International observers found the last general elections in Bangladesh flawed as they were marred by an opposition boycott, low voter turnout, and deadly violence. Will the next polls be any different?
Bangladeshis head to the polls on December 30 as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government seeks to be re-elected for a third successive term amid allegations from opposition parties that they have not being given a level playing field.
A group of opposition parties in Bangladesh, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), said on Sunday it plans to contest the upcoming general election, despite the governing party last week rejecting a series of their demands that had originally led to an opposition boycott in the 2014 elections.
The elections were also marred by a low voter turnout of between 30 to 40 percent as well as violence that claimed more than 100 lives.
Officials have said there will be 40,000 voting centres across the nation, and more than 600,000 law enforcement personnel would be deployed to ensure a free and fair election this time.
Bangladesh has a population of more than 156 million people with at least 104.01 million registered voters.
Why the election matters
Elections in Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, are usually marked by violence and protests, and the national polls in December are expected to be no different as several members of the BNP, including its leader Begum Khaleda Zia, are in jail.
The BNP, which has been one of the two main parties in the country since 1978, boycotted the 2014 polls after Hasina’s governing Awami League, which has been in power since 2009, declined demands to put in place a consensus caretaker government.
A boycott in December would have seen a repeat of 2014, when the prime minister’s Awami League got a clear run at power, and would have resulted in the opposition losing the chance to take advantage of voter frustration with prices, unemployment and power cuts and anger over what many see as heavy-handed government tactics against opponents.
Also, another boycott would have dashed any hopes of stability and increased risks to the country’s garment industry - which accounts for 80 percent of exports - in the event of disruption by transport blockades during any unrest.
Level playing field
The opposition coalition, the Jatiya Oikyafront, a 20-party alliance led by 81-year-old Dr Kamal Hossain, wanted a caretaker government to take over in the weeks heading into the polls.
The main party in the alliance, the BNP, says a caretaker government is essential for free and fair elections as otherwise it claims the Awami League will use the machinery of government to support its campaign. The Awami League says the demand is unconstitutional.
The Jatiya Oikyafront also attacked Hasina for her government’s heavy-handed handling of student protests this year and its crackdown on free speech.
Secretary General of the BNP, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, said in September this year: “As a large party, we have all the preparations for participating in (a) coming election, but for that we need a level playing field, which is not there.”
The opposition also says it has been told it will be able to hold public meetings but alliance officials say that in practice they fear that their applications for assemblies will be rejected or the gatherings disrupted.
Hossain said that mass detentions of activists ahead of a meeting had been one such disruptive tactic used by the authorities. He also asked the government to delay the election by a month to give the parties more time to campaign, but the government only agreed to a delay of one week moving the date from December 23 to December 30.
Although freedom of assembly is a right in Bangladesh’s constitution, the authorities often prevent protests and meetings from taking place in the interests of national security and maintaining public order.
Mahbub Ul Hanif, Joint General Secretary of the Awami League, dismissed the opposition’s concerns about public assemblies, saying it had already held two such gatherings.
He said there could be delays in granting permission while safety and security is assessed.
Attack on free speech?
While Hasina has been lauded internationally for providing shelter for nearly a million Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence and persecution in Myanmar, she is facing increasing criticism over free speech.
Hasina and the Awami League already have the backing of most media in Bangladesh, including all the major TV stations.
Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at students who took to the streets in August to demand better road safety. Several people, including students and a senior photographer Shahidul Alam, were put behind bars following the protests, sparking calls from international rights activists for their release.
Alam, a long-term critic of Hasina’s Awami League, is being investigated under a controversial section of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which Human Rights Watch says has been used by Hasina’s government in a number of arbitrary detentions of government critics and is one of several laws that have been used to stifle free speech.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called the case “rife with due process violations”, an accusation that Minister for Law Anisul Huq denied.
Hasina’s government has also introduced laws that prescribe jail time for those spreading “propaganda” against the country. Civil society groups and activists have criticised the country’s new digital security act, and a new broadcast law that is under consideration, warning these regulations would erode free speech in the country ahead of the election.
The government firmly denies it has interfered with freedom of speech.
Fight against militancy
The political turmoil also risks hampering efforts to combat militants behind a string of bloody attacks in recent years.
Police and army commandos have killed more than 60 suspected militants and arrested hundreds since a deadly attack on a Dhaka cafe in July 2016. Twenty-two people were killed, most of them foreigners.
Critics have accused a war crimes tribunal set up by Hasina’s government in 2010 of victimising her political opponents.
Bangladesh police detained several top leaders of the country’s largest religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, and an ally of the BNP, in a crackdown against the opposition that the government blames for inciting militancy but which says it is being unfairly targeted.
Eight leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, including party chief Maqbul Ahmad and secretary general Shafiqur Rahman, were also detained and later formally arrested in Dhaka in October 2017.
A court in the country ordered the deregistration of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in August 2013, effectively banning it from general elections. The party challenged the decision in the country’s supreme court.
Top Jamaat leaders have also been tried for crimes during the war for Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan and at least half a dozen of them have been sentenced to death for murder, mass murder, rape and religious persecution.
Jamaat says the trials are a sham aimed at eliminating the party, which is a key opposition force.
Barrister Abu Baker Molla, the British and European spokesperson for Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami, told TRT World that the party strives to be part of any election process in the country as it believes in democracy.
"Jamaat will have a good showing if elections are held free and fair," he said.
Molla added that the party has always maintained a good support base and its members had performed well in the country's local elections, running as independent candidates after the court's decision to deregister the party.
“Politics could become even more toxic,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent note.
The government’s continued marginalisation of the BNP and its forcing underground of opponents like Jamaat-e-Islami, risk sapping resources from efforts to disrupt militants, according to the think-tank.