Dhaka, Bangladesh – After the Awami League stormed to victory in the January 5 election, Bangladesh is set to form a parliament by the end of this month. But with at least 24 deaths since polls opened, allegations of widespread fraud and a bitter political standoff, many Western nations have stated the tenth national parliamentary elections were “not credible”.
But worse may still be in store for the people of Bangladesh, fear politicians and analysts alike. The impasse between the ruling party and the opposition, which boycotted the polls, shows no sign of abating – and consensus will be needed in order to establish a new election, in which all parties participate.
Turnout was remarkably poor. Up until 2:00pm on polling day, some centres had seen as few as 20 to 30 votes, when their registers held more than 3,000 potential voters.
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“The entire day’s vote at our centre was at 537 – when the registered number of voters under the centre is 3,930,” one election official told Al Jazeera in Dhaka’s Gendaria district. He also added that several independent candidates withdrew their nominations with an hour of polling remaining, giving the ruling party an even larger advantage.
“The turnout was low, due to the lack of security faced by voters and the feeling that there was no competition against the ruling party,” said Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh.
Voting fraud was reported in more than a hundred centres across the country.
“An assistant presiding officer at Banani Bidya Niketan School was stamping ballot papers and handing [them] over to another man so that he could put it in the ballot box,” photographer Sanaul Hoque told Al Jazeera. The photograph of the official was carried by several major dailies in Dhaka the day after polling.
It was the most violent election day in the country’s history, with 21 people killed as people headed to the polls. A further three have died in political clashes across Bangladesh since polls closed.
Police officers reportedly shot dead 15 people, as opposition activists attacked more than 200 voting centres. Polling agents and law enforcement officials were also among the dead.
“Such violence is unprecedented,” said Iftekharuzzaman. In the 1996 election, when the present opposition was in power, 10 people died across the country following similar clashes.
Although voter turnout varied between 20 and 30 percent, according to media reports, the election commission later announced a 40 per cent turnout across 139 constituencies. Polls postponed in eight constituencies will be held on January 16, the commission reported.
Of 300 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the election, 153 were uncontested – after 27 political parties, including the main opposition BNP-led 18-party alliance, boycotted the polls. Their questioning of the neutrality of elections being held without a technocrat government overseeing the poll led to a sweeping victory for ruling party chairperson Sheikh Hasina.
‘Elections not credible’
Within a day of the poll, governments and international organisations condemned the way the election was carried out.
In a press statement,US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said Washington was “disappointed”, as the results of the election “did not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people”. US officials encouraged the government and opposition “to engage in immediate dialogue to find a way to hold, as soon as possible, elections that are free, fair, peaceful, and credible”.
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Although United Kingdom’s Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi noted the polls to be “in accordance with Bangladesh’s Constitution”, she also said that the UK believes “the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy is peaceful, credible elections that express the genuine will of the voters”.
The secretary of the Commonwealth also decried the “limited levels of participation and the low voter turnout”, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed the UN’s sadness that the election was not peaceful and all-inclusive.
While calling the polls a “constitutional requirement”, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said that “the democratic processes must be allowed to take their own course in Bangladesh”.
Another election necessary?
Analysts in Bangladesh that spoke to Al Jazeera agreed that officials should follow recommendations of Western nations, and reach a deal between the main parties, so another election may soon be held.
“Although the elections were constitutional and legal, it is questionable on a political and ethical perspective,” said Transparency International’s Iftekharuzzaman.
“There is an open-ended sense of uncertainty now which is leading to violence and deaths, which is hurting the economy.”
He hoped that an agreement would soon be reached between the two sides. “Otherwise, undemocratic forces may take over.”
During a similar impasse in 2006, a military-backed caretaker government took control of the country. Elections were eventually re-held towards the end of 2008.
“The [most recent] elections lacked democratic values and practices that includes multi-party participation,” said Shantanu Majumdar, associate professor political science of Dhaka University.
“[The] 11th parliamentary elections need to happen soon,” he added. “I hope the ruling party will not take advantage of the 10th polls’ results and prolong their tenure.”
Since October 25, more than 200 people have died due to political violence in Bangladesh.
“The opposition should relax their stance of removing the prime minister from poll-time government,” said Majumdar. “Her power can be neutralised by ensuring complete freedom of the election commission, administration, police and state media during polls.”
Manjurul Ahsan Khan, president of the Communist Party Bangladesh, which had also boycotted the elections, told Al Jazeera his party had wished the process could have been more inclusive. “We did not take part, as we wanted the polls to be participatory and in a way resolve the present crisis,” he said.
“Government should initiate efforts to start dialogue immediately. Otherwise the enemies of Bangladesh will take advantage of the situation,” he concluded.
During a press conference on Monday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said: “People participated in the poll and other parties participated.”
She did not seem fearful of the prospect of foreign sanctions. “What crimes did we commit that they would impose sanction on us?”
Showing she was not brimming with friendly overtures towards the opposition leader Khaleda Zia, Hasina added: “If [opposition parties] come forward to discuss with us, they have to leave all these terrorist activities behind, because what they are doing is absolutely killing people, killing police, killing innocent people.”
Zia had called on the government to “cancel the farcical polls, step down and reach an understanding to organise a free, fair and neutral election under a non-party government”.
Kazi Nabil Ahmed, now a first-time Awami League MP, hoped that another election could be held – while maintaining that “the term of the tenth parliament is for up to five years. The government to be formed can continue for [its] full term”.
He told Al Jazeera: “For any solution to be reached, there are no other alternatives than dialogue. The PM has been sincere in her offer of dialogue repeatedly, but the opposition has not responded.”