On 30 December, 2018, a chaotic political scenario culminated into much awaited General Elections in Bangladesh. As results poured in, one phrase was abound for incumbent PM Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League Party – 'landslide victory’. The elections to the Jatiya Sangsad – the Parliament of Bangladesh – a unicameral entity, consisting of some 350 (300 directly elected and 50 nominated) seats ended with the Awami League led coalition bagging over 260 seats.
But the election, and its results were far from a routine exercise in democratic governance. With a population of around 160 million, and a strategic more than 104 million registered voters Bangladesh is one of the world’s biggest democracies. However, over the last few years, it has also been one of the most troubled democracies in the world. Since independence in 1971 from Pakistan, the country has had its share of military rule and democratic governments. Over the past twenty years however, democracy seemed to be stabilizing with power shifting back and forth between the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party – led in large part by Begum Khaleda Zia – and the centre-left Awami League – led first by Independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and then his daughter, Sheikh Hasina. The troubles began sometime in 2010. Sheikh Hasina won the last undisputed election (where the challengers accepted the legitimacy) in 2008, after a brief military intervention against her in 2007. As she came to power in January 2009, democracy seemed to return to Bangladesh. But soon thereafter, a number of crisis ended the façade of normalcy. First, Hasina had to quell a revolt by the Bangladesh Rifles regiment of the army in 2009. She faced increasing economic and social pressure as Rohingya refugees from Myanmar began entering the country in 2012. Then, she narrowly avoided a coup attempt by mid-ranking army officials in 2012, on an alleged tip off by the Indian Intelligence Agencies.
The socio-political situation worsened as old rifts came to a head in the midst of a precarious political scene. The government succeeded in forming the International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh) in 2012, to investigate and prosecute local contributors of the Pakistani army in the human rights violations committed during the War of Independence in 1971. The BNP which was at the time not completely in favour of Independence, saw this as an attempt to incarcerate many of its supporters and members. Amidst rising tensions with the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina used the 2006 caretaker government’s extension of its term, and the following military takeover as an excuse to abolish an important requirement in the Constitution. Bangladesh’s Constitution had hitherto required that elections be conducted under a caretaker government, chosen by consensus all stakeholders and not led by someone contesting the elections. This was a safety valve to ensure neutral and fair conduct of the polls. The Awami League, with its thumping majority, amended the Constitution and abolished this requirement before the 2014 elections.
The result was a series of protests by the Opposition and a number of blockades that brought the country to a grinding halt. Dipping in opinion polls, and facing a historic loss in local elections to the BNP, the Awami League went on an offensive. A serious crackdown began in the run up to the elections. Opposition party events were regularly disbanded, the media was struck with lawsuits and threats of state action, and an environment of authoritarianism took hold. Desperate for an opening, opposition parties led by Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP, demanded the establishment of a caretaker government failing which, they threatened to boycott the 2014 elections. The government did not relent on the demands and all major Opposition parties boycotted the elections. Sheikh Hasina came back to power with an even greater majority – winning most of the seats uncontested, and the BNP was left out of the Parliament entirely.
Over the next few years, improving economic situation offered the PM some respite. The country saw millions lift themselves out of poverty and political and economic stabilization seemed to remerge. Bangladesh achieved exceptional growth rates, even competing with neighbouring India in a number of industries. But once again, the façade of normalcy broke. Early 2016 saw the rise of radical Islamic parties, which had won some seats in the Parliament thanks to the Opposition’s boycott, take a foothold in mainstream politics. A number of online bloggers were murdered or threatened, in an increasingly radical environment. There were even murmurs of ISIS having gained a foothold in the country, though these were later proven to be rumours. But the radical environment polarised the electorate and the Awami League, dug its heels into vitriolic nationalism and pride in the War of Independence, to which many Islamic parties were not favourably disposed. The surge in Rohingya immigration further vitiated the atmosphere and enhanced violence.
This prompted the Awami League to begin a second wave of crackdown on the Opposition, which was again gaining public support, despite the stabilizing economic situation. Using its brute majority, it passed a law in September 2018, prescribing harsh prison terms for those “propagandizing” about the War of Independence. A court verdict, which many found to be politically motivated, led to the imprisonment of Khaleda Zia in 2018 on a corruption case – she continues to remain in prison to this day. Her son, Tarique Rahman, who is the acting chairman of the BNP owing to his mother’s imprisonment, was also convicted in the same case, and has had to take refuge in London. He fought the 2018 elections in absentia and managed the campaign from London.
Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina (extreme right).
The Awami League has also dismantled the judiciary. In 2014, it passed an amendment to make it easier for the government to remove judges. When the Supreme Court nullified the amendment in 2017, it accused the Chief Justice of corruption. The judge, who was abroad at the time, was forced to resign and has not returned to Bangladesh since. His autobiography accuses the PM of intimidating judges, and attempting to rig elections. The Economist noted, in an article in October 2018, that the police was being used to enforce the government’s crackdown, running a Philippines-style anti-drugs campaign which has claimed over 200 lives.
The 2018 campaign took place in the midst of several disturbing trends that are a direct culmination of the past events in Bangladeshi politics. While the BNP and other opposition parties fought this election, signalling a ray of hope, they have not accepted the result and accuse the government of rigging. The general sentiment that the elections were not free and fair are brought out by a number of reasons.
The Awami League won all the 257 of the 259 seats it contested, with its allies winning the remaining seats. The main opposition alliance, Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front), led by the (BNP) has been defeated terribly. Official results indicate that the BNP has won only 8 of the 300 seats up for grabs. Even by normal standards, for a party that has been in power for 10 straight years, fighting for a third term, such a decisive victory lends room to suspicion about the integrity of the vote. For comparison, when India’s Congress party went into 2014 elections, after 10 years in power – and under normal circumstances – it was reduced to 44 seats from the 200+ seats it had earlier held.
The recent election also grabbed headlines because of the violence and accusations of voter suppression in its run up. The opposition has already rejected the outcome and called for fresh elections. News reports point to the absence of opposition polling agents in various booths across the country – hinting at an enforced blockade. The Awami League has also been accused of stuffing ballot boxes. On election days, clashes were also reported between opposition and the ruling party supporters, with 20 people being killed.
BNP Chief and Former PM Khaleda Zia.
The 2018 elections present ominous signs about the state of Bangladesh’s democracy. Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the BNP said that the election has made mockery of democracy. Yet another critique was from Kamal Hossain, convener of the Jatiya Oikya Front, who referred to the election as a drama, and a violation of Bangladesh’s sovereignty. The front, even proposed to submit a memorandum to the election commission. However, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda, rubbished the opposition demand, and said,
"There is no scope to hold the national election again.”
Criticism has been poured in from other institutions as well. Asif Nazrul, Professor Of Law at Dhaka University assailed the election saying,
“This election will destroy people's remaining faith in the election system in Bangladesh.”
However, with Khaleda Zia in jail, domestic pressure alone might not be enough to rein in PM Hasina. International institutions and allies of Bangladesh will need to play a larger role in ensuring that the recent years do not cement an anti-democratic force in the country. But the present international outlook is perilous. Argentina, Turkey, Pakistan, Sudan, and Philippines, all embody the silence of the world to anti-democratic forces. The isolationist view of America with Donald Trump at its head, and the inability of Europe to enforce democratic norms even among its own members – in particular, Italy, Poland, and Hungary – point to the general increase in the world’s appetite for authoritarian leaders. In Bangladesh’s case, the partner with the greatest potential to force PM Hasina’s hand is India – on which the country depends both economically and strategically. However, India is locked in a battle for influence in South Asia with China – a battle it is already losing in Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives, and Myanmar. This forces it to concede to PM Hasina’s tactics as Bangladesh is the only country in the region with a relatively stable relationship with India. Furthermore, India’s ruling party – PM Modi led BJP – has itself shown some tendencies of authoritarian rule, and has not established itself as the arbiter of moral force for rule of law in South Asia.
The culmination of circumstances leading up to the 2018 General Elections ring a crucial warning for the people of Bangladesh. The tide of democracy in their country is on the wane. But it also rings a crucial warning for the rest of the world. Bangladesh’s turn towards authoritarianism places it among a rank of democracies to have fallen to the tide in recent years. It is only an addition to an ever-increasing list of countries that have reneged on the promise of self-rule to their citizens. If the established democracies of the world, particularly, US, UK, Europe, Mexico, India, Brazil, and South Africa, among others, do not take note, things may get out of hand quickly.
Time is running out.
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About the Author
Rehana Iftikhar holds a graduate degree in Journalism and mass communication from Lady Shri Ram College for women, University of Delhi. She has done a Diploma course in Print and Electronic Media. Rehana previously worked with an online magazine, The Qurius, formerly known as The Indian Economist. She loves to read books and is a fierce voice for environmental and animal protection.