Bangladesh elections: Hanging by a thread

Analysts debate whether the January 5 elections are good for Bangladesh’s democratic future.

Elections in Bangladesh will proceed amid much controversy [AP]

Bangladesh is scheduled to go to polls on January 5. The ruling Awami League is going forward with an election that 21 political parties have boycotted, including the 18-party opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). We ask four Bangladeshi experts whether the elections will help solve the political impasse or further complicate it.

A farcical exercise

Ali Riaz: professor and chair of the department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University.

Ali Riaz [Al Jazeera]

The upcoming election is not going to solve the ongoing political impasse. The “election” of more than half of the parliamentary seats unopposed, that is to say without casting a single vote, has already made it a farcical exercise. By any standards, the parliament that will come into being would not represent the popular will. The basic function of an election is to offer a choice to the electorate and represent the will of the people. The legitimacy of the election has been further undermined by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s statement that parliamentary seats were shared with the other parties in the “polls-time government” based on “compromise”.

The PM’s offer to hold the 11th parliamentary election through negotiations with the opposition a short time after the January 5 election is an admission that the election (of the 10th parliament) lacks moral legitimacy, although it may well be legally and constitutionally legitimate.

Whether the election will further complicate the situation depends on the attitude and actions of the ruling party. If this new parliament is utilised as a transition vehicle to pave the way for a more inclusive election, it might help end the ongoing political instability and violence. On the contrary, if the parliament is used to govern the country, the situation may deteriorate further.

The first step to resolve the crisis is to allow the opposition party the space to express itself in a peaceful manner. Continued persecution of the main opposition party, a much discredited tactic, is not only unwise but counter-productive – a lesson the government must learn from the history of the country.

The central issues of contention – the composition and head of the government during election time – have remained unresolved. Unfortunately, the ruling party has missed a great opportunity. Since the abolition of the caretaker system in mid-2011, it has been insisting that the administration can and will remain neutral during the election process and that the Election Commission (EC) will play a vital and powerful role.

This was the opportunity to demonstrate commitment to this policy. The incumbent, called “the all-party government”, could have demonstrated that despite the boycott by the opposition parties the ruling parties have not received any benefit. But it has failed miserably. The EC has lost its credibility altogether. It seems that the government has made the opposition’s demand for a neutral administration more credible now than the opposition did through its campaign in recent years.

While the ruling party hasn’t won hearts and minds, the main opposition party, the BNP, has also failed on many counts. Its unwillingness to condemn the violence perpetrated on innocent civilians by the Jamaat-e-Islami  activists is appalling.  The BNP must undertake some soul searching as to why, to date, it has failed to mount a popular movement against the deplorable actions of the government. There is a growing sense that the BNP is being taken over by the Jamaat-e-Islami.  The BNP leadership has to address this issue in earnest.

The lack of legitimacy of the election will complicate Bangladesh’s relationship with the international community. The decision to ignore advice on resolving the crisis proffered by the international community was not a prudent move from the part of the government.

The best case scenario was to defer the election, an option stipulated within the constitution, and work towards an inclusive, credible and acceptable election. But that opportunity is now gone. At this point efforts should be directed to minimise the fallout and act promptly. That means, as acknowledged by the PM herself, negotiations and a new election. Until then, unfortunately, the political instability will continue with high costs – both human and economic.

The hallmarks of a failed state?

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari: an educationalist, community activist, author and political commentator, in London. Follow him on Twitter: @MAbdulBari

Muhammad Abdul Bari [Al Jazeera]

In spite of popular demand from the country’s main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its 18-party alliance led by Khaleda Zia, for the next elections to be held under a non-partisan interim government, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina unilaterally scheduled general elections for January 5 under its handpicked Election Commission.

To understand the need for a non-partisan interim government to run elections in Bangladesh, one has to look back at its political history and the character of the Awami League. During its 1972-75 rule, the then Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (father of Sheikh Hasina), turned a budding democracy into one party brutal dictatorship. Thousands of opposition political party members disappeared and all other political parties and most of the newspapers were banned, before Sheikh Mujib was killed, along with most of his immediate family members, by a group of junior army officers in 1975.

Now all the opposition, including Hasina’s political ally for the past five years, ex-President Ershad, is boycotting the election. The opposition claims that even before the elections, 154 seats out of 300 in the parliament, have already been won unopposed by the Awami League.

The absence of opposition parties in the January 5 election has raised serious concerns about the credibility of the elections. On December 29, 2013 the opposition called for a “March for Democracy”, but its leader Khaleda Zia was put under house arrest by the government. The situation has become so dire that the Asian Human Rights Commission, in a recent open letter to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, urged him to act immediately to save supporters of Bangladesh’s political opposition from extra-judicial execution by state agents in the lead up to the general election.

How can a free and fair election happen in this political climate? The EU, Commonwealth and the US have rightly said they will not be sending observers to monitor the polls because they are not “credible”.

With opposition-free elections appearing to go ahead, Bangladesh has all the hallmarks of becoming a failed state. This will not only bring catastrophe to poor Bangladesh, but it will bring disaster to South Asia. The international community – the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth in particular – must play an active role in bringing Hasina’s government and the opposition together to hold a free and fair election under international observers. 

Legal but not legitimate

Nayma Qayum: a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. .

Nayma Qayum [Al Jazeera]

Bangladesh has been stuck in a political impasse for over two decades. Although the country adopted a multiparty system in 1991, subsequent governments have been repressive and failed to meet the standards of democracy. Freedom House reports that on a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), citizens’ political rights deteriorated from 2 in 1991 to 5 in 2008.

Now, the upcoming Tenth Parliamentary Election may be legal under the 15th Amendment, but its legitimacy remains subject to question. Will the Bangladeshi people – and the opposition alliance – accept the results of an election that fails to represent all groups?

The election will also go forward without the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s leading Islamic party and a member of the opposition coalition. Ongoing violence between opposition activists and ruling party [Bengali] and law enforcement officers may also inhibit voter turnout. If violence persists, many Bangladeshis may fail to turn up at the polls. The Bangladeshi people value democracy; an overwhelming 93 percent of Bangladeshis find democracy suitable for their country. As elections are in integral component of the latter, some may also refrain from voting in an election that is not representative.

The election may also instigate further violence, which could bring the economy to a standstill; violence has already  hampered livelihoods of the poor. Strikes have forced local businesses to remain closed and blocked the transport of goods in and out of cities. Economists estimate that ongoing violence will push GDP down to under 5 percent, far lower than the budgetary projection of 7.2 percent for 2013.

The election will also reinforce the unhealthy practice of using legislative changes towards political gain, something that both Awami League and BNP have done in the past. In a country where political institutions are already weak, frequent changes in legal arrangements threaten the ability of political institutions to take root in politics and society. Also, these institutional changes do not reflect the will of the entire population. Institutions are basic agreements that bind all actors within an accepted set of rules. If these rules are not based on consensus, they will not be followed by those whose actions they are meant to govern.

Bangladesh must move past this deadlock, but the way forward is long and difficult. One must start with an electoral design that is inclusive and legitimate; it can only be created through an inclusive referendum that involves the people – not just the ruling party and leading opposition officials, but all groups in society, including minority groups and members of civil society. Bangladesh has past experience of inclusive decision-making with participatory budgeting at the local level.

A legitimate election must be representative and that cannot happen without the participation of the opposition. If all parties and groups do not achieve consensus on electoral rules, Bangladesh may witness a repeat of 1996, or worse, descend into a state of violence and lawlessness.

Unite the nation first

Ajmal Masroor: an imam, fundraiser, broadcast journalist and relationship counsellor. 


Ajmal Masroor [Al Jazeera]

Bangladesh has been through troubles and tribulations ever since its birth in 1971. Bangladeshi people are sufficiently and robustly hardwired to deal with political problems. They have courageously fought the Pakistani brutality and won the independence through a lot of sacrifice including loss of thousands of lives. However, what has been happening under the present government has surpassed anything Bangladeshis have ever experienced.

A general election under the current government will not solve the problem. In fact the problem did not begin recently or because the general election has been called but it all started at the inception of Bangladesh. The ghost of 1971 war still haunts Bangladeshis even though forty-two years have passed. Successive governments have failed to establish the truth of what happened during the war in 1971. 

What Bangladesh needs is an independent judiciary and true international war crimes tribunals to bring an end to this 42-year-old festering wound! It does not need a one-sided election by a despotic prime minister.

The Awami League MPs have been squandering the wealth of the nation without an ounce of shame. The recent publication of their personal wealth has highlighted the ugly truth of how some of these MPs have become overnight millionaires. They were on moderate income before becoming an MP but now they have amassed a mammoth personal fortune. The government’s silence on its MP financial irregularities has left the Bangladeshi people in no doubt of the institutional corruption.

 The biggest question is how this government, with a catalogue of wrongdoings, can be trusted to conduct a free and fair election.

I believe this election should be cancelled and a caretaker government should be steering Bangladesh to a more stable environment for a free and fair election. This will heal and unite the nation again or it will slide into a state of civil war!