Bangladesh is now going through a perverse electoral process that may be termed without doubt a pure farcical election. Nowhere, in the whole world, an election similar to this under the pretext of democratic process has been seen to have taken place. It is an election without the participation of any opposition party, an election without contestation and it may even be without voters! Even Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe would fancy and laud such a neat and pre-planned election process with the outcome neatly tailor-made and known prior to the election! He may have a thing or two to learn from this election shenanigan in Bangladesh.
By Jehangir Khattak
Awami League party of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid has won two-thirds majority in the country’s bloody and divisive elections on January 5. The almost one-party polls, following opposition’s boycott, are being described by much of Bangladeshi media as a farce.
Election-related violence left 22 people dead while 150 polling stations were burned. More than 150 people lost their lives in violence in the run-up to the elections. More unrest is being feared in the coming days as opposition has called for 48-hour strike for annulment of poll results, starting Monday, Jan 6. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), leading an 18-party coalition that boycotted the exercise, demanded cancellation of the polls results and schedule for fresh elections, claiming that the Bangladeshis had rejected the ‘lopsided’ polls.
“People have rejected election with hatred… thus showed their no-confidence in the government,” UNB news agency quoted BNP chairperson’s adviser Osman Farroque as saying. The ruling Awami League, however, termed election as “victory of the people and democracy”.
Turnout was very low and at least 41 polling centers in 11 districts reported zero votes being cast. The country’s controversial election commission said a 40% turnout would be “acceptable”. But the opposition put the turnout only at 3 to 5 percent. Even the voters who showed up at polling stations had no real choice because of opposition boycott.
The Hasina Wajid-handpicked election commission has been criticized for being hand in glove with the government in carrying out massive electoral fraud. On polling day, at least 25 candidates, mostly independent, withdrew in protest against rigging and beating up of their polling agents in several districts including Dhaka, Brahmanbaria, Laxmipur, Sirajganj, Barisal and Jamalpur.
“The Election Commission is absolutely spineless and subservient to the government. It’s a puppet of the ruling party (AL). So, their data are totally unacceptable. We have data from various polling centers. According to that only 3 to 5 percent votes were cast,” BNP’s Farroque said.
Political legitimacy and legal authority are derived from electoral transparency in a democracy. If an electoral exercise does not honor the very basic democratic principles of offering free choice in a transparent ballot, it may deliver a despot rather than a legitimate democratically elected leader. This is precisely what many Bangladeshis are looking at in the new term of Sheikh Hasina Wajid — a “democratically elected” despot.
Awami League’s return to power as a result of Jan 5 ballot may not give it the legitimacy and political authority to govern Bangladesh democratically. The European Union and the US have already rejected it by refusing to send their election observers, questioning the credibility of the exercise. “We’re disappointed that the major political parties have not yet reached a consensus on a way to hold free, fair, and credible elections,” Reuters quoted Marie Harf, a US State Department spokeswoman told a briefing in Washington.
Many Bangladeshi experts predicted more political turbulence even before the elections. More than half of the country’s 300-member Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban or National Parliament House were “elected” unopposed before the polls.
“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,” Al-Jazeera English quoted Ali Riaz, a professor and chair of the department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, as saying.
A BBC report quoted Sabir Mustafa, BBC Bengali editor, as saying that the question on Jan 6 will not be who won but what will happen next? Many on the Bangladeshi streets shared Mustafa’s fears that legitimacy of Hasina Waid’s new term will always be a question mark.
Will an undemocratically elected government in Dhaka make Bangladesh isolated at the international level? It’s highly probable. The United States and the European Union have already given their verdict on the exercise by refusing to send their observers. Sheikh Hasina will find her biggest support in India, her long-time backer, at least for the time being.
According to World Bank, in the past decade, Bangladeshi economy grew at nearly 6 percent per annum despite frequent natural disasters and the fuel, food price and global financial crises. In the past two decades, poverty was reduced by nearly one third whereas life expectancy, literacy and per capita food production have increased significantly.
Will Bangladesh’s economy continue to performance as impressively during the five more years of the last five years of Sheikh Hasina Wajid? Unfortunately, in the given charged political atmosphere, this too may be a challenge. Daily strikes and political violence could deprive the country of new foreign direct investment, slowdown productivity and push the economy into recession.
Many analysts are nervously looking at the role of Bangladesh’s military which seized power at times of political crisis in the past. Will it intervene again should the political instability continue? Some in Bangladesh believe that the military, unlike 2007 when it last took over, is reluctant to be sucked into the political mess Sheikh Hasina has created, at least for the time being. However, no one is sure for how long the generals will restrain themselves.
Bangladesh’s stability is important not just for its own people but also for the region. Sheikh Hasina Wajid must understand that legitimacy does not come through winning votes. Rather it comes through adherence to the democratic principles of free choice and transparent ballot under a credible neutral dispensation. She will do well to respect the popular sentiment of her countrymen and call fresh elections under a neutral caretaker government to ensure fair and transparent ballot. Her failure would fail Bangladesh’s nascent democracy and betray its people.
When Bangladesh received its constitution at the very early days of its birth containing four fundamental principles – nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism – she adopted the constitution without realising the heavy burden it places on the nation. Constitution is the rule book for the nation and, once adopted, it cannot be willy-nilly accepted or rejected piece-meal by one party or the other. The President of the country is the custodian of the Constitution. Nationalism and socialism, the two stated fundamental principles, are somewhat fuzzy and hence their misinterpretation or misuse is somewhat subjective. However, similar standards of assessment cannot be applied to the other two fundamental principles, democracy and secularism, as they have well defined boundaries and parameters to uphold and any transgression can be clearly demarcated and identified.
Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens – regardless of their cast, creed, religion, economic and social status and sexual orientation – can participate equally, either directly or through elected representatives, in the formulation of law. The pre-requisite for the democracy is the total separation of three main institutions of the state: judiciary, executive and the law making body (parliament, congress, national assembly etc.). In order to operate this democratic process properly, there must be the equality of every citizen, there must be freedom of press, expression and speech. When all of these pre-requisites are met, democracy may function properly. But above all, democracy requires tolerant mindset, moral rectitude, decency and fairness to uphold its values.
Bangladesh has displayed an uncanny aptitude to distorting things – be it in social, political, economic, religious, or in any other field — but the distortion this time of democracy that is taking place now is without precedent. But what made the present regime led by the Awami League (AL) to embark on such a precipitous course of action which may endanger not only the very existence of this party as a political entity in future but also the future of the nation’s democratic process? To understand and appreciate the strategy of the AL, one has to look back into the management or, more appropriately, mismanagement of the country by the AL over the past five years on the one hand and the overall politico-religious backdrop of the country on the other. The convergence of these two disparate traits and blending them into a single strategy is a high risk, high gain strategy that may have been dreamt up by cool headed strategists from across the border.
Now, how did the ruling Awami League perform over the past five years of its rule? The short answer to this is, just abysmally. They mishandled a lot of issues so badly that in any truly democratic country they would have led the government to collapse. But not so in Bangladesh, where sense of values and priorities are completely different. Padma bridge fiasco, Hallmark Group scandal, Prof Yunus’ removal from the Grameen Bank, unprecedented and unaccountable increases in wealth of all AL activists, MPs, Ministers as well as Advisors and their family members all point to widespread corruption, mismanagement, cronyism, nepotism, vindictiveness of the ruling AL. If a fraction of these criminal activities are to be investigated by the incoming political opponent party and appropriate legal actions are taken, then AL’s so-called stalwarts might well end up behind bars. The AL leadership realised that nightmarish scenario and was scared to pass on the baton.
But there is another more relevant aspect which the AL had managed to drum-up and that is the raw emotions pertaining to liberation war and the nightmares Pakistani and Islamists’ atrocities. The Jamaat/Shibir activities, Hifazat-e-Islam excesses, rise of Islamic fundamentalism etc. did raise alarm among the patriotic people of the country. The ‘secularists’ and other liberal minded people watched with alarm the advance of the religious groups under the patronage of political Islamic parties. The AL very aptly tapped into the grave concerns of the people. The formation of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to investigate and prosecute suspected war criminals did strike a chord with the vast majority of the populace. This is definitely the biggest achievement of the present regime in the field of democracy.
However, when faced with these two disparate traits – misdemeanours of the AL and AL’s new found secular credential addressing the alarm of the populace on the Islamic fundamentalism – the AL had managed to come up with a neat strategy of holding on to power by playing anti-religious card. This strategy of Sheikh Hasina has all the hallmark of neat weaving by cool-headed strategists across the border.
This strategy was, of course, enormously helped by Khaleda Zia’s BNP adopting just the opposite strategy. She had not for once condemned the atrocities the Islamists had carried out either during the Liberation War or afterwards. When Hifazat-e-Islam marched into Dhaka and threatened to cut-off the capital city from the rest of the country, Khaleda Zia supported them. When the stated Jamaati policy is to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state (like Pakistan or Afghanistan), Khaleda Zia remains silent. In fact, Khaleda Zia’s BNP seems to be firmly in the Jamaati camp doing its bid. She is now, in turn, relying on the physical support of Jamaati goons and Shibir vandals to enforce her violent policies of crippling the country and destroying the AL. However, her attempt to garner a critical mass of violence on her ‘March for Democracy’ on 29 December had failed to materialise. The more she preaches violence, the more she ends up in Jamaati camp.
The difference between Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina on the election issue was at one point tantalisingly close. Khaleda Zia wanted a non-party caretaker government (CTG) to oversee the election process. But Sheikh Hasina on the pretext of upholding the constitutional position (under the 15th amendment which she engineered) would not allow a non-party CTG but will allow all-party CTG. This difference could have been easily bridged if each side had compromised a bit. That would have spared the whole nation enormous amount of pain and sufferings. But sky-high personal ego of these two ladies who came to the political scene by default had thrown away any sensible solution. Despite best efforts by international organisations like the UN, EC as well as individual countries like Britain, America, China and so forth, these two ladies would not give in to anything. The 37-minute telephone conversation between these two ladies will go down in history as the most uncivilised and acrimonious conversation between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. Such visceral antipathy between the leader of the ruling party and the leader of the opposition is unheard of in any civilised country.
The violence that Khaleda Zia had been advocating and managed to enforce partially had already damaged the country enormously economically, socially and politically. It’s disgrace that the opposition party finds nothing better than hooliganism and violence to carry out its political objectives. At the same time, it must be said that ruling party is in the process of conducting a sham election that is denting confidence of the populace on the whole of democracy. Even the Hindustan Times commented on the proposed 5th January 2014 election that it would produce a ‘wholly illegitimate victory’ for the incumbent Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. It is most unfortunate that a country had produced these two ladies who are bent on destroying the country for their individual interests and ego.
The election as it stands now is nothing but a shameful spectacle and an insult to the nation. More than 50 per cent (154 seats) out of the 300 parliamentary seats have already been won uncontested by the ruling AL and a very large fraction of the remaining 146 seats will also be won by the ruling party. So the Awami League has achieved its primary aim of remaining in power and thereby thwart any attempt to bring it to books by a new government looks set. But for how long and at what price for the country remains an open question.
A Rahman is a retired Nuclear Safety Specialist in the UK. He is an author and a columnist for bdnews24.com.