by Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury
After ten long years, there is an election with a contest in Bangladesh. The December 30 polls in Bangladesh offer a choice between Awami League’s authoritarian functioning and regressive approach of the Bangladesh National Party.
So, you have a decidedly highhanded ruling party using its Police and armed youth forces to enforce its diktat on one side, and you have a regressive main opposition BNP, which is a part of 20-party Jatiyo Oikyo Front (National United Front) taking resort to Islamic fundamentalist forces due to its ties with Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, on the other. In between the 150 million Bangladeshis are being caught up gasping for breath.
Election Commission noted that above 104 million voters are registered with almost equal male-female ratio. They will exercise their franchise in nearly 2 lacs booths across 40,183 polling centres in the country. A total of 1,861 candidates are contesting the polls for 299 parliamentary seats. This election is very important for the nation because it will be held with the BNP-led alliance in the fray. The leaders and candidates of the BNP and its alliance partners, though firm over participation, have expressed their worry over deployment of election agents in polling centres across the country amid constant threats issued by ruling party men and the partial attitude displayed by law enforcers.
Major Contestants in Bangladesh Parliamentary Elections
This is the 11th national election in the country’s parliamentary history. From a historical perspective, Bangladeshis have always been proactive in struggling for democracy or political pluralism. Since the birth of the country in December 1971, polls have not been free of controversy. Charges of rigging, coupled with violence by activists of principal parties, have consistently undermined elections. Indeed, Bangladesh is a rare instance of a polity where general elections have, on a number of occasions, been supervised by caretaker administrations. The caretaker system drew to an end when the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, rode back to power in polls overseen by a military-backed caretaker government in December 2008. Then the general elections of January 2014, despite the stigma attached to them (153 out of 300 lawmakers were elected without any opposition to the Jatiyo Sangsad or parliament), were held with the incumbent government in power. The opposition demand for elections under a caretaker or election-time government was rejected, and the main opposition party, BNP, boycotted it. Hasina held on to power hence.
The Jatiyo Oikya Front (national unity front), the alliance led by Kamal Hossain, of which BNP is part, has repeatedly accused the government of not ensuring a level playing field for all parties. The country’s Election Commission, clearly not in a position to enforce the rules necessary for a smooth campaign by all parties, remains the focus of much justified criticism. Public opinion too is apprehensive about a peaceful election process. The campaign has increasingly been confrontational, with the opposition accusing the Awami League of trying to rig the vote in its favour and the ruling party constantly warning people of a conspiracy by the opposition to create conditions that could mar the polls.
However, for all the criticism about human rights violations, disappearances of citizens and repression of the opposition, Hasina’s government has accomplished much in socio-economic areas. The economy is on an upswing, with foreign remittances, agriculture and infrastructure development making good strides, and Bangladesh is doing better than India on Human Development Indices.
The third force is the Jatiya Party, and its Chairman HM Ershad, who is contesting the from two seats, could not yet join the campaign even a week earlier either for himself or his party candidates, being in Singapore, demoralising his party leaders and activists. The Left Democratic Alliance (LDA) of a few left parties is also in the fray with a hold in a few hinterland seats of Bangladesh.
It must be noted that along with opposition Jatiyo Oikyo Front, some minority forces have also criticized the failures of the Election Commission. Advocate Balaram Guha Thakur, advisor of the Hindu, Buddha, Christian Oikya Parishad Central Committee, alleged that Election Commission has been playing a silent role in this regard.
Contrasting Agenda or Manifesto
The ruling Awami League 2018 manifesto titled “Bangladesh on March towards Prosperity” focuses on 33 sectors to be dealt with two strategic plans — the SDG and Delta Plan 2100.
The party eyes to increase the GDP growth to 10 percent from 7.8 percent at the moment in the next five years and bring down poverty rate to zero from about 22 percent now by 2041.
It will create jobs for 1.28 crore youths, with overseas jobs for 1,000 youths — both male and female — from each upazila, according to the manifesto. Pointing to recent protest for safer roads, Hasina vowed to bring discipline in Dhaka’s transport sector.
The Awami League will expedite institutionalising democracy and strengthen the National Human Rights Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the mass media and the judiciary if voted to power for a third straight time.
In its 21-point pledge, the AL also vows to show zero tolerance for corruption, make a stronger electoral system through reforms, alleviate poverty, create employments, ensure service-oriented and accountable administration, and put more focus on infrastructure development.
On the other hand, the BNP, if voted to power, will bring sweeping reforms to strengthen democracy, make parliament effective, establish the rule of law and ensure independence of the judiciary, according to its manifesto for the December 30 polls.
In the manifesto, the party pledges to protect freedom of speech and expression by scrapping what it says are black laws including Digital Security Act, Special Powers Act and Official Secrets Act. It also promises to form a commission to restructure the administration and decentralise power by making local government bodies stronger.
If voted to power, the party wants to introduce a “new model” of politics free from vengeance and revenge. For this, it wants to form a “national commission” to reach a social agreement and introduce a new political culture. The commission will be formed with the leader of the House, the opposition leader and eminent citizens of the country.
Jatiya Oikyafront, a combine of BNP and some other political parties, ha also rolled out its electoral manifesto. Most of the promises of Oikyafront are similar to that of BNP. Both the alliance and the party pledge to appoint ombudsman, a constitutional post to ensure transparency in the administration.
Neighbourhood Impact: Possible Scenarios
Diplomatically, Bangladesh under Hasina’s watch has exercised pragmatism in its ties with India and China. It has tried to balance between both the nations, taking advantage from both in its trade relations and infrastructure creation. Though under huge pressure vis-à-vis the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh has avoided hostility in its ties with Myanmar. While these achievements are being touted by the ruling party, there are serious concerns about the government’s alliance of convenience with the fanatical Hefazat-e-Islam, which makes Hasina regime somewhat suspect in neighbours’ eyes. Hasina winning again, it will be continuation of the policy. BNP winning may lead to a tougher stand with Myanmar on Rohingya issue, and similarly a tougher position with India and a closer ties with China and Pakistan.
A repressive political environment in Bangladesh ahead of the December 30, 2018 national elections is undermining the credibility of the process, Human Rights Watch had said in a report a week earlier. The 37-page report, “Creating Panic”; Bangladesh Election Crackdown on Political Opponents and Critics,” finds that authoritarian measures, including widespread surveillance and a crackdown on free speech, have contributed to a widely described climate of fear.
The US Department of State has expressed disappointment after ANFREL, a regional network of civil society organisations funded by the US, had revoked its 32-member delegation citing “Bangladesh government’s inability to issue visas within the timeframe.” This raises serious questions about peaceful polls being organized. The Election Commission sources say 178 observers on behalf of 16 countries and international organisations have so far shown interest in monitoring the election. Of them, 97 are foreigners, many of them stationed in Dhaka, and the rest are Bangladeshis.
Moving ahead, in post poll scenario, fear of radicalization of Bangladesh polity looms large. Hasina government once used security forces to flush out regressive Hefazat-e-Islam activists once. But now the government has patently acknowledged that an alliance with the Hefazat will guarantee it votes of religious extremists. It would appear that the government is greatly exercised by the alliance of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, a defining factor in its alliance with the Hefazat. But the damage that the AL’s sudden fraternising with the Hefazat does to national politics is gravely worrying. Bangladesh in 2009, hence, may see worsening of the Islamic fundamentalist spread and violence with these influences on both sides. Hasina’s Awami League’s perspectives have now undergone a further change. A recent instance being the assertion by Hasina a few weeks ago that she is supportive of the demand for the setting up of a ministry of minority affairs. That move militates against Bangladesh’s secular, liberal nature.
But it cannot be gainsaid that she remains the one stabilising force in Bangladesh. She has emerged as the strongest leader in Bangladesh’s history. Her popularity remains higher than any other politician’s. Politically, she is competent and decisive. Despite her firmness or, as some would say, authoritarian streak, Hasina has won the grudging admiration of rivals. All this precludes any challenge to her leadership.
The BNP, hobbled both by the incarceration of its leader and the exile of her son on corruption charges, along with its history of bad administration, needs a miracle to win. That possibility looks unlikely.
If the Awami League returns to power, to what degree can it reassure the country that it will adopt a more liberal, secular position? If the Jatiyo Oikya Front scrapes through, how far can it reassure that it will govern well, or that it will not go for retribution, as it did in 2001, against its political rivals?
The author is a known media academic and commentator and currently the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai.