Bangladesh: An election in name only

Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

Bangladesh’s upcoming general election to elect 300 members of Parliament will neither be genuine nor competitive, given the context of severe repression of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, as well as the use of the judiciary to punish opposition leaders, members, and supporters in trumped-up criminal cases.

5 January 2024. The lead-up to the polls on 7 January 2024 has been mired in violence, and the electoral process is likely to replicate the previous two general elections, held in 2014 and 2018, during which numerous allegations of voting irregularities were made, and the results of which were not accepted by the opposition.

In December 2018, the ruling Awami League won a third consecutive general election by a landslide, securing 288 out of 300 (95%) parliamentary seats. These polls came under heavy criticism both domestically and internationally, due to widespread election fraud, irregularities, and election-related violence. The results were rejected by the main political opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
On 8 December 2023, the BNP announced it would boycott the upcoming election, along with 16 other smaller opposition parties. The BNP previously participated in the 2018 general election but boycotted the polls in 2014, which resulted in 153 of the total 300 seats being uncontested.

Election irregularities in previous elections cast a long shadow

The widespread fraud and irregularities in the 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections have had a profoundly negative impact on public trust in the Bangladesh’s electoral system. In the lead-up to the 2018 election, law enforcement agencies and Awami League activists obstructed and attacked opposition rallies and meetings, acts that were carried out with impunity and have never been investigated or condemned by the government. On the eve of election day, civil society organisations found instances of ballot stuffing in 47 out of the 50 constituencies surveyed. [1] Later, the ruling party leaders confirmed this allegation in public. [2] A BBC journalist found boxes already full of ballots before the voting commenced on election day. [3] The lack of response to these allegations by the Election Commission has cast serious doubts on the body’s willingness to conduct the upcoming election in a competent, impartial, and transparent manner.

Long-standing concerns about the lack of independence of the Election Commission are also behind the opposition’s demands that the government resign prior to the election and a neutral, caretaker government be installed during the election period to ensure free and fair elections.

In theory, the Election Commission is an independent statutory institution under Article 118 of the Constitution. [4] The President of Bangladesh appoints the Chief Election Commissioner and the other Election Commissioners, who serve five-year terms. However, members of the Election Commission have traditionally been selected among pools of candidates with close ties to the government. The composition of the current Election Commission -which includes a former Defense Ministry Senior Secretary and a retired Bangladesh Army General- confirms this trend. [5] In addition, some of the current Election Commissioners previously faced allegation of wrongdoing, including corruption. [6] The Election Commission is supported by local bureaucrats, such as the Deputy Commissioners, who are the chief administrative officers of the state in every geographical district. [7] Most of these local bureaucrats have often been appointed and promoted on the basis of their political allegiance to the ruling government. [8]

Thousands of opposition leaders and activists behind bars

In the lead-up to the election, the authorities arrested thousands of BNP members and supporters and filed politically-motivated cases against them. From 1 August to 31 December 2023, at least 1,724 opposition leaders and activists, mostly from the BNP, were detained and sentenced to jail terms by courts in Dhaka. [9] According to opposition figures, between 28 October and late December 2023, 23,460 opposition leaders, members, and supporters had been arrested, and 684 cases had been filed against them. [10] There have also been reports of detained opposition activities being tortured and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatments while in prison. [11] At least nine opposition activists have died in prisons while in arbitrary detention since 25 November 2023. [12]

BNP leaders, members, and supporters have continued to face a crackdown even after the party’s decision to boycott the upcoming polls. [13] On 1 January 2024, pro-opposition lawyers began boycotting court proceedings across the country for seven days to express solidarity with the BNP. [14]

Excessive use of force against opposition rallies

Since October 2023, protests organized by the BNP have been met with excessive force by law enforcement agencies, resulting in 17 people being killed and over 8,200 injured. Police used tear gas, sticks, batons, and rubber bullets to crack down on protests. Although police were met by occasional acts of violence by the protesters, they regularly failed to adhere to international standards on the management of public assemblies, such as the United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement.

This excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies has been explicitly encouraged by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. During a 3 November 2023 meeting with Awami League supporters, Ms. Hasina said that anyone catching someone committing arson should "throw [them] into the same fire. The hand that sets fire to anything will have to be burnt […] tit for tat. If so, they would learn lessons". [15] Such violent rhetoric directed at opposition members was not confined to the Prime Minister. Police in Dinajpur District threatened to "amputate the legs" of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal leader Jobayer Hossain Saddam. [16] A local Awami League leader in the city of Narayanganj ordered his fellow party members to "break the arms and legs of the BNP men" who distributed leaflets calling for an election boycott. [17]

Election violence in Bangladesh

Elections in Bangladesh have long been mired in violence, including as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement, and violent clashes between supporters of various political parties. Active student and youth wings from political parties – such as the Awami League’s Bangladesh Chhatra League, the BNP’s Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, and the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Islami Chhatra Shibir – have long played a key role in Bangladesh’s political landscape, and have often been implicated in violent attacks and clashes in the run-up to elections.

The run-up to the January 2014 election and election day were marred by extensive violence. BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters violently enforced general strikes and transport blockades. At least 64 people were killed due to clashes with police and political party activists from both sides, or as a result of petrol bomb attacks. [18] Twenty-one people were killed on election day and voting at some 400 polling locations was halted as a result of the violence. [19] The 2018 elections were again marred by violence, with at least 18 people killed in election day violence, including during clashes between Awami League and BNP supporters. [20] These incidents of violence have, to date, never been adequately investigated by the government.

This violent repression of protests occurs in a context of serious human rights violations perpetrated against members of the political opposition, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. In an April 2019 report, FIDH found that there was a clear pattern of Bangladeshi authorities using enforced disappearances to silence political opponents, especially since 2011. [21]

Over the past decade, periods leading up to general elections in Bangladesh have witnessed significant increases in the number of documented cases of enforced disappearances. Prior to the upcoming polls, from January to December 2023, at least 52 people were subjected to enforced disappearance, a 148% increase from the 21 people who disappeared in 2022. In 2018, ahead of the December election, a record-high of 98 people were subjected to enforced disappearance, a slight increase from the 94 enforced disappearances documented in 2017. In 2013, 54 people were subjected to enforced disappearance, double the number of those who disappeared in 2012.

Harassment of voters to boost turnout

Following the decision by the opposition political parties not to participate in the upcoming election and their calls on voters to boycott the polls, authorities and Awami League officials threatened voters with sanctions if they failed cast their ballots. Officials from various state entities and ruling party activists threatened voters that their social security benefits would be cancelled if they failed to turn up at the polling stations. [22]

Opposition repressed amid shrunk civic space

The government’s restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly have severely impacted the electoral landscape. The authorities have frequently used draconian legislation, such as the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act and the Digital Security Act (DSA) to arrest individuals, including opposition leaders, journalists, human rights defenders, and academics, who criticised the government and its policies on web and social media platforms. [23] In 2023 alone, 51 people were arrested under the DSA. Of them, 48 were arrested for online criticism of the Prime Minister, high-ranking government officials, and/or their family members and for making "anti-government" comments. [24] Fear of reprisals has resulted in self-censorship in the media and more broadly.

In addition to the repression of protests organized by the political opposition described above, peaceful assemblies organized by civil society have also been severely repressed by the authorities. On 9 December 2023, authorities, including police officers in full riot gear, prevented a demonstration organized by Maayer Daak, an organization of families of victims of enforced disappearances, in front of the National Museum in Dhaka. [25]

These violations of fundamental freedoms contribute to an atmosphere of fear, and disillusionment in the democratic process. In February 2020, the Dhaka City Corporation polls recorded just over 27% of voter turnout, which was the lowest voter turnout in such elections in the country. [26] In February 2023, voter turnout in six by-elections for parliamentary seats was below 20% in some districts. [27]

International criticism of the election process

Strong criticism of the election process in Bangladesh has come from multiple international sources. In September 2023, the European Union (EU) announced it would not be deploying a full-fledged election observation mission, citing that it was "not sufficiently clear whether the necessary conditions will be met". [28]

Also in September 2023, the United States (US) announced it was "taking steps to impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh. These individuals included members of law enforcement, the ruling party, and the political opposition". [29]

In November 2023, three UN Special Rapporteurs said they were "deeply disturbed by the sharp rise in political violence, arrests of senior opposition leaders, mass arbitrary detention of thousands of political activists, use of excessive force by the authorities and internet shutdowns to disrupt protests, and allegations of harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention of family members as a retaliatory measure". [30]

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