Jatiya Sangsad elections and politicking thereof will dominate the political space in Bangladesh in the coming months and year, apart from state of the economy, the trends of which are being covered separately. After the Election Commission of Bangladesh (ECB) announced polls will held in the last week of the December 2023 or the first week of January 2024, political debate over –participatory polls, use of Electronic Voting Machines, holding elections under a caretaker administration and restraining violence by activists is ongoing. Thus, political contestations leading to the polls thus remains the trajectory ahead. Here is a review-
Elections Related Developments
Elections to the Jatiya Sangsad – a unicameral parliament in Bangladesh are due only in December 2023- first week of January 2024. However, polls related activities have commenced even though politicking is at low key.
Election Commission of Bangladesh (ECB) on May 26, 2022, started the registration process for new political parties. A meeting for exchange of views was also held the same month.
Thereafter, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal held a series of meetings with the registered political parties from July 17-31. 39 registered political parties including the ruling Awami League, and main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were invited for dialogue.
The BNP, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD Rab), Bangladesh Kalyan Party, Bangladesh Muslim League, Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal, and Liberal Democratic Party refused to participate in the meetings. BNP senior leader Mirza Abbas claimed that while he appreciated the CEC invitation, they will not participate in any dialogue with the ECB unless there is a change in the government during the polls. The ECB has however stated that this is not within purview of the Commission and is a political decision.
EC’s initiative to earn political parties' trust over Electronic Voting Machines sustained a blow as five parties, including the BNP, skipped its views-exchange meeting held in May while very few have supported the same in the dialogue held in July.
In the recommendations made by political parties in July, holding staggered national polls, a proportional representation system, voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) to the Electronic Voting Machines, installing CCTV cameras in and outside of all polling centres, and reintroducing "No Vote," were some key issues. The EC has sent some of these proposals to the law ministry as per the Daily Star though many recommendations of the parties have been ignored.
As these discussions are at a preliminary stage, the main issue will remain participation of the opposition party the BNP which is highly sceptical in participating in polls under the present government led by the Awami League and has sought a polls time government.
The BNP participated in the 11th elections, but a handful of members were elected whereas the Awami League could project the polls as participatory. There are calls for participation of the BNP in polls for these to be seen as representative of people’s voice at large. Moreover, the United States has been commenting on the necessity to hold free and fair polls with full participation. Bangladesh was not included in the democracy summit held by President Joe Biden in December 2021
Awami League BNP Contestations
In bipolar politics of Bangladesh – two parties ruling Awami League, and the main opposition BNP dominate contestations.
In April Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina claimed that a group of political parties joined hands with the BNP-Jamaat alliance to try to unseat her government and return the country to an era of darkness. Following her lead, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader also targeted the BNP and said that they are the main impediment to democracy and progress in the politics of Bangladesh. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir alleged that the government has formed a cell to convict their front-ranking leaders across the country in "false" cases ahead of the next general election.
On the other hand, BNP has decided that members of the 20-party alliance will no longer hold programs under the same banner possibly due to a rift with the Jamaat leadership. Leaders of other members of the alliance also appear to agree. BNP insiders hinted that the move was aimed at finally cutting out long-time ally Jamaat-e-Islam, as several members of the alliance were disgruntled associating with the Islamist party that regularly courts controversy.
The BNP targeted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over her remark about pushing the party's Chairperson Khaleda Zia into the river from the Padma bridge saying this was tantamount to a "death threat". BNP is also demanding release of Ms. Khaleda. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir renewed their party’s demand for unconditional release. “She struggled to restore democracy throughout her life. She has now been kept under house arrest by the fascist Awami League government due to her efforts to restore democracy. So, our first condition is that she be released unconditionally,” the BNP leader said.
All this denotes that the polls will be highly contentious with participation of the BNP remaining a question mark
In the month of July, a mob in Sahapara village in Narail's Lohagara Upazila vandalized minority property pillaging shops and homes. On August 18, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that all people irrespective of their religions will enjoy equal rights in Bangladesh. "We want people of all faiths to live with equal rights. You are people of this country, you have equal rights here, you have the same rights as I have," she said. "You should always think that you are the citizens of this country, and you will enjoy equal rights," the premier said while exchanging greetings with the Hindu community leaders on Janmashtami as per the Daily Star.
However, minority groups claim that the Awami League while in power has not given them a sense of security. No visible measures have been taken by the ruling party to protect the country's religious minorities, alleged Bangladesh Hindu-Bouddha-Christian Oikya Parishad as reports of attacks on religious places of minorities have continued.
Other Political Developments
Awami League celebrated the 73rd founding anniversary. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that no one can stop Bangladesh’s march towards development if the country is run in accordance with the plans formulated by the ruling Awami League. She castigated the main opposition BNP stating that the top leaders of the Party have been convicted in criminal cases and thus it has become ineffective.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the country's longest bridge over the Padma River at Mawa end and hailed the achievement given that it was indigenously driven after the World Bank refused to support the project. Indeed, this will stand as a landmark to her personal determination to get the project through despite many challenges.
Elections in Bangladesh will be held under the Awami League government as laid down constitutionally. The important factor will thus be whether these are held in a free and fair manner or seen to be so. Participation of the BNP along with other parties aligned with it assumes importance. A newly selected ECB under a constitution amendment is now in office and the ability to conduct free and fair polls will remain the acid test. Another factor will be whether poll time violence can be contained, while role of the army will remain a question mark.
External actors also apparently will have a role to play. Surprisingly, Foreign Minister AKM Abdul Momen claimed that he requested the Indian government to do whatever necessary for continuation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as per the Daily Star. "I went to India and said Sheikh Hasina's continuation must be ensured. She is our role model. If her continuation is ensured, our country will stride towards development and become a truly non-communal country," he said at the opening ceremony of Janmashtami festival at JM Sen Hall in Chattogram city on August 18.
[Compilation and editing assistance by Harshita Panwar]