Dhaka, Bangladesh – The opposition alliance in Bangladesh has accused the government of arresting its leaders and supporters before Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
Jatiya Oikya Front (National Unity Front) has cast doubt on the impartiality of the elections, with its leader, Kamal Hossain, raising fingers at the chief election commissioner.
Nearly 2,000 candidates from the ruling Awami League and the opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are competing for the 300 seats up for grabs.
Fifty seats are reserved for women in the 350-member parliament, called as Jatiya Sangshad.
Al Jazeera spoke to Hossain on issues facing the elections and his concerns regarding the conduct of the electoral process.
Al Jazeera: Why did you go against the Awami League, a former ally?
Kamal Hossain: It’s because of people’s unanimous urge for change. People say they want change which means the United Front.
I also must reflect what everyone now says: time has come for a change.
I have been instrumental in the Hasina government, and her return [from exile]. I was with her on the day her father was killed.
I am not someone who wants to bring her down, but I would say 10 years is enough, you have done five years with a proper election and five years without a proper election (the last election was boycotted by the opposition).
Al Jazeera: Do you have faith in state institutions? You have raised fingers against the election commissioner.
Hossain: We have faith in institutions, but there are some individuals who are pulling down the institutions and doing the bidding for the government to get temporary gain.
Those who go to constitutional offices such as judges and election commissioners, they should be above personal temptation.
So, we have asked them to bear in mind that they have a very important constitutional responsibility, which requires neutrality, impartially and fairness.
Al Jazeera: Is the police biased against the opposition?
Hossain: These are actions of a nervous regime, which feels that power is slipping from its hands. Now, they are doing these extraordinary things of arresting people right, left and centre using police in a way that shames me because I have been part of the writing of the original constitution in 1972.
And every speech I have made said: Our police is not like the police we had before, this police fought for our liberation. Every time I meet them (police), I remind them of their glorious past.
But to see the police being misused for personal party gains is shameful. Police are a critical organisation in a multiparty democracy.
If police are not impartial, then that is the end of rule of law. I am not critical of the police but those who misuse the police.
Al Jazeera: Hasina says she has delivered development and only people with vested interests are speaking out against her.
Hossain: We have lived longer than she has with the reality of Bangladesh. We remember, just before Bangladesh was born in 1971, Ayub Khan was the military ruler of Pakistan.
And we were sick and tired of hearing him: ‘These Bengalis talk about democracy but am I giving them development.’
Hasina may not remember that, she was too young then. What she is saying is not original. She has used exactly the same rhetoric used by Ayub Khan. Bangabandhu, our revered leader, used to tell him (Ayub Khan) this is not what people want when you take away their democratic rights.
Growth for whom, development for whom?
Al Jazeera: But the country has seen a high growth rate in the 10-year rule of the Awami League government.
Hossain: It’s a very inequitable distribution of wealth. Farmers are not getting a just price for their produce. And the price they get in the market is very, very little. Middlemen are appropriating.
Why are salaries of garment workers, despite an increase in exports, stuck at 5,500? Now, it’s gone up to 7,000-8,000 taka. But we need a minimum of 12,000 for a living wage. Economic growth for whom?
If development does not include political and civil rights, democracy and fair elections, it does not mean much to people. People are being evicted from slums. They do not have a roof on their heads.
Government calls them miscreants. But the bulk of them is garment workers, most of them are women.
Promises have been made that slum dwellers will be rehabilitated but after 10 years, how many of them have been given alternative shelter?
There has to be a hard-hitting assessment as to why 47 years after independence, garment workers have to live in slums amid threats of eviction at short notice.
You can’t understand the reality of Bangladesh by only seeing the one percent at the top. Bulk of ‘basti’ (slum dwellers) people are garment workers, and the government has offered no programme for their housing.
The government claims that they have improved the power situation. But the cost at which electricity has been acquired, no one could buy it. Compare this with other South Asian neighbours such as India or Sri Lanka.
Al Jazeera: What’s your take on the Digital Security Law?
Hossain: After 47 years of independence, you do not expect to see a law like Digital Security Act (DSA).
When [Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan], you had a law, which allowed the government to lock up without giving any further ground. Your liberty was always in suspense. We fought against this.
We have this nasty experience of laws that allow this kind of power of detention.
Preventive detention is really an instrument of colonialism. That’s a legacy we want to relieve ourselves from.
DSA has similar provisions, which allows the government to detain someone indefinitely for expressing their opinion.
These kinds of laws have no room in Bangladesh where rule of law and democracy is one of the pillars of the constitution.
Al Jazeera: Do you think there will free and fair elections?
Hossain: If you support free and fair elections you do not go around right, left and centre throughout the country arresting people.
I have been in legal profession for 55 years, I have done many cases but never seen this kind of absolutely wanton arrests that are going on.
Moinul Haque Chaudhury, four times former member of parliament, has been arrested. No reasons were given. He could have been an effective leader during the election campaigning.