Bangladesh steps into her 49th year of Independence at a time when serious questions are being raised over the state of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech in the country.
Political observers and the common citizens alike are confronting the question, as to why the issues, considered basic to the spirit of independence, could not be ensured in Bangladesh in all these years since the birth of a new nation in 1971.
Demands for ensuring democracy with voting rights, freedom of speech and human rights have been voiced strongly during this year’s Independence Day programs organized by different political parties and social organizations, Human rights workers complain that the government has narrowed the space for a free expression of opinion. A culture of intimidation has been created in the country.
Voting had long been favourite issue to citizens of Bangladesh. Although the country got its freedom through an armed struggle, the foothold of the liberation war was the nation’s glorious participation in the decisive vote battle of the 1970 national election that secured 160, out of 162, parliamentary seats for the Awami League in the then East Pakistan. This overwhelming mandate of the voters gave the later movement a legitimate claim to the independence issue. Since then, historically, people of Bangladesh were considered over enthusiastic about exercising their franchise both at national and local level amidst huge festivity.
While the people of Bangladesh had decided to liberate the country from Pakistan following the latter’s disregard for electoral mandate, the ruling classes of Bangladesh, however, have gradually destroyed the ‘election’ itself by various means — the latest being the shameful introduction of ballot stuffing in favour of the incumbents during the night time before the polling day and, that too, with the active assistance of the civil administration and the law enforcement agencies.
Under such circumstances, Bangladesh badly needs to return to the country’s core historical promises — genuine electoral democracy and egalitarian social and economic development.
After 48 years of independence, people are surprised to witness that
Multi-party politics as well as election festivity have gone totally missing from Bangladesh. People have been befooled after series of local government polls specially the much flawed and controvercial 11th national polls held on December 30, 2018.
The much-delayed students union elections at Dhaka University, the highest seat of learning in the country, were also stigmatised with overnight stuffing of ballot boxes and the various other irregularities on the part of partisan administration and ruling party student group.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s overall electoral system has already plunged into a deeper crisis. Currently, there are serious concerns about the ability of the EC to hold a fair, acceptable, inclusive national election. Its abject failures in the recent past and unwillingness to accept the failures had nothing to do with the non-availability of a dazzling expensive technology like EVM, but to act as an independent body which is entrusted with the responsibility to protect a fundamental right of the citizens: voting.
The one-party game
Infact, a favourable electoral opportunity surfaced f or the ruling party during the 2014 parliamentary elections which was outright boycotted by all the opposition political parties including the major opposition Bangladesh Natioanalist Party (BNP). A record number of 154 members of parliament were elected uncontested in the electoral histry of independent Bangladesh. Such results created a lot of controversies at home and abroad.
As for the parliamentary election held on December 30, 2018, despite the fact that all political parties participated in it, it was anything but participatory on the part of the voters. Notwithstanding the persecution of the opposition, the absence of a level playing field, and thousands of “ghost” cases filed against innocent citizens, the defining feature of that election was the blurring of lines among the state, the government, and the ruling party. As Professor MM Akash has recently said, “If the DCs (deputy commissioners) and the SPs (superintendents of police) had not helped the Awami League, it would not have been able to win the election.”
In a similar vein, a faction of the JSD concluded that “an over-enthusiastic section of the administration stuffed the ballot boxes with fake votes on the night before the polling day and indulged in many related irregularities.” Although this was not a revelation to those who were in Bangladesh on the Election Day or followed the election closely, it was a reaffirmation of sorts. The so-called “overenthusiasm” of the administration and police had driven out politics from the electoral arena and put the members of the administration and law enforcement agencies in the driver’s seat.
In the very same week, chief election commissioner Nurul Huda and the other commissioners started speaking out too. It was first election commissioner Mahbub Talukdar who opened his mouth. He said that an inclusive election wasn’t necessarily a fair one. Then the chief election commissioner Nurul Huda that that the election in certain areas wasn’t carried out properly.
Then another election commissioner Shahadat Hossain said that that there would be no ballot stuffing on the night before the upazila election. And the very day after that, the chief election commissioner said, “We will use the EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines) from the next election, then there will be no scope to stuff the ballot boxes on the night before.” All these remarks are clearly admissions, albeit indirect, of the ballot boxes being stuffed on the eve of the election. The Election Commission had, however ditched the allegations at the time. Ruling Awami League-led alliance managed to secure 289 seats out of 300 while main opposition BNP-led alliance got only eight seats in the 11th parliament election.
What happened in the Ducsu “election”—which was made into a farcical show by the Dhaka University authorities, including the Vice Chancellor and the teachers of the institution—requires no elaboration. It is unfortunate that the nation’s long wait of 28 years for an elected leadership who could command respect, legitimately claim to be representative of the students of the largest public university and uphold the tradition and dignity of the students’ union, which is intrinsically connected to the history of the nation, was trampled in broad daylight.
A praise for BKSAL system
However, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said that there would have been no debate on Bangladesh polls once Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib introduced BKSAL system remained effective in the country. She also claimed that BKSAL was the best policy.
“I believe that the system (BKSAL), which was introduced by Bangabandhu, could averted any such questions (Election irregularities),” said PM Sheikh Hasina while addressing a discussion meeting on 99th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 18. Bangladesh Awami Leuage organized the discussion at Bangabandhu International Conference Center.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also said that BKSAL (one party rule) was formed involving all the people of professions and political parties to bring them under a platform to make a national consensus for rebuilding the war-ravaged country. Hasina said this while presiding over a discussion meeting marking the 49th Independence Day and National Day.
She further added that “Not BKSAL but the martial-law regime of Ziaur Rahman had killed democracy,” the Prime Minister said. The ruling Awami League chief’s apparent rebuttal came in the wake of repeated allegation by her political adversaries in the BNP that the present government is reverting to ‘one-party BAKSAL system in disguise’.
Propagating BKSAL an ominous sign: Fakhrul
Bangladesh Nationalist Party secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir has said that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent appreciation of BKSAL was an ‘ominous sign’ for the nation. Addressing a discussion in the capital, Fakhrul said people rejected the one-party BKSAL system as it hampered democracy and deprived people of their right to freedom of expression.
He said the prime minister for last few days was praising BKSAL which was horrible and sad for the people. Fakhrul said the government wanted to revive the one-party rule system. He questioned whether after 48 years of independence the nation is independent and people have their democratic rights. He also alleged that the government was projecting GDP growth rate as a yardstick of development, but that was sheer deception. He also said that the government was trying to mislead people and hide poverty.
Indian desire and design
An Indian ultra-right Hindu nationalist leader has recently indicated that the Indian authorities had installed a government of its choice in Bangladesh. At a rally in Mumbai on March 16, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s national executive committee member Indresh Kumar said, ‘We have ensured a government in Dhaka of our liking… A Bharatiya Union of Akhand Bharat on the lines of European Union can take shape
He said “Dhaka mein hamne apne haath ki sarkaar banayi hai… Ek European Union jaisa Bhartiya Union of Akhand Bharat janma lene ke raste par ja sakta hai’.
The Indian Express reported on March 17. Indresh Kumar said this at a gathering on the subject of ‘Kashmir-Way Ahead,’ when he expressed hope that Pakistan would be a part of India after 2025. RSS, an ultra-right Hindu nationalist organisation, is widely regarded as the parent organisation of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Sharif Nurul Ambia, president of Bangladesh Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, a partner of the ruling Awami League, said the remarks of the Indian politician was unfortunate. ‘A politician cannot make such statement about the government of an independent country,’ he said.
Dilip Barua, general secretary of Bangladesher Samyabadi Dal and a former industries minister of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s 2009 cabinet, said the RSS leader undermined the democratic spirit and rights of Bangladesh citizens by his remarks.
‘Election not held fairly’ US State dept reaffirms
But, US Department of State has once again stood by its claim that the last parliamentary election of Bangladesh was not held in a fair manner, said Robert Palladino, a spokesperson of the department. He reiterated the US’ stance on the polls, at a regular press briefing in Washington on March 26 (local time).
The spokesperson mentioned that the US wants to continue working with the Bangladesh government on issues of mutual interest. Referring to its report on human rights situation in Bangladesh, Palladino said: “…the December 2018 election was neither free nor fair given widespread reports of irregularities, including ballot box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters.” USA looks forward to working with the government and the opposition, he said.
After the US State Department released its human rights report earlier this month where it reported that the parliamentary election saw irregularities and intimidation, ruling Awami League rejected it, terming it “biased”