Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is poised to win fourth term in Sunday's contest, but press freedom continues to be curtailed and the opposition leaders are jailed on whimsical grounds.
The parliamentary elections in Bangladesh are slated for Sunday, December 30, and the country is embroiled in pre-poll violence. Violent skirmishes have broken out between the supporters of incumbent Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
It's not just the election violence that defines today's Bangladesh, but also what unfolded in the last nine years of the Awami League rule. The party is widely accused of violating democratic norms, antagonising and crushing the opposition party BNP with politically motivated lawsuits and arrests.
Hasina-led government has also engaged in curtailing media freedom, arresting journalists, including Shahidul Alam, an award-winning photographer, who was arrested after commented on the chaos on a foreign news channel.
As a result, the anti-incumbency feeling has been smouldering in the country for many years. The previous election in 2014 was also violent. Hasina won it but only 20 percent people turned out to vote. The main opposition BNP boycotted the polls because the party's first and foremost demand was not met. They sought a nonpartisan caretaker government to be reinstated to oversee the vote.
Since Bangladesh became a liberal democracy in 1991, the role of a neutral government was to ensure the polls weren't fixed in favour of any party. Hasina-led government had scrapped the system in 2010 saying it was no longer needed.
With the countdown to 2014 elections underway, the UN sent a special envoy to make the two sides talk, but the political fault lines were so deep that negotiations were soon replaced by intense street violence between the state-backed Awami League and the BNP activists, who were supported by members of conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party. At least 19 people were killed in police firing.
Since then the violence and political persecution has ended, tainting Hasina's legitimacy and reputation. Though the Awami League champions the ideals of secular democracy, the party has ruled the country with an iron fist. Earlier this summer, the countrywide student protests were brutally suppressed. Between October and December, the human rights organisations highlighted the repeated instances of illegal detentions of protesters and political opposition figures.
The BNP chief and two-time prime minister Khaleda Zia, 73, is serving a prison sentence over corruption, a charge she denies. She's also banned from contesting the upcoming elections.
“The Awami League government has been systematically cracking down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” Brad Adams, Asia director of the Human Rights Watch is quoted as saying in a recent report.
“Members and supporters of the main opposition parties have been arrested, killed, even disappeared, creating an atmosphere of fear and repression that is not consistent with credible elections.”
Is BNP contesting the 2018 elections?
The BNP will contest the polls in alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami. Many experts argue that Bangladesh's 100 million voters are caught between two odds, however. While the BNP is described as an "extremist force," the Awami League has earned the reputation of being recklessly authoritarian.
So far six people have died in clashes between the BNP and Awami League supporters--four from the former and two from the latter.
To weaken the opposition, Hasina-led government blocked the BNP's website, saying it published "indecent" and "obscene" material.
In BNP supremo Khaleda Zia's absence, the National Unity Front alliance emerged as another opposition to Hasina-led Awami League. Though the front is led by Kamal Hossain, 82, an Oxford-educated jurist and former law minister, he is not contesting, adding a layer of mystery as to who will be the prime minister if the alliance defeated the Awami League.
The BNP-led opposition accused the chief election commissioner K M Nurul Huda of bias, and demanded his resignation.
A rift surfaced within the Election Commission when two days ago one of its commissioners expressed his concerns over the existing political climate. "It is not enough to hold a participatory election, it should also be free, fair and as per the law,” said Mahbub Talukdar, one of the five election commissioners.
Hasina's economic agenda
While critics say the ruling party is eroding Bangladesh’s democracy, prime minister Hasina earned praise from global leaders for hosting tens of thousands of Rohingyas, who escaped ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Her election campaign is centered around the economic progress the country achieved in her nine-year-long rule. Bangladesh has indeed had an impressive economic growth in some areas compared to its neighbours Pakistan and India.
Ranked at 136 out of 189 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, which factors in life expectancy, years of education and gross national income,the country has earned praise from the World Bank for lifting a significant percentage of its people out of extreme poverty.