Bangladesh elections: Participate at your own risk

The Bangladeshi election soap opera starts a new season.

Election related violence seems to be a pattern in Bangladesh [AFP]

In the absence of quality soap operas, the daily dose of Bangladeshi politics offers the people events that are high on entertainment value but very low on substance. They come with a warning though: These events might take a heavy toll on your lives, participate at your own risk.   

Every five years, these soap operas repeat the successful plot lines from earlier years – the ruling party orchestrates various schemes to engineer the upcoming elections and the opposition party unleashes violence on the streets and calls for a credible election. 

In the waning moments of the Awami League’s third term, this political soap opera has reached such unbearable levels of destruction and violence that the livelihood of each and every Bangladeshi, at home and abroad, is now adversely impacted.

Bangladeshi people have never, in the forty years since independence, elected the same party twice in a row. In the absence of any credible institutions that offer checks and balances to counter the corruption, the ballot might be the last and only instrument through which the people might be able to affect change. 

Difficult transition 

In the last 20 years, a non-party caretaker government has been one such important tool that helped people effectuate a peaceful, and one might add fair transition of power, albeit with an exception in 2007 when the caretaker government illegally held on to power for two years.

The ruling Awami League, however, wants to reverse this course. They have amended the constitution to hold the election under an “all party” government, effectively headed by them, to be held on January 5, 2014, which the opposition parties, led by BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), have summarily rejected.

Bangladesh has been witness to unprecedented levels of violence and disruption by the blockades and strikes that the opposition, BNP, has unleashed on the people, demanding that the elections be held under a neutral caretaker government.

In the absence of an opposition, 154 of the 300 seats have already been won by ruling members of parliament and their allies, without even one vote being cast, giving them a majority. The media is reporting a number of procedural lapses by the election commission to ensure the election of the 154 MPs would be unopposed.

But, the Awami League is unfazed and undaunted. They are steadily cruising on the course they have set, stating that it is a constitutional requirement.

Violence by opposition 

In response, Bangladesh has been witness to unprecedented levels of violence and disruption by the blockades and strikes that the opposition, BNP, has unleashed on the people, demanding that the elections be held under a neutral caretaker government. The country has been brought to a vitual standstill. Bombs have been hurled and lobbed into buses brimming with civilians and trains have been derailed, adding to the death toll.

As a result of a number of blockades the capital Dhaka was almost cut-off from the rest of the country and only a few thousand trucks, under police protection, were able to move, resulting in abnormal rises in prices of regular goods and severly disrupting the economy and the export of ready-to-wear garments – a vital part of the economy.

The government has also employed a heavy handed approach to counter the opposition. BNP and its ally, Jamat-E-Islami, are accusing the government of abducting and killing their activists and shooting on protesters, with reports of an increasing death toll in a number of cities.

Minorities were also allegedly targeted by the opposition in a number of instances. Government sources maintain that law enforcement agencies are lawfully carrying out their duties to maintain law and order. In the absence of a credible news media, it is difficult to verify any of these claims. 

In the latest escalation, on December 29, Begum Khaleda Zia called for a mass rally which she termed as “March for Democracy”, and asked people from around the country to move towards the capital. In response the government virtually cut off all communications in and out of the capital and imposed a near curfew, allowing only ruling party activists to take to the streets. Begum Zia was barricaded in her house but she called for the continuation of the march until the January 5 election is cancelled.

Violent situation

The results of the last few local elections quite clearly indicate that the government led by Sheikh Hasina has lost popularity as they have failed to win any significant elections held in the last two years. Even when the opposition boycotted, heavyweights of her party lost to rebels in her own party.

BNP is now structurally, a very weak organisation as one of their main party leaders, Tariq Zia, the BNP supremo Khaleda Zia’s elder son, has been living in exile. Additionally, they haven’t been proactive in organising their party after their defeat in the 2007 elections. On the other hand, Awami League is in complete control over all the machineries of the government, including judiciary, administration, military and police through party faithful in key positions.

Sheikh Hasina, it seems, isn’t prepared to heed what the opposition or the broader international community are asking. She is also strongly backed by India. BNP is thus powerless to change the course that has been set by the League.

The sufferings of the people are not making any headlines – people who are victims of violence, farmers who can’t bring in their produce to the markets, ready-made garment exporters who can’t ship their goods, daily labourers who can’t get a job.

Bangladeshis’ desire to bring in a new set of rulers may have popular support in favour of BNP, but very few people, other than hard core party activists, are interested in joining any kind of protests or programmes on the streets, as people consider BNP to be the other side of the same coin, due to allegations of corruption from when they were in power. 

So, being unable to shepherd people into a mass uprising, BNP and its allies have resorted to violence and destruction to strong-arm the people to take to the streets in protest against the government. This is as reprehensible as it gets.

Consolidating power

Meanwhile, the League has put virtually every senior opposition leader, other than Zia, behind bars. They have the general election planned, and had even drafted former President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, for the role of the opposition leader in the forthcoming government, by providing him a number of seats.

Ershad, who has a history of flip flopping, first obliged but then backed out putting the League in a quandary. He has now been forced into the military hospital – picked up in a midnight raid by the Rapid Action Battalion – with conflicting reports of whether this was an arrest or not. Even by Bangladeshi standard, this is politics hyped up to the level of insanity. 

In a country that has a history of fiercely contested elections, heavy manoeuvring takes place to win people’s support or to control the polling booths – the uncontested 154 seats are the smoking gun that proves the upcoming election will be a farcical affair, and not a reflection of the people’s will.


However, the League is steadfast in its plans. A number of missions by foreign diplomats, including one over ambitious visit by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, came to naught. India, however, sent a diplomatic mission led by Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh that met ex-President Ershad to convince him to join the elections. This gave rise to the claim that India is actively meddling with local politics and is on a collision course against people’s will for a free and fair election.  

In a further twist, the international community including the US, Russia and the EU declared that they will not be sending election observers as promised.

In such a state of gridlock, the sufferings of the people are not making any headlines – people who are victims of violence, farmers who can’t bring in their produce to the markets, ready-made garment exporters who can’t ship their goods, daily labourers who can’t get a job. Rather, the manoeuvring by the government, the opposition induced violence and the daily movements of diplomats are making headlines. Investors are holding on to their investments awaiting a resolution to the situation. 

Within this context, one important issue is overlooked – the government is bending the institutions to such a degree that the lines between political parties, government, judiciary and administrative divisions are increasingly getting blurred, and all the institutions are succumbing to the will of the ruling party. There is no institutional integrity any more.

It looks like there will be further destruction, and many more lives will be sacrificed before any kind of settlement is achieved, but the biggest fear is that nobody knows when and in what form such a settlement will materialise.

Zia Hassan is a political and cultural analyst. He writes in local and international blogs and social media outlets.