Desperately Seeking Democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s democratic path continues to struggle as the opposition and ruling party clash over controversial elections

As billions worldwide enter into another year, leaving behind experiences and memories, the status quo does not seem to be looking any brighter in many a place around the globe. Bangladesh, well recognised in the West for its burgeoning garment sector, has seen a tumultuous year.

Human rights violations unabated

‘The year 2014 was alarming for the country’s overall human rights situation despite progress in some areas, says’, an annual report by the Bangladesh based human rights body, Ain O Salish Kendra.  Throughout 2014, law enforcement agencies allegedly abducted 88 people. Among the victims, 12 were found alive, two ended up in jail and 23 others were found dead. A large number of people remain still missing.

In an effort to understand what transpired throughout 2014, in continuum of the blatant abuse of human rights by the incumbent government over the preceding years, English based daily, New Age, published a series of articles investigating the abduction and disappearances of 19 men, all of them Dhaka based opposition activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in a two week period at the end of 2013. All of these abductions took place between 28 November and 11 December. None of these men have been returned. The findings of this study, focusing on the capital Dhaka, shows correlations with similar government fueled instances of crackdowns throughout the country. These include wide scale arrests and abuses committed by state forces in the name of quashing “anarchy” by the opposition, to policies in the Satkhira district, where even minorities were not safe.

A farcical election

All human rights abuses over the past year revolved around the elections of 5 January 2014, which has been hailed as one of the all time lows in the history of democracy in Bangladesh. In an election dubbed, ‘deeply flawed’, by international observers, the overwhelming majority of the people were either deprived of their voting rights or were not given free choice over their vote. Disturbing as it may sound, pro-government candidates ranunopposed in more than half of the Parliament’s 300 seats; in those districts, local elections were not held, leaving 48 million registered voters without any opportunity to vote.

The outcome of the vote was never in doubt after the opposition BNP and its allied parties had boycotted the contest, with 153 Awami League candidates or allies elected unopposed to the 300-seat parliament. The boycott by the BNP and its allies had stemmed from the scrapping of the tried and tested interim poll time caretaker government system in 2011 under the auspices of the Awami League, and had raised fears that the elections would not be fair without such a system in place. Their fears turned out to be true, when, in the words of the Economist, ‘Many polling stations saw almost no voters (as evidenced by a report here), then suspiciously large numbers of ballots cast late in the day. Of the 300 constituencies, just over half, 153, had no contest at all, since only AL candidates or allies registered. In the capital voting took place in just nine of 20 seats’.

The elections were criticised by a number of key international players, including the US and the UN, who demanded new elections. The elections were also criticised for their deeply flawed nature by the European Union, Canada, the UK and the Commonwealth. Earlier, most international observers had declined to oversee the votes, questioning the legitimacy of a voter-less and candidate-less election, marred by violence and boycotting by the main opposition players. According to one Aljazeera report, around 82 countries had questioned the credibility of the polls.

Nationwide sub-district polls: a contrasting picture  

Less than 2 months after the so-called national elections, the BNP-led alliance competed in the fourth nationwide upazila (sub-district) elections where the BNP and its allied Jamaat-e-Islami party backed chairperson candidates showed a grand performance, bagging close to two-thirds of the seats. This, despite a spate of violence marring the polls, centering on Awami League cadres trying to take over polling centres with the help of the administration. It was a scenario reflecting either the opposition’s real popularity or the unpopularity of the Awami League.

In retrospect, these local elections did reveal how the results would likely have panned out on January 5 2014, had the general elections been fair and under impartial observation, as the opposition demanded. With this in mind, 5 January 2015 was marked by BNP and its allies as “Democracy Killing Day” to commemorate the same day last year when democracy in Bangladesh undoubtedly suffered its severest blow in recent years under a discredited election.

The past few days in Bangladesh have seen widespread unrest as the opposition has sought to mark the day and force the current ruling authority, which it deems illegitimate, to step down and immediately call fresh elections under the auspices of a caretaker government. The Awami League have predictably refused, citing the necessity of upholding the sanctity of the constitution and the rule of law. This refusal, however, has been accompanied by the curbing of basic freedoms and troubling violence, among other draconian measures.

A call for fresh elections

The BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, was placed under effective house arresttwo nights prior to the marked protest date, with hundreds of police and a dozen trucks of sand surrounding her office building and padlocking her gate. In what appears to be a series of synchronized moves, her Acting Secretary General has since also been arrested, while the High Court has issued an injunctive to prevent broadcast or publication of speeches and statements by Tarique Rahman, Mrs Zia’s heir apparent. In protest, opposition activists have taken to the streets nationwide, enforcing a transport blockade, with several shot dead by police and their ruling party activist allies. Seven have been killed to date. The opposition has in turn agitated and reacted often violently vandalising vehicles.

Although Mrs Zia’s BNP is no example of the ideal democratic political party, it being subject to hereditary politics and with much corruption implications to its name, what the current stand off and the troubles preceding it reveal is the troubling reality of Bangladesh’s current democratic state. Responsibility for this reality lies in the hands of the authorities that are creating and enforcing it.

For Bangladesh to return to a functioning and credible democracy, where a government is indeed of the people, by the people and for the people, it is essential that a re-election is immediately called for and subject to impartial observation. Only then will the millions that make up this nation feel confident in electing their representatives, rather than fearful of unelected and unaccounted for figures who value their position of power above the needs of the constituents they purport to serve.

Source: The Platform