Dhaka, Bangladesh – As Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League (AL) party cruised towards a decisive victory, the opposition alliance dubbed Sunday’s polls “farcical” and called for fresh elections under a non-partisan government.
The government has been accused of rigging the vote and intimidating opposition candidates and supporters in lead up to the polls. At least 17 people were killed on Sunday during voting.
On the eve of the elections, Al Jazeera spoke to Gowher Rizvi, international affairs adviser to AL leader and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on a range of issues, including opposition allegations of intimidation, the banning of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party and the government’s economic record.
Al Jazeera: The opposition has alleged that their supporters and candidates have been intimidated and prevented from campaigning freely. What is your response to that?
Gowher Rizvi: It’s a serious allegation. It’s quite widespread feeling among the opposition groups that there are restrictions on their movements and that there are police arrests etc.
Lot of these things are being exaggerated. It’s despicable, it’s really worrying that there is violence. But if you look at the last seven days, seven people have been killed and all of them were from Awami League. This is real violence, people have lost their lives.
Final word to you, I am really glad you are here on the ground, investigate and find out the veracity of any of these stories. Yes, there are some isolated incidents, I have no doubts, it has happened in the past, it’s happening now. But do not accept it without corroboration.
Al Jazeera: Why has Jamaat-e-Islami been banned?
Rizvi: Jamaat-e-Islami has not been banned by the government. Every party has its own constitution and manifesto. Jamaat rejects the secular, liberal democratic constitution of Bangladesh and wants to replace it with a theocratic Islamic state.
It is for this reason, because its constitution is in confrontation with the constitution, the election commission has refused its registration.
As many as 40 Jamaat leaders are contesting in the elections as part of BNP or independents. Government has not banned them and will not ban them.
Al Jazeera: Why are the opposition’s campaign posters missing from the streets?
Rizvi: We are running on a record of 10 years of rapid economic development. Enormous prosperity has been achieved in every social and economic indicator. We are contesting on that record and we have also offered an exciting manifesto for the next five years.
I would ask you to pose questions to leaders of the opposition; what is their manifesto, on what manifesto are they seeking elections that people will get excited about apart from saying ‘throw out a very successful government’, which has not only preserved political stability but also promoted economic development.
We did everything possible to make this a competitive and inclusive election, but the opposition joined the electoral race so late. Our prime minister went out of the way to bring them in the election process.
In the last four years, they did very little by way of campaigning, developing their party or building manifesto. And they created uncertainty among their own party members by constantly threatening to boycott the election. They did not enter the election seriously until a month ago or six weeks ago. But they kept the threat of boycotting alive.
So, in this uncertainty, how do you think the party workers are going to campaign?
It wasn’t until Dr Kamal Hossain’s initiatives they came around and said that they will participate.
Al Jazeera: Why didn’t the Awami League agree to a caretaker government as the opposition demanded?
Rizvi: The Supreme Court gave a clear-cut verdict that caretaker government is illegal and undemocratic. The Supreme Court said that it is undemocratic because a caretaker government is made up of people not elected by voters, therefore, has no legitimacy in a democratic country.
How does the BNP expect that something that has been declared by the Supreme Court as illegal and undemocratic could be reinstated?
You also have to remember that the last caretaker government stayed on for two years instead of three months. And did so illegally.
They arrested the BNP leaders as well as Awami League leader. How can anyone talk about caretaker government with any credibility?
In India, elections are conducted by an election commission. Have you actually given proof that the Election Commission is not functioning impartially? Repeating the same lies, again and again, does not make it the truth.
Al Jazeera: What has your party done to narrow the political divide in Bangladesh?
Rizvi: The first thing about democracy is that a political party does not have the option of boycotting an election. If the BNP’s criticism [about the 2014 election] was that the election was going to be unfair, it was going to be rigged, voters will not be allowed to participate freely, then they should have gone into the election and demonstrated to the public that this election wasn’t indeed fair.
Instead of doing that, they boycotted it. As it happened, there was no rigging in the election. So, the entire premise that it would be a rigged election, they could not prove. What else can the government do?
Let’s forget 2014. Let’s go to 2008, which was held under a military-backed caretaker government, about which the BNP did not complain. They participated in the election. They won a handsome number of seats. But did they actually participate in the parliament?
They boycotted most of the sessions of the parliament. They would turn up every 90th day so that their membership was not cancelled. That is not democracy.
Should we have forced them to come to the session? Government has a lot of responsibilities. But if the BNP chooses to boycott of its own free volition, what can the government do?
Al Jazeera: Your party has pushed the narrative of economic growth and development. Do the voters buy it?
Rizvi: We have reduced the level of poverty down to 22-23 percent. The absolute poverty according to the World Bank definition has been reduced by about 10 percent.
Bangladesh is the only country in the world with comparable low per capita income with a universal basic medical healthcare. These are the ways you eliminate poverty.
We are providing free textbooks to all students up to class 12.
We are producing 350 million textbooks so that no child is deprived of education.
The last thing that eradicates inequality is building up power and infrastructure. Because we have invested in power and infrastructure, farmers from remote areas in Bangladesh can send their garden produce to Dhaka and other big metropolises.
Given the fact that resource is actually transferring from the urban area to the rural area, and this is a very special characteristic of this government.
Al Jazeera: Why has the government dithered on the demand to increase the minimum wage for garment workers?
Rizvi: When our government came to power in 2008 the average wage of a garment worker was 1,600 taka ($19). Today, even though I will agree that it is still low, it is 8,000 taka ($96). This means it has increased five-fold. And this has been done largely at the intervention of the government.
We would like to pay our workers better, but we also have to make sure that in the process we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. If we push the price too quickly without comparative increase in productivity, our garment industry will become uncompetitive.
I agree that it should be higher, but our record of increasing it five-fold should be applauded and the government should not be blamed.
Al Jazeera: The AL government has been accused of muzzling press freedom. What’s your response?
Rizvi: Print media has been under a legal framework. Digital media grew up without any control whatsoever. The Digital Security Act was an attempt to bring digital media under the same sort of law and accountability as the print media.
The main concern of the government was not to curb the people’s freedom of expression, but [to control] the use of media to incite violence.
We have had sectarian violence incited by false reporting and photoshopping [images]. And civilians have been killed. Entire villages in Chittagong Hill Tract and elsewhere were burned down, which government had to rebuild for them.
This was because of posting doctored photographs of supposedly insulting the prophet.
Government has a responsibility to protect the lives of the citizens. Today in [neighbouring] India, numerous incidents are taking place where internet is being used to fan up communal and sectarian violence. Doesn’t the government have a responsibility?
If there are clauses that give undue power to the police or which impinge on freedom of expression, I’m sure when the parliament comes up next after the election, we can change the laws. If we are convinced that this is problematic, then we will change the law, there is no doubt about that.
Al Jazeera: If the opposition contests the results, can you guarantee a free and open investigation?
Rizvi: International observers and international media are here, we look forward to your reports.
Much more important, it is voters who decide whether the outcome of the election reflects their preference. Ultimately it will be the verdict of the voters and whatever is the verdict we will respect as a democratic party.
Al Jazeera: Bangladesh hosts nearly one million Rohingya refugees, but activists have criticised Dhaka for signing a repatriation deal with Myanmar – one that is cloaked in secrecy.
Rizvi: We have not struck any deals with Myanmar. An agreement was signed, which was basically to agree about the repatriation of Rohingya back to Myanmar.
Bangladesh, a densely populated country with its own economic stresses, has been hosting close to a million refugees, the like of which has not been done by any other country.
And then to accuse Bangladesh of hiding facts is not acceptable.
We made it clear from the very start that we will not do forcible repatriation. We demanded that the condition in Myanmar is made safe so they can return. We also demanded that international organisations be present in Myanmar to ensure that there is no repetition of genocide and human rights violations.
We have had the refugees for more than a year and we have not sent back one Rohingya. It is a responsibility of Myanmar to implement the Kofi Annan Commission report, which it itself instituted.
So, please take this criticism to Naypyidaw [Myanmar’s capital] and to the world community and ask them why they are not doing enough.