Is Bangladesh heading toward another 'one-sided' election?

Bangladesh's main opposition party has decided to boycott the upcoming national election following a monthslong crackdown that has seen thousands of party leaders and members arrested

An opposition rally in October triggered a nationwide crackdown, activists say (photo: DW)
An opposition rally in October triggered a nationwide crackdown, activists say (photo: DW)


Bangladesh's ruling Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are set to hold onto power for a fourth consecutive term after the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said it would boycott the polls on 7 January, along with several other parties.

The center-right BNP was the only party that could have offered a realistic challenge to Hasina's fourth consecutive term in power.

The party says its entire leadership, along with thousands of activists, have been arrested over the past five weeks in "an unprecedented crackdown," following a massive BNP rally in the capital, Dhaka, on October 28.

Police say six people, including one police officer, have been killed in violence since the rally.

However, the BNP and other opposition parties have said some 20 activists have been killed.

BNP legal chief Kayser Kamal said that five people have died in police custody after being arrested in a nationwide crackdown, AFP news agency reported, adding that prison officials said the detainees "died of natural causes" and denied BNP claims that detainees were tortured.

Opposition claims foul play

Many of the opposition activists have been arrested on charges of arson attacks and vandalism.

However, the BNP claims the charges were politically motivated. Apart from the arrests, at least nine party members have been sentenced to death, and 925 leaders and activists have been sentenced to various prison sentences in recent weeks on previous charges, the party said.

"These cases are basically trumped up for political purposes. The partisan police registered fictitious cases, citing incidents that never occurred, even against those who have already died or suffered enforced disappearance," AKM Wahiduzzaman, a BNP spokesperson, told DW.

He alleged that fictitious police testimony was submitted as sole evidence without any neutral witnesses.

"These premeditated judgments underscore erosion of the principles of justice, fairness, and the rule of law," he added.

The Awami government has rejected allegations of a crackdown on the opposition parties.

"Our stand is very clear. Those who are involved in acts of sabotage or arson attacks, those who attacked police and killed them, are being dealt with on specific charges. We clearly reject the claim that there has been any crackdown against the opposition party," Mohammad A. Arafat, a ruling Awami League party lawmaker, told The Associated Press.

Concern over erosion of democracy in Bangladesh

Since becoming Prime Minister in 2009, Sheikh Hasina has overseen massive economic growth, but there has been international alarm over democratic backsliding and thousands of extrajudicial killings of opposition activists. The past two controversial elections marred by allegations of massive vote rigging.

The CIVICUS Monitor, a Johannesburg-based "global civil society alliance," downgraded Bangladesh's "civil space" to "closed," its worst rating, in a report released last week.

"The downgrade is the result of a massive government crackdown on opposition politicians and independent critics in the run-up to national elections next month," the watchdog said in its latest report on civic space conditions in 198 countries and territories.

Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it is clear that the BNP decided to boycott the election in part because of a repressive environment that has made it difficult to mount a strong election campaign.

"In the BNP's view, that repressive electoral environment won't go away unless a caretaker government is brought on to oversee the elections. And the party is right on that front," he told DW.

"Unfortunately, we've seen the government exploit many legal tools at its disposal — arrests, convictions, the use of digital security laws, recourse to counterterrorism pretexts — to curb dissent," Kugelman said.

"This has sharpened polarization, infuriated the opposition, and rendered nearly impossible the conditions needed for the multi-party dialogue needed to address a longstanding political crisis — and a crisis that could worsen, not ease, after the election," he added.

Calls for a neutral political playing field

Bangladesh had a "caretaker" system in place prior to 2011, and it was intended to prevent ruling parties from electoral manipulation and misconduct.

Under that system, when an elected government finished its five-year mandate, a caretaker administration — consisting of civil society representatives — would take control of state institutions for three months and hold elections.

Non-partisan interim administrations conducted general elections in 1996, 2001, and 2008, and the polls were considered free, fair, and inclusive by domestic and international observers.

However, the ruling Awami League scrapped the system in 2011 following a Supreme Court ruling that the provision was unconstitutional for violating principles of representative democracy.

Observers expect one-sided election

Jasmin Lorch, a senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), said that none of the parties participating in the January election can truly be considered an opposition party.

"They are either aligned with the Awami League party or present themselves as opposition parties but are, in fact, close to the [Awami] party," she told DW.

"There is a relatively big consensus in the US and Europe already now that the elections are unlikely to be free and fair," she added.

Lorch said the European Union decided after an exploratory mission to Bangladesh that it would not field an election observation mission in January because the "conditions for a free and fair election did not seem to be in place."

South Asia expert Kugelman said it is "hard to imagine any outcome other than a one-sided affair."

"Unless the BNP reverses its boycott, the Awami League gives way to a caretaker, or some other non-BNP electoral alliance emerges to successfully take on the Awami League — and let's be clear that those are all next-to-impossible scenarios — the Awami League appears headed to a lopsided victory without meaningful opposition," he said.

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Published: 13 Dec 2023, 10:58 AM