Bangladesh Polls: Awami League Has an Edge Over the Injured Opposition
The Citizen's foreign policy primer
The 11th General Elections are being held in Bangladesh on December 30. According to the Election Commission almost 104.2 million registered voters would be voting at nearly 40,000 polling stations. More than 600,000 security personnel from the police, the Border Guard Bangladesh, the Rapid Action Battalion, the Coast Guard, Ansar, and Village Defence Party, are to be deployed at the polling stations.
The elections would be a contest primarily between the ruling Bangladesh Awami League-led Grand Alliance and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front) and Left Democratic Alliance.
Concerns have been expressed particularly in western quarters that Sheikh Hasina has been using her power and control over the state institutions to decimate the opposition prior to the polls and ensure an Awami League victory.
A British House of Commons report said that “..the “playing field remains far from being level” and that “…harassment of political opponents remains intense while the ruling Awami League enjoys the advantages of incumbency..”
Similar sentiments have been expressed by other countries including the United States and human rights groups criticising the Sheikh Hasina led government of functioning in an increasingly authoritarian manner.
Dr Kamal Hossain heading the Jatiya Oikya Front had in a press statement said that there was mass discrimination in order to push the opposition out of the elections. He had also called for resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner accusing him of bias. Reports from Bangladesh said that the police arrested more than 10,500 opposition activists in a crackdown ahead of the elections. According to media reports around 1,000 BNP and Jamaat leaders and activists had been arrested since December 10.
The campaigning period has witnessed considerable violence. The media reported that nine people had been killed and over 3500 injured. There have been clashes between the supporters of the Awami League and the opposition; attacks on media personnel by masked individuals; the use of petrol bombs etc.
Opposition leaders have not been spared and Jatiya Oikya Front leader Dr. Kamal Hossain’s motorcade was attacked and a number of Jatiya Oikyafront activists beaten up. Despite the army’s deployment, election violence and attacks on opposition candidates have continued and around 1,000 BNP and Jamaat e Islami leaders and activists have been arrested since the begin of the campaign period on December 10.
According to the opposition, motorcades and campaigns of at least 51 BNP and Jatiya Oikyafront candidates have been attacked allegedly by Awami League men since that date.
Sheikh Hasina’s main rival Begum Khaleda Zia has effectively been removed from the electoral fray. She had filed three petitions with the High Court against the Election Commission ruling barring her from being nominated as a candidate because she had been incarcerated following her convictions in cases.
The High Court had upheld the decision of the Election Commission and Khaleda’s recourse to the Supreme Court was unlikely to provide her relief since the Supreme Court was in recess and would sit next only in early January 2019 after the polls are over.
The BNP had feared that, given what it perceived as the Election Commission’s bias, many of its candidates might find their nominations rejected. The party had therefore taken the step of fielding multiple candidates in almost every constituency nominating 696 aspirants in 295 constituencies. The approach appeared to have been vindicated as with the rejection of some of the candidates the party was left unrepresented in some constituencies.
The BNP’s ally the Jamaat e Islami had also come under pressure with the Courts asking the government to explain why the Election Commission’s decision to allow 25 Jamaat members to contest the election as independents or under the BNP symbol, should not be considered illegal as the Jamaat’s political registration had been cancelled.
The Awami League had also had its share of internal dissent. Reports said that 50 party leaders who had not been nominated were rebelling and likely to stand as independents. Sheikh Hasina had been constrained to write to all the “rebels” to withdraw their candidacy and join the Awami League nominees on the campaign trail.
Women formed only a small proportion of the nominated candidates. Out the 300 parliamentary seats, reports incidated that neither the Awami League nor the BNP had fielded over 20 women candidates.
The main parties have all come out with manifestos containing grandiose promises.
The Awami League manifesto as reported in the media talks of ““Bangladesh on the March of Prosperity” with the party promising that Bangladesh will be a middle income country by 2021, upper middle income by 2030 and developed by 2041. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s manifesto contains 61 promises. The Oikya Parishad had earlier held a rally calling upon all political parties and alliances not to nominate those who had in the past or were currently engaged in anti-minority activities as candidates. Its 35 point manifesto bears a resemblance to the BNP’s manifesto.
The issue of Independent monitoring of the elections had also created some hiccups. The Election Commission had said that 26,066 observers EC were to monitor the election a figure far less than the 1.6 lakh domestic observers who had monitored the 2008 elections. Leaders of the Election Working Group (EWG), an alliance of 22 local organisations that monitor election, said members of the combine were confused as the NGO Affairs Bureau "no objection certificate" was awaited.
According to the EC 178 international observers would monitor the polls compared to 600 international monitors in 2008.
The European Union, which had on occasion questioned the Bangladesh government’s actions, said it would not send any election monitoring team given the expense and effort involved. International election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), funded by the U.S. government had withdrawn and the U.S. State Department said it was disappointed by Bangladesh’s “inability to grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary” – a criticism dismissed by the Bangladesh Government which said that ANFREL had withdrawn the applications itself. Earlier a senior official at the U.S. embassy in Dhaka had said that the United States would send 12 teams of observers and fund thousands of domestic observers to monitor the elections and make sure they were free and fair.
The media in Bangladesh continued to be pressured by the government. It had been announced that speeds for 3G and 4G services would be downgraded to 2G level during the voting and would come back to normal after 5 pm after polling concludes, making it difficult for media personnel to report.
The Election Commission barred live streaming of the elections on social networking platforms, including Facebook and Twitter from the polling booths. It said that only one journalist would be permitted at a time to enter a polling booth.
While the Election Commission of Bangladesh had agreed to issue stickers for journalists travelling in vehicles such as sedans and microbuses, motorcycles had been banned under the guidelines for the media coverage of the elections and no press stickers would be issued to journalists travelling on motorcycles to cover the polls. Television channels had been barred from reporting live from inside the polling centres.
What will be the result of the elections? Sheikh Hasina has left nothing to chance and conventional wisdom is that the Awami League will win against the injured opposition. There are questions being raised whether Hasina’s noticeable authoritarianism will be overshadowed in the polling booths by the economic and developmental gains the country has made during her rule.
The opposition is still hoping that her legacy would be seen by the youth as one of repression and excessive hand holding with India with some hoping for a more liberal regime and others more attuned to greater Islamisation. But it would be a long shot unless miraculously the manifestos of the opposition parties resound with the people more than that of the Awami League.