Bangladesh on route to chaos ahead of national polls

Bangladesh is running into trouble

The ground situation of Bangladesh remains disturbed as the opposition parties continue demanding the immediate resignation of PM Hasina Wazed, which she rejected outright, just putting the South Asian country into a cycle of chaos and violence. The political opponents have threatened to boycott the forthcoming national election due in January 2024 and announced nationwide protest demonstrations across the country in the coming days.

Political observers predict a probable electoral loss for Hasina if the polls are conducted in a free and fair manner. But the BNP (if they finally decide to participate in the election) may not emerge as a winner. In such a situation, the Muslim-majority country may go to the hands of military dictators once again.More than that, the Islamist elements may grab the opportunity to fulfil their long desire to make Bangladesh an Islamic nation with no hope of returning to parliamentary democracy. It will jeopardise all bilateral relationships with Dhaka making significant negative impacts on the region

Meanwhile, the daylong agitation in Dhaka by the prime opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on 28 October and subsequent blockades by its political allies protesting the high handedness of the Bangla police and also the ruling Awami League workers simply merged with a series of violent incidents killing a number people, and later the detention amd arrest of thousands of opposition activists along with common Bangladeshi nationals.

The Khaleda Zia-led BNP, which boycotted the 2014 general elections but reluctantly participated in the 2018 polls, vows to boycott the electoral exercise if Hasina does not resign, paving the way for a neutral caretaker government in Dhaka. The combined opposition parties including the largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, claim that Hasina and her party workers will rig the polls in her favour as she is seeking the mandate from nearly 120 million Bangladeshi voters for her consecutive fourth five-year term in office.

The daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence hero of Bangladesh for his leadership in the 1971 freedom movement against the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Hasina has already stated that neither she will resign nor the Jatiya Sangsad (the 330-member national Parliament) be dissolved prior to the January election. The determined Awami leader disclosed that an election-time government will function during the polls to run the regular affairs without taking any major policy decisions.

Hasina, who is ruling the populous country neighbouring India and Myanmar since 2009, asserted that Bangladesh election authorities will follow the regular electoral laws, which are implemented in all Parliamentary democracies like Australia, India, Canada, and others. Like those countries, the government in Dhaka will do only routine work till a new duly elected regime comes to power after the polls, she added.

The country’s chief election commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal recently made a public statement that he had no other option except to conduct the election on time as per guidelines of the Bangladesh Constitution. Political parties and individuals may have options to participate or boycott the polls, but the election commission cannot decide that and must go with the electoral process irrespective of the ground ambience. He however revealed that the commission is scheduled to hold dialogues with all political parties.

The constitution describes that the elections for Jatiya Sangsad (Bangladesh has no upper house of Parliament) must be arranged within 90 days before the end of its full term. The three-months count for the current Parliament has just begun on 1 November and the 12th national election must be conducted and completed by 29 January.

The country developed a non-partisan interim administration comprising a group of distinguished civil society representatives to conduct the polls within three months, where all parties participate in the elections with none in power. Political observers believe that the polls under the interim administration were free, fair and inclusive to a great extent. But the Hasina regime abolished the system in 2011 following a directive from the country’s apex court terming it as unconstitutional.

In the last national election, held in December 2018, Hasina’s party and its allies won over 250 Parliamentary seats (elections are conducted in 300 constituencies) and she is confident of winning once again, even though the opposition leaders alleged a large-scale manipulation of ballots with the help of administrations including the police. The BNP and other like-minded parties apprehend that it would be repeated if Hasina continues to be in power during the electoral exercise.

The BNP leaders officially claimed that nearly 2300 of their leader-workers (including secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir) have been arrested by the police following the massive day-long protest. The party lost at least nine activists in the police atrocities who succumbed to injuries. The turmoil also resulted in increasing attacks on journalists who went to cover the additional programmes. No less than 30 media persons sustained injuries as they faced unprecedented attacks from the police personnel and activist-goons belonging to both the ruling and opposition parties.

By now political disturbances in the developing nation have attracted the attention of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, who called on all parties in Bangladesh to refrain from violence, any excessive use of force, or arbitrary detention of individuals. Expressing serious concern over the violent incidents during political rallies in the country, the UN chief emphasised on respecting the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly by the law-abiding citizens of Bangladesh. The UN office of the high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) also echoed similar concerns.

Seven influential countries (namely the USA, IK, Republic of Korea, Canada, Australia, Japan and Norway) issued a joint statement through their diplomatic missions to condemn the ongoing political violence in Bangladesh following confrontations between the workers of BNP and Awami League from time to time. They mourned over the deaths in violence and urged all stakeholders to help ensure a free, fair, peaceful and inclusive election for the benefit of the nation.

Political observers predict a probable electoral loss for Hasina if the polls are conducted in a free and fair manner. But the BNP (if they finally decide to participate in the election) may not emerge as a winner. In such a situation, the Muslim-majority country may go to the hands of military dictators once again.More than that, the Islamist elements may grab the opportunity to fulfil their long desire to make Bangladesh an Islamic nation with no hope of returning to parliamentary democracy. It will jeopardise all bilateral relationships with Dhaka making significant negative impacts on the region.

Nava Thakuria
Nava Thakuria
Nava Thakuria is an independent Indian journalist based in Kamrup, Assam

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