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Bangladesh Elections: Grim Portends Ahead

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Election Commissioner of Bangladesh with President. Photo Courtesy EC Website

A review of recent developments in Bangladesh reveals that prospects for holding participatory elections remain grim while concerns of protracted violence may seen even indefinite postponement of polls or intervention by the military. Here is a review-

Election Commission of Bangladesh is set to hold the national election between January 6 and 9. As per the Daily Star, EC representatives are expected to make a courtesy call on President Mohammed Shahabuddin on November 9 and announce the schedule either on November 13 or 14. As per the voters' list, there are 11,96,91,633 registered for voting.

The Election Commission has been concerned due to extensive violence in the run up to the polls and thus held talks with the registered parties in the country.

However only 26 of the 44 parties took part in the dialogue. The main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP boycotted the dialogue along with its affiliates.

Ruling Awami League and those in coalition with it joined the talks. Some parties observed that the current situation is not conducive to a free and fair election. Parties felt that the polls schedule should be announced only after such an environment has been created. "The country does not have a conducive environment for holding a free and fair election," Gono Forum General Secretary Mizanur Rahman told the talks as per the Daily Star.

Some election commissioners have also expressed reservations over free and fair polls given violence in the country and divisions between the main parties.

Reasons for Apprehensions on Polls

The reasons for apprehensions are clear as the main opposition party BNP has been holding rallies across the country for some time now to garner public support for holding polls under a caretaker administration. The series of rallies culminated on October 28 with extensive violence. Police were targeted with crude bombs as they attempted to disperse the crowd indicating preparedness of the participants. UN Human Rights Office, said on October 30, "at least 11 people died in connection with the protests in many parts of the country. The victims include two policemen, six opposition party members, and two bystanders."

The BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami, and other like-minded opposition parties launched a 48-hour blockade thereafter in the first week of November causing significant disruptions to road, rail, and waterway transportation.

The police in response focused on the opposition leadership with BNP Vice Chairman Air Vice Marshal (retd) Altaf Hossain Choudhury amongst others sent to jail in a case filed over vandalism of the chief justice's home during a clash between party men and police on October 28.

What next after the blockade is a moot question as continuous protests and bandhs is leading to resentment in the public and the opposition fears that it may lose support of the people. Thus, the BNP may go in for blockade of government establishments in the next phase.

The government strategy has been to crackdown on opposition activists to quash the movement. It is also believed that over a period the protesters may lose steam through sheer exhaustion.

However, BNP which is seemingly guided by its Vice President Tarique Rehman who is on exile in London does not appear to be going slow on the programme of protests, since a degree of public support given economic conditions and hard line policies of the Awami League. Inflation in Bangladesh in October is in almost double digits to 9.93 percent with the rural areas touching 9.99 percent.

Line Up of Parties

The BNP is expected to gain support of the Islamist parties including Jamaat-e-Islami, which is seeking reinstatement with the EC which it lost in 2018. Hefazat-e-Islam, a Qawmi madrasa-based organization is supporting four political parties Bangladesh KhelafatMajlish, Khilafat Andolan, Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam and Bangladesh Nezami Islami Part for agitation against the present government. These parties are expected to rally the Islamic vote bank in the country during the elections.

The largely secular Awami League and its allies including the third pole of politics in Bangladesh the Jatiya Party will be under pressure from the Islamist vote bank, but hope to rally secularists and pro Independence lobbies to wear out the opposition. Peaceful Durga Puja celebrations in the country this year will ensure the minority votes for the Awami League and its allies.

Foreign Intermediations

Apart from the United States several foreign missions in Bangladesh issued a statement calling on all stakeholders to exercise restraint, refrain from violence and work together to create the conditions for free, fair, participatory, and peaceful elections after the October 28 violence. The joint statement was signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Norway, the UK and the US.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasised importance of respecting the right to free expression and peaceful assembly, said his spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, in response to a question at regular briefing in New York.

On the same note, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said, "We urge the government to observe the greatest restraint to curb political tensions at this critical time and to take steps to ensure that human rights are fully upheld for all Bangladeshis before, during, and after the elections."

"The European Union and its Member States in Dhaka are deeply saddened to see the loss of life and violence on the streets of Dhaka - vital that a peaceful way forward for participatory and peaceful elections is found," European Union in Bangladesh (@EUinBangladesh) wrote in its X, formerly known as Twitter. European Union has informed the Awami League that it will send a small expert group to observe the next national election.

The Awami League and the BNP have actively wooed foreign governments. The BNP sent a seven-page letter to the embassies and high commissions in Dhaka to disassociate from the violence during October 28 rally even as Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen briefed diplomats stationed in Dhaka on the political situation.

The United States has been most vocal in holding free and fair polls and has even threatened a ban on visas for those involved in manipulation of elections. The US pre-election assessment mission has recommended dialogue between political parties. Afreen Akhter, the US deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs who was the most recent administration official to visit Dhaka has also insisted on dialogue bilaterally amongst political parties.

China has raised the issue of US interference in Bangladesh elections by calling that some countries are seeking undue interventions in internal affairs.

India which is largely in favour of return of Sheikh Hasina has not commented on the internal

issues related to elections.

However Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson in a media briefing on November 09 when asked about the situation in Bangladesh said, “Elections in Bangladesh, as I have said, are a domestic matter for them. It is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their own future. As a close friend and partner, we respect the democratic process in Bangladesh and we will continue to support Bangladesh's vision of a stable, peaceful and progressive nation”.

What Next?

The BNP which has vacillated between abstention and participation in polls will have to decide on continuing to disrupt law and order and thus possibly postpone the polls. On the other hand many second rung leaders of the BNP are keen to participate in the polls as they want to be a part of the mainstream having been out of power since 2006.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has indicated polls time government can be formed with the parties including the opposition represented in the parliament led by her. There is a catch here as the BNP is not represented in the parliament as seven members who were earlier part of the legislature have resigned. A compromise formula to accept the BNP nominee could be one option but the main opposition party does not want the caretaker administration to be headed by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina which is constitutionally untenable for now and will also not be acceptable to the Awami League.

Breaking this impasse appears to be difficult and in the absence of a realistic dialogue continued violence may be anticipated.

In a recent interaction with the media, Sheikh Hasina when asked about the Americans demanding dialogue said, she would consider the same if U.S. President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump sat for dialogue.

Such is the bitterness amongst the political leadership in Bangladesh that BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia who has been jailed and is now hospitalized was not given permission to leave for treatment abroad. May be a compromise around this issue can be worked out.

Some analysts have raised the possible role of the Army though the military leaders can be considered as Awami League loyalists being nominated by Prime Minister, however Bangladesh has the tradition of mid-level coup and infiltration by the BNP in the military leadership cannot be ruled out.

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