Democracy in Bangladesh: only for the few

31st Jan 2014

Democracy in Bangladesh only for the few

[Leader of the BNP Khaleda Zia (left) has urged supporters to stage fresh pro tests against

Sheikh Hasina’s Government]


By Talha Ahmad


On January 5, Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, presided over a fraught election widely criticised as a farce. With over half the seats won by candidates long before polling day, more than half of the electorate were denied any choice at all.

The 2014 election has thus been remembered as one of the lowest points in Bangladesh’s infant democratic history. Scores were killed and injured and independent sources put the final turnout as low as 10%, although the official sources claim around 40%. Polling day would historically be a festive affair with Bangladeshis turning out in large numbers whenever they have been given a fair opportunity. This time, opposition parties called for a boycott of the election and filed no candidates, effectively sealing any hope of a genuinely contested election.

Their main reason for this was that the elections would not be held under the system of a neutral caretaker Government. This would be effectively a government of technocrats usually led by the immediate past Chief Justice who takes over from the outgoing Government at the end of their tenure, oversees a fair election within three months and then hand over power to the newly elected government. The now ruling Awami League had campaigned for this arrangement in 1996 when in opposition. They argued that the elections in Bangladesh can only be fair if they were held under the auspices of a neutral caretaker government. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) – then in Government, now in opposition – reluctantly agreed to this demand following loud and often violent protests.

As the BNP once again handed over the reins of power to a neutral administration in 2006, the Awami League took to violent protest to allege that the caretaker Government at that time was not neutral. The then caretaker Government had no option but to resign, giving way to an extraordinary Government of technocrats backed by the military who ruled the nation with an iron fist. Eventually, at the end of 2008, an election was held with the Bangladesh Awami League winning a resounding victory. Whilst the opposition had their reservation about the election and the intrinsic fairness, they had nevertheless moved on.

Perhaps in an effort not to be fooled the third time round, the BNP stuck to their guns and refused to concede to the Awami League. In 2011, the ruling party dealt a blow to Bangladesh’s democracy when they railroaded a constitutional amendment that did away with the Caretaker government provision. They argued that this provision was undemocratic, but the result is that the political mistrust between the parties is at its worst.

In many respects the BNP had good reason not to trust an election with the ruling Awami League still holding the levers of power. The Awami League’s period in office between 2009 to 2013 can be best described as one of vengeance, violence and abuse. It began with a mutiny that saw 57 army officers brutally murdered – with talk of complicity from the Awami League establishment. It was followed by the execution of the killers of Sheikh Mujib: the founder of Bangladesh and the father of current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.


Vengeance continued to be the motif of this Government as it initiated an ‘International’ War Crimes Tribunal. It pursued those they accused of collaborating with the Pakistani Army in 1971 in committing crimes against humanity. This tribunal, which has seen its first death sentence executed in December 2013, has been widely criticised as a sham process used to silence opposition to the Government.


The five year rule of Bangladesh Awami League has claimed hundreds of lives at the hands of the law enforcement agencies, hundreds have disappeared and tens of thousands arrested. In one night alone, in May 2013, police opened fire on thousands of unarmed protestors in Dhaka. The numbers dead range from the dozens to the hundreds. The overall scale of oppression is unprecedented even for Bangladesh’s standards. Leading to the elections, there were incidents of bulldozing, demolition and setting fire houses and businesses belonging to opposition leaders allegedly by security agencies.


When these are all taken into account, there is little wonder that such election will have the slightest chance of returning a result other than one that gives the incumbent a resounding victory for the current regime. To echo the words of Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch, the condition simply was not there for the opposition to partake in that election.


Some have criticised the BNP for boycotting these elections. But given the suffocating political landscape that they must operate in, one understands their predicament.


Bangladesh is therefore on the brink of totalitarianism, unless of course it has crossed that threshold. The ruling Awami League has given itself the excuse to rule with an even stronger fist, further suppressing the opposition, banning parties, and executing more leaders. The opposition leadership is in complete disarray and is unlikely to be able to withstand the continuing onslaught on them.


Therefore, it seems unlikely that a popular opposition movement will succeed in bringing much change at least in the short term. That leaves only one option: intense, concerted and continuous international pressure.


The UK, with its large British Bangladeshi Muslim population, must speak out in particular. The Awami League regime craves international recognition, and many Awami League-supporting NGOs depend on financial aid from the UK Department for International Development and the British Council. These all need to be reviewed. Thus far the UK’s response has been weak, especially when one compares its stance to countries such as Zimbabwe. Of course, whether our Government has the stomach to take a fight especially given India’s blind support to the ruling regime is anyone’s guess.


Talha Ahmad is a lawyer and teacher and co-founder of ‘Deshi Rights’, an independent forum documenting human rights abuses in Bangladesh.

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