In Bangladesh, parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 30. Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister, has been in office since early 2009. This makes her the longest serving ruler in the history of the country. Daughter of the South Asian nation’s founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, she has been at the helm of the Awami League (AL) since 1981. Following the restoration of democracy 1990, the AL emerged as a principal player of Bangladeshi politics.
For the better part of the past two decades, Hasina's chief rival has been the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia; she is the wife of former President Ziaur Rahman who was assassinated in 1982. The rivalry between Hasina and Zia is popularly known as the "Battle of the Begums". The two women have alternated as Prime Ministers since 1991. The BNP and its student wing were the driving force in the 1990 uprising against the autocratic Ershad rule that culminated in the fall of the regime and the restoration of democracy.
In 2014 the BNP opted not to participate in parliamentary elections on the grounds that the ruling party would not offer a level playing field to ensure a free and fair election. Hence, Hasina was reelected as Prime Minister in a largely unopposed contest. Subsequently, the incumbent AL and its allied smaller parties have enjoyed a more than two-third majority in parliament without a credible opposition. Presently several prominent BNP politicians, including Begum Zia, are in jail on corruption and other charges and banned from taking part in the upcoming election.
Two alternate scenarios prevail. Chief Election Commissioner, K M Nurul Huda holds an optimistic view: “A favorable situation prevails in the country to hold a free and fair election,” he says. “Our aim is to conduct the elections properly so that there is no conflict or misunderstanding. We have to ensure that everyone follows the electoral code of conduct.”
The ruling party proclaims the Election Commission (EC) and the various governmental bodies would remain neutral and stave off violence, vote fraud, and other irregularities. Winning a free and fair election with participation of all opposition parties would enhance their credibility both within the country and globally, they say.
On the other hand, the critics of the ruling party are skeptical and disillusioned with the electoral process. “As a large party, we have all the preparations for participating in [the] coming election, but for that we need a level playing field, which is not there”, says BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. “We demand a neutral government as it is our experience that with the ruling party there cannot be a free and fair election.”
The opposition points out to numerous arrests of their party workers, and litigations against their leaders are becoming ever more intense as Election Day approaches. Local human rights organizations have documented numerous cases of enforced disappearances. There is even the suggestion of a recent spike in “extrajudicial executions”.
“Crucial for the Future”
According to multiple sources, political and civil society activists who criticize the government are threatened with incarceration. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s supporters are immune from legal action when they suppress the opposition violently, these sources say.
“An uncertainty looms large whether the people of Bangladesh will be able to exercise their franchise in the 11th parliamentary elections and it’s very crucial for future Bangladesh,” says former Election Commissioner M Sakhawat Hussain. “2018 is very important as the people didn’t get good elections over the past couple of years. People got a sort of stability, but at the cost of deviation in democratic system,” the political analyst observes.
What is likely to happen on Election Day? The BNP says a caretaker government is essential for free and fair polls. The ruling AL rejects the demand for a caretaker government ahead of the election, saying it is "unconstitutional" and argues the presence of national and international observers would deter election fraud.
Several local observers have shown interest in the upcoming national election, but foreign observers are not that keen: The European Union has informed the government they will not monitor, or send observers. Meanwhile, the EC has invited observers from the Forum of Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBoSA) but imposed restrictions on their mission: The observers would not be allowed to talk to the media on polling day, carry mobile phones or even take photos inside polling centers. This has raised questions over the neutrality of the mission and could make the role of the observers meaningless, critics say.
A free and fair election with a high turnout and the active participation of voters and political parties is necessary for Bangladesh’s fledgling democracy. Regrettably, since the last national elections, followed by local level elections, both the process and consequently the involvement of the citizens have been compromised. There needs to be more space for open discourse on the government’s policies and performance, critics say. The presence of a credible opposition is essential to ensure checks and balances
Whatever the circumstances and the outcome, all sides agree that Bangladesh’s eleventh General Elections are crucial for the history of the young South Asian nation.