Controversial general elections have plunged Bangladesh into a fresh phase of political uncertainty. The elections, for all practical purposes, was a unilateral exercise with the opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khalidah Zia languishing in jail over ‘corruption’ charges. Prime Minister ShiekhHaseena’s party Awami League has won 287 out of 298 seats which went to polling on Sunday. The opposition alliance managed win on just eight seats. In absence of Khalidah, the opposition alliance united under the banner of National Unity Front was led by country’s leading jurist Kamal Hossain. He was a minister in Bangladesh founder and first Prime Minister ShiekhMujeebur Rahman’s government. The opposition parties have alleged mass rigging in the elections. Around 100 candidates withdrew from the contest on the polling day amid accusations of mass rigging. They alleged ballot-stuffing and vote rigging by the ruling party activists. “We’ve had bad elections in the past but I must say that it is unprecedented how bad this particular election was. The minimum requirements of a free and fair election are absent,” Hossain said.
He said the alliance would hold a meeting on Monday to decide its next course. “We call upon the Election Commission to declare this election void and demand a fresh election under a nonpartisan government,” Hossain said. The misuse of official machinery and harassment of opposition by way of violent attacks by Awami League activists and police raids were rampant all through election campaign. The country has seen a spike in political violence, mainly targeting the Opposition. At least 18 people have died in the election relation violence. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main constituent of the Opposition JatiyaOikya Front, claims that 9,200 of its activists have been arrested since the election schedule was announced. In a report published on December 22, Human Rights Watch said that “arrests and other repressive measures… have contributed to a climate of fear”. Ever since democracy was restored in 1990-91, election seasons have been tumultuous in Bangladesh.
In the past when the BNP was in power, it had refused to step down after its tenure ended. In 1996, the Awami League led mass movements for elections, while in 2006 a military-backed caretaker government postponed the election, which was finally held in December 2008. Since then, Hasina has held power. However, she has since been accused of turning the country into an authoritarian rule. The Haseena government was criticized by its own people when it passed the Digital Security Bill and the crackdown on student protests in Dhaka some time back. Disqualifying Khalidah Zia and subsequently putting her in jail has furthered the perception of authoritarian rule of ShiekhHaseena. Authoritarian taunt apart, ShiekhHaseena is credited with improving country’s economy during her 10 years of rule. For the Awami League, this should have been an opportunity to break with the history of violence and seek the mandate based on its performance. But its increasing tendency to use force against the Opposition and the violence by its party activists have marred the election process. The opposition wanted the elections to be held under a non-partisan interim government, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina unilaterally bulldozed her decision and conducted elections under her handpicked Election Commission. The opposition alliance raised fingers on the neutrality of the Election Commission as well. Four days before the polling the opposition had sought the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner.
The result is obvious – an opposition-free parliament. Independent observers have expressed serious reservations about the conduct of elections, and the growing uncertainty in the country. The international community – the UN, the EU and the Commonwealth in particular -must play an active role in restoring democracy in Bangladesh.