undemocratic process can only harm India’s international image as the world’s largest democracy. The Indian press, frequently supportive of Hasina and India’s policy on Bangladesh, are now questioning the relationship.
Apart from the continued lazy journalism of the BBC on Bangladesh’s political issues, world media have heavily criticised the elections as unacceptable and dangerous for democracy. In an editorial, Bloomberg observed ‘no government that forms out of these elections — which Hasina’s own son admitted were “half-baked” — will ever command solid domestic or international support.’ A Foreign Policy op-ed listed Bangladesh as one of 10 countries threatening global stability this year.
With dangerous political polarization, recent ‘electoral farce’ and continuous violence Bangladesh has all the hallmarks of becoming a failed state. The impact on Bangladesh’s economy and prosperity is particularly worrying. The disenfranchisement of millions will only lead to further violent unrest and potentially regional instability. This will not only bring catastrophe to Bangladesh, but it will bring disaster to South Asia.
The international community – the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth in particular -must play an active role in bringing Hasina’s government and the opposition together to hold a free and fair election under international observers.
Image source: AP Photo/ A. M. Ahad
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