Global pressure mounts for inclusive polls in Bangladesh
Shakhawat Hossain
26 Jun,2018

As the next general polls draw nearer, the Western countries including United States of America (USA), European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) have started pressing the government of Sheikh Hasina for holding free, fair and inclusive polls in Bangladesh for the sake of consolidation of the fundamental basis of democracy in the country.

The international community, which had earlier raised questions about the credibility of 5 January election, are now been reportedly raising the issue afresh for an inclusive election in Bangladesh.Significantly, the three western powers have categorically asked the government for inclusion of the main opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in the next election so that it looks participatory one.

Though they may not have raised their voice for inclusive polls very strongly, the western powers are stressing that the next general election should be a “participatory” and “credible” one.
Otherwise, they fear, the political instability in the country will make way to grow terrorism and many other problems in the country.

The next general election is due later this year. The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has indicated it would be held in December, 2018.

AL, BNP gear up for post-Eid face-off

The country’s political arena is abuzz with an imminent face-off between the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with both parties preparing to hit the streets after Eid-ul-Fitr. In an apparent show of strength ahead of the next general election, which may be held by the end of this year, the BNP is planning to launch a tough anti-government movement after the major religious festival of the Muslims later this month. On the other hand, ruling AL asserted that the government was prepared to resist any attempt to create anarchy by opposition leaders and activists.

On the other hand, ruling Awami League has taken the upcoming city corporation polls as a dress rehearsal leading up to the 11th parliamentary election scheduled for December this year. The elections to Rajshahi, Sylhet and Barishal city corporations will be held on July 30 while the schedule for the national nation will be announced in October. AL leaders and activists said as there is no other election before the national election, the party is considering the upcoming city polls as a dress rehearsal of the next big election.

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.

Finally, 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 materialize.

Bangladesh’s journey for democracy is yet to end

With a general election on the horizon, various diplomatic missions are stepping up their efforts to help things run as smoothly as possible. The American, British and Indian ambassadors have all visited the Election Commission in recent months, as has the UN resident co-ordinator for Bangladesh. They have publicly expressed their concerns for the forthcoming election, and implored the commission to take measures to avoid the boycotts and violence that marred the election process last time around. Some in Bangladesh welcome these entreaties, but others in the ruling alliance consider them nothing more than attempts to meddle in their country’s affairs.
Already it’s turning into a rerun of the same old election story as the incumbent Awami League and its allies insist that the election will be held under the current government rather than a non-partisan caretaker regime, a device previously used to take the management of the election out of partisan hands. Meanwhile, the alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says it will do whatever’s necessary to stop the government from holding an election without giving up full control of the electoral process.

Everyone concerned clearly remembers the turbulence of the 2014 election, when all sorts of political violence boiled over, claiming many innocent lives. But the explanation for why it happened is still a matter of heated debate.

Difficult transition

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.

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.

But, 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 Bangladesh Awami League.

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.

UNHRC calls for free, fair and inclusive polls

Referring to violence and excessive use of force by state actors during the previous general elections, the UN Human Rights Committee insisted that Bangladesh should ensure the safety and security of all voters during elections.

During the 30th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group of the HRC in Geneva, some countries such as USA, Australia and Switzerland have learnt to put stress on ensuring free, fair and inclusive polls in Bangladesh. Besides, Japan has also recommended ensuring a free, fair and inclusive general election, with full participation of all parties, and stepping up efforts to strengthen democracy in Bangladesh.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has also asked the government of Bangladesh to investigate all cases of arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances and excessive use of force, and prosecute and punish perpetrators. The inter-governmental UN body also called for establishing the truth about the fate and whereabouts of victims of the disappearances. Furthermore, ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (ICED) was stressed.

Several countries, including Austria, Norway, France and the Netherlands, called upon the government to ensure that journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and civil society organisations were able to carry out their activities without fear of surveillance, intimidation, harassment, arrest, prosecution or retribution. Such recommendations were made at the ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR) organised by the council in Geneva.

Later on, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has adopted the draft report on the human rights review of Bangladesh, with recommendations on taking steps to halt forced disappearance, extra judicial killing, and ensure freedom of expression in media, politics and religion.

During the 30th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group of the HRC in Geneva, the UN member states made 251 recommendations. According to the HRC Secretariat and UPR, some 105 delegations took part on the third-cycle review of Bangladesh’s human rights situation. Of the recommendations, 167 were accepted, 60 were noted and the rest would be answered later. Bangladesh will give its final answer no later than the 39th Session of the HRC, slated for September.

EU wants inclusive, credible polls in Bangladesh

The European Union (EU) at a recent meeting held in Dhaka has hoped that the government of Bangladesh will ensure conditions for credible, transparent and inclusive elections.

At the meeting, Bangladesh also reiterated its commitment to provide all-out support to the Election Commission in holding free, fair, and credible election.

The issues came up for discussions at the biennial meeting of the Subgroup on Good Governance and Human Rights in the framework of the EU-Bangladesh Cooperation Agreement (CA) held in Dhaka, said a joint press statement.

At the outset, the EU delegation appreciated the generous and humane role and action of the people and the government of Bangladesh for hosting the Rohingya people fleeing violence in Myanmar.

Earlier in March, 2018, the European Union high representative for foreign affairs and security policy Federica Maria Mogherini in Brussels and US President Donald Trump’s aide Lisa Curtis during her visit to Bangladesh, UK secretary of state for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson during his Dhaka visit, and a delegation of European Union during in their Dhaka visit called for an inclusive election in Bangladesh.

According to Diplomatic sources, though the call for inclusive polls was not a main agenda in the discussions, the representatives of some countries raised the issue while discussing the country’s political situation.

It was reported that the Maria Mogherini raised the issue of the election during a meeting with Bangladesh foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali recently. It was learnt from officials in Dhaka and Brussels that the meeting was arranged on short notice and on Federica’s initiative to discuss the Rohingya crisis. At one point, the political situation came up in the discussion and Federica raised the issue of inclusive polls. She urged the Bangladesh government to conduct inclusive polls and stressed on a free, fair and credible election.

In reply, Bangladesh foreign minister told her that the government is not asking anyone not to participate in the election. He told her that though the BNP boycotted the general election on 5 January 2014, they participated in the local government elections and many BNP candidates won in different levels of the election. He went on to tell her that the election commission is trying its level best to conduct a free, fair and credible election and the government also wants BNP to take part in the election. The Bangladesh foreign minister also urged her to tell BNP to participate in the next election. In reply, Federica told Mahmud Ali that an EU delegation has urged BNP leaders to participate the next election during their discussion with them.

US, UK for fair, inclusive polls

The United States and United Kingdom on February 28, 2018 laid emphasis on free, fair and participatory elections and noted that democracy is of paramount important for the development of the country. Washington and London also stressed that free and fair election is not only about the polling day but also a level-playing field for all in the run up to the day on which people should have the right to exercise their right to franchise.

US ambassador Marcia Bernicat and UK High Commissioner Alison Blake were shedding lights on Bangladeshi politics in the lead up to the next parliamentary elections in two different programmes at two different venues.

While in a programme arranged to introduce new British deputy high commissioner and head of communication at the high commission’s staff amenities centre in Baridhara, UK chief of mission Blake also placed great emphasis on free, fair and participatory election and said that these are the most important aspects for the stability and prosperity of the country.

While talking to newsmen on 28 February, 2018 at the British Amenities Club, British High Commissioner in Dhaka, Alison Blake said that one of the key agendas during Boris Johnson’s Dhaka visit was to urge for a free, fair, credible and inclusive election. British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson arrived in Dhaka on a two-day visit on February 9, 2018.

Lisa Curtis wants to see inclusive elections

On 3 March, 2018, US president Donald Trump’s aide Lisa Curtis called for inclusive polls. She also raised the issue while having meeting with senior Bangladesh government officials including the prime minister’s international affairs adviser Gowher Rizvi, the prime minister’s security adviser Major General (retired) Tarique Ahmed Siddique and Foreign secretary Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali. The foreign minister told her that the government is committed to a free, fair, credible and inclusive election and would welcome observers from varies countries including the US. Following a query from Curtis, Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali said Bangladesh is committed to a free, fair and participatory election and that observers from different countries, including the US, are welcome.

Election diplomacy and the India factor

Bangladesh’s political landscape is extraordinarily toxic. Whenever they’re out of power, parties lose all faith that the sitting government can or will convene a fair election. The Election Commission is independent on paper, but not in practice, and ever since the 1990-91 transition from military to parliamentary rule in Bangladesh, every general election has taken place in a climate of ominous uncertainty.

The pattern is clear: whichever party is in power tries to manipulate the electoral architecture and exploit a politicised public sector, while the opposition demand that a non-partisan caretaker government should be installed to provide a level playing field. And each time, the situation turns lethal.

As a result, Bangladeshi elections invariably attract the diplomatic attention of the international community. This pressure is applied mainly by Western diplomatic missions, the European Union, the United Nations and so on. Various high-level envoys and teams have visited Bangladesh over the years to help build consensus among the political parties and set up some kind of interim government to arrange a free and fair election.

Apart from the Western countries, India has been particularly influential ever. Even after the disputed 2014 election, it endorsed the Awami League’s victory even though many Western governments and outside organisations expressed their reservations; through its influence on South Asian geopolitics and diplomacy, India ultimately managed to sway the international community to acknowledge the result.

But India’s relationship with Bangladesh and its politics is far from simple. The two countries are still wrangling over a number of unresolved issues, such as the flow of major international rivers, transit, terrorism, border control, and investment. Their overall relationship is best described as bittersweet, and its particular flavour is still subject to who is in power in Bangladesh.

India enjoys a much warmer relationship with the Awami League than with the BNP – but since the 2014 election, both parties have worked hard to improve their connections with the current Indian government. Still, anti-India sentiment is commonplace, mainly because of the patron-like attitude India takes, especially while the Awami League is in office.

Regarding the participation in the upcoming polls, Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader on June 5 said that all political parties will contest the next general election even if the Bangladesh Nationalist Party refrains from contesting it. After attending a seminar organised by Awami League subcommittee on forest and environment at National Museum to mark World Environment Day, Quader, also the road transport and bridges minster, told reporters that they are sincerely wanting for holding an inclusive election. ‘All the political parties have started their preparations for taking part in the next general election,’ Quader said.
In response, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has claimed that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had sought ‘guarantee’ from India to unilaterally hold the next general election in return to her government’s services to India. BNP senior joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi at a news briefing at the party central office made the remarks.

However, India’s open support for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina became the biggest reason for the criticism against her. When Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh went to meet Jatiya Party chairman Hussain Muhammad Ershad to dissuade him from boycotting the polls, the move boomeranged badly. At a press conference called directly after the meeting, Mr. Ershad announced that Ms. Singh had told him India was “opposed to the rise of parties allied to the Jamaat-e-Islami”, and the rhetoric against India only rose with the perception that it was playing a larger role than Bangladeshis would want any foreign country to play. This also 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. India has trained and sent special operations teams in Bangladesh. India is also lobbying Western countries to take Ms. Hasina’s side.
While Delhi maintains a status quo on Hasina; it is now imperative for her to ‘win’ in an election where all parties participate to come back to power for the third term. But can she do it? Though Hasina’s core support base of 35-37 per cent voters appears to be intact; her government is suffering from serious anti-incumbency, owing to poor governance and unabated corruption.
And, it might be difficult for the Bangladesh Awami League to win a bipolar contest, which has been the norm in Bangladesh so far. Bangladesh’s record of political vengeance might lead to serious instability in the region; which is not in India’s interests.

BNP seeks Delhi’s support for fair polls

According to The Hindu, some senior leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have reportedly appealed to India’s Narendra Modi government to support a free and fair elections in Bangladesh due in December.

Accusing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government of attempting to establish a “one-party rule”, they reportedly said that India must be seen as a “champion of democracy and human rights” in the region.

“It is important for the Bangladeshi people to see their big neighbour play such a constructive role, and not back any certain party in the elections,” BNP standing committee member Amir Khosru Chowdhury told the Indian newspaper.

The Hindu claimed that the BNP delegation, which was in New Delhi, to improve ties across parties and speak at a number of think tanks with a mission to “dispel” the long-held preference in India to deal with the Awami League.

Khosru referred to the “misperception” in Bangladesh that India supports all actions by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League.

“If democracy prevails in Bangladesh, then whoever wins, it is a win for India,” he was quoted to have said.

The Hindu said since 2014, when the BNP boycotted elections in Bangladesh, and gave Sheikh Hasina a virtual walkover, the BNP has struggled with its loss of power.

Ahead of the elections, India’s the then external affairs secretary Sujatha Singh visited Dhaka and advocated holding of the ballot boycotted by all opposition political parties.

The Hindu also reported that the Hasina government has filed an estimated 78,000 cases against the entire rank and file of the BNP, which the leaders claimed meant that about 1.8 million BNP workers and office-bearers had been charged, arrested or forced into exile.

In an interview with The Hindu in 2016, Sheikh Hasina had denied that the cases were politically motivated, saying they pertained to criminal charges of violence and corruption.

In February this year, 72-year-old chairperson of BNP and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was sentenced to five years of imprisonment on charges of embezzlement of charity funds pertaining to a 1991 case.

The verdict could bar the entire top leadership of the BNP from standing for elections this year, which its delegation reportedly said would stifle the “democratic and electoral space” which they said has “fuelled religious extremism as well.”

“The absence of participation and inclusive democracy in Bangladesh will drive many groups that have been targeted underground,” warned Khosru.

“The only way forward is for India to lead the international community in ensuring free elections, under an impartial election commission, monitored by them,” he told The Hindu.

BNP sees positive change in India’s attitude towards Bangladesh election!

Two senior BNP leaders, who recently visited India, have claimed to have found a positive change in the attitude of the neighbouring country towards having a credible, neutral and inclusive election in Bangladesh.

BNP standing committee member Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury and vice chairman Abdul Awal Mintoo said they had been there in India from June 3 to 10 and joined three seminars and talked to Indian politicians and civil society members over various issues, including Bangladesh’s upcoming national election.

Three seminars on Bangladesh-India relations, Bangladesh’s current politics and Bangladesh’s next general election were arranged by Observer Research Foundation, Vivekananda International Foundation and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.

“We’d discussions with different Indian think-tank organisations, civil-society members, politicians and journalist during our recent visit in the country. They’ve realised Bangladesh’s crisis ahead of the national election and they’re thinking about its way out which we thank a positive change,” Khosru said.

He said India wants Bangladesh’s next election to be held in a free and fair and neutral manner with the participation of all parties. “If India plays any visible role to reflect the hopes and aspirations of people of Bangladesh, we think it’ll be positive for the bilateral relations of the two neighbouring country,” the BNP leader said.

Khosru said they told the Indian leaders and civil society members as to how Awami League has been in power by squeezing democratic space, snatching people’s rights and resorting to respective acts, and its efforts to hang onto power by force.

“They heard us and have their some confusion cleared through asking us many questions,” he said. He said different democratic countries are raising their voice to restore democratic atmosphere, the rule of law, human rights, and press freedom in Bangladesh.

“We hope India will also play the same role ahead of the next election.” Mintoo said Indian leaders and others heard their speeches with their deep attention.

“We’ve found a change in their attitude through their discussions and gesture and poster.” He also said India does not want a perception to create among Bangladeshi people that it is biased to any particular party. “They want to see a free, fair and participatory election here.”

Mintoo said the India politicians and civil society members said their country will remain careful so that no one can say India interferes in Bangladesh’s internal affairs and it is biased to any party regarding the next general election.

PM Hasina’s strategy

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has undertaken a strategy to win this election by dividing the Opposition votes. The BNP, which was under enormous pressure since the war crimes trials began, is in disarray after the arrest of the 72-year-old Zia, in a fund embezzlement case in February.

Her release may be inordinately delayed as she is facing 37 cases, including the one on grenade attack on Hasina in 2004. Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, and the second in command in the party, has been living in exile to avoid arrest.

Though the BNP is determined to participate in the 2018 polls; and there is no major exodus from the party ranks either; many believe the leadership crisis may limit its electoral prospects.
This coupled with the cropping up of some third and fourth alternatives — like the coalition led by the former military dictator HM Ershad’s Jatiya Party (JP) or an anticipated coalition between three-four smaller parties — are likely to keep the voters divided.

Hasina has already extended the olive branch to Hefatzat-e-Islam (protector of Islam), a radical non-political force, by making compromises in school textbooks etc; with an aim to keep the Islamic votes divided. With the army (a separate power centre in Bangladesh as in many countries in South Asia) supporting Hasina; her prospects look bright at this juncture. But, all plans look good till they start going wrong.

Inclusive polls ‘now a big challenge

According to political analysts and civil society members, with BNP chief Khaleda Zia being sentenced to five years in prison, the equation for holding the next general election in a participatory manner has become more complicated.

As the BNP has an important position in the county’s politics, the election won’t be a participatory one without its participation. Furthermore, the conviction and sentencing of the BNP chairperson has worsened the enmity between the two rival camps. The conviction has cast doubts whether Khaleda, a three-time prime minister, would be allowed to participate in the polls.

There is a longstanding disagreement between the two political arch-rivals on how the election should be held. The BNP-led opposition alliance has long been saying that it would not join any election if it is held under the Hasina-led administration. But the Awami League (AL) is sticking to its guns that the election would be held under the Hasina-led administration, just like the one in 2014.