‘Vote doesn’t count’: Bangladesh’s ‘bizarre’ election tests ties with West

The nation of 170 million people votes on Sunday in elections that the main opposition has boycotted and whose credibility the West has questioned.

Supporters and activists of Gono Odhikar Porishod party shout slogans during a protest march demanding free and fair elections and supporting the boycott of Sunday's parliamentary elections, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. Bangladesh's main opposition party called for general strikes on the weekend of the country's parliamentary election, urging voters to join its boycott. This year, ballot stations are opening amid an increasingly polarized political culture led by two powerful women; current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader and former premier Khaleda Zia. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Supporters and activists of the Gono Odhikar Parishad party shout slogans during a protest march demanding free and fair elections and supporting the boycott of Sunday's parliamentary elections, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday, January 5, 2024 [Altaf Qadri/AP Photo]

Dhaka, Bangladesh — Bangladesh is going to hold its national election tomorrow amid a boycott by the principal opposition party, a crackdown on protesters and intense pressure from Western countries who have warned for months about a lack of the vote’s credibility damaging the nation’s democracy.

With the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main political opposition, not contesting, Sunday’s outcome is almost a foregone conclusion, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League widely expected to win its fourth consecutive term.

But that win might come with a loss – political pundits and analysts say the manner in which the election is being conducted could affect the South Asian nation’s diplomatic and economic relationships with Western partners, most notably, the United States.

The Biden administration has repeatedly criticised the Bangladesh government for its handling of the election, and in September declared visa restrictions on select individuals accused of subverting the democratic process. Bangladesh’s previous two elections were also similarly tainted: the BNP boycotted the election in 2014 and the 2018 vote was marred by allegations of major vote-rigging.

A more significant backlash from the US could strain Bangladesh’s already fragile economy and take its seething political unrest – witnessed in large protests over recent months – to a boiling point.

The ruling Awami League has tried to give the election a competitive veneer by fielding a number of what they, themselves call “dummy candidates” and running full-fledged election campaigns which ended early on Friday morning.

The BNP, meanwhile, has declared a 48-hour nationwide strike from Saturday after conducting its own campaign urging people not to vote. “Boycott the election for public interest, for civil liberties and in the interest of basic freedom of the people,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the joint secretary general of the BNP and one of the few top leaders who are out of jail, told the media on Friday.

He also urged the government not to “push the country towards danger by forcing dummy and one-sided elections,” and warned that “power cannot be retained by cheating the people in this way”.

A low voter turnout?

To many common people, this election no longer makes sense. “Awami League is urging people to vote, knowing their vote will not matter as it will win anyway,” said Tanvir Siddiqui, a businessman in Dhaka. “And BNP is declaring hartal (a protest) on an election day to stop people going to the booth! I have never seen anything more bizarre than this.”

When asked whether he would vote in Sunday’s election, Siddiqui told Al Jazeera, “What’s the point? Our vote has stopped counting since the 2014 election.”

Sharmeen Murshid, who heads the reputed election observer group Brotee, said her organisation, too, was confused about what it would do on Sunday. “It’s like Awami League vs [Awami League] dummy candidates. What will we observe and how could we measure whether the election was free and fair?” she questioned.

Murshid was also sceptical about the likelihood of a reasonable voter turnout. “AL has a huge supporter base but I am not sure even many of their own supporters will bother to visit the poll booth,” she said.

For the Awami League, voter turnout, however, is a major concern. “In fact, this is our only concern now,” said Bahauddin Nasim, joint secretary general of the party.

Since Bangladesh’s democratic transition from military rule in the early 1990s, the country has witnessed two one-sided elections. In 1996, when the BNP was in power and the Awami League boycotted the election, the turnout was only 28 percent.

In 2014, when the roles were reversed – the Awami League was in power and the BNP boycotted – only 39 percent of voters showed up at polling booths. In both cases, the boycotting opposition parties said even those numbers were inflated.

Nasim, however, said he was hopeful about a strong turnout and cited the millions of new voters whom he claimed would be keen to exercise their democratic right. As per the election commission’s data, about 15.6 million new voters have registered since the last election of 2018. The country’s voting population now stands at 119.6 million.

“Most of these voters are very excited about casting their first votes,” said Nasim, “And by holding the election on time, we are giving them this opportunity.” Nasim also said that since the BNP wasn’t able to secure any significant number of parliamentary seats in the last three elections, they are soon fading away from people’s minds.

“Besides, 28 out of 44 registered political parties are taking part in this election. There are 1970 candidates for 300 seats in the parliament. This will be a participatory election,” Nasim added.

How will the world react?

Dhaka-based political analyst Zahed Ur Rahman told Al Jazeera the Awami League’s main aim in this election is to show the world that even without the main political opposition in Bangladesh’s essentially “two-party politics,” the turnout could be high.

“This would help them to establish the narrative that Bangladesh’s democracy has evolved into a multi-party democracy where the BNP is no longer relevant while Awami League very much is,” Rahman said. “But I am not sure who is buying that. Surely neither the common people nor the whole world. Probably Awami League itself is not convinced about it,” Rahman added.

Rahman described the election as a “stage-managed mockery of democracy”. More than the outcome or the process of the poll, he said he was worried about its aftermath.

“Yes, the BNP is not participating but the election doesn’t mean the poll day, rather it means the whole period since the declaration of the election schedule. We have seen how the Awami League has repressed the opposition with brute force and through court cases,” said Rahman.

In the last six weeks, the ruling Awami League had launched what the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has termed a “violent autocratic crackdown” against the BNP and arrested thousands of their top leaders and activists. More than a dozen were also killed in police violence.

The US and European nations should take of these recent events in deciding whether they want to give legitimacy to a post-election Hasina government, Rahman said, if they “are true to their words of promoting democracy”.

Sreeradha Datta, professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonepat, India,  however, told Al Jazeera that she doesn’t expect any “dramatic reactions” from the US or other Western countries to a Hasina victory.

India, Bangladesh’s neighbour and South Asia’s biggest power, will almost certainly go to “congratulate Hasina and the Awami League” and their bilateral relationship will be back to “business as usual,” Datta said.

“The USA will point out the anomalies in the process but when all other important neighbours like China, India and Russia accept the election verdict there is very little that the USA can do apart from sanctions which they have already threatened,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera