Bangladesh: A democracy in deeply troubled waters

It is imperative that the international community join hands in firmly calling for an immediate re-election subject to impartial observation in order to lay tensions to rest and restore the rule of the ballot and ultimately democracy itself.

Bangladesh:  A democracy in deeply troubled waters

Mohammad Talukder

Bangladesh is a name mostly associated in the West as a source of cheap garments. Over the recent years however, it has also come to be associated with increasingly intolerant attitudes towards democratic norms, with successive governments taking leaps and bounds towards more authoritarian rule. On 5 January, 2014, in what came to be recognized as one of the all time lows in democracy in this strategically located South Asian nation, headlines around the world were replete with news of the undemocratic and apparently farcical nature of the 10th  national elections held under the ruling Awami League. Things have only become worse since then.

A discredited election, a flashback:

The 10th general elections held on January 5, 2014 was synonymous to an Orwellian drama, as the government orchestrated a violence-ridden saga where the Election Commission arranged for voting in 147 constituencies out of a total of 300. Disturbing as it may sound, pro-government candidates ran unopposed in the rest 153 constituencies; in those districts, local elections were not held, leaving 48 million registered voters without any opportunity to vote. The absence of any opposition candidate was due to the fact that the then opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its main ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI) had boycotted the elections on grounds that elections could neither be fair nor free under a partisan government such as the erstwhile government led by the Awami League, especially one that was widely associated with an extremely shocking record in violations of human rights, rampant corruption and a rule of law which was heavily based on the silencing of opposition activists and any dissenting voices in the media.

The elections were criticized by a number of key international players, including the US and the UN, who demanded new elections. In a representation of the wide ranging criticism from the international scene, one Aljazeera report said that around 82 countries around the world had questioned the credibility of the polls.

However, all was not lost for the new government of Bangladesh, as the neighbouring India provided it with much needed support when it phrased Bangladesh’s general elections “a constitutional requirement”. India's external affairs ministry said that while it was for the people of Bangladesh to decide their own future and choose their representatives, "violence cannot and should not determine the way forward".

The image of the new government was also boosted by moral support from leading intellectuals such as Zafar Iqbal, who came down heavily on a section of the media for their stand against holding the 10th parliamentary elections amid a boycott by the main opposition party, alleging that editors of some major newspapers and a few civil society platforms who were calling for halting the electoral process were talking in line with the Basher Kella, a website allegedly run by pro-Jamaat activists and were actually trying to ensure the participation of BJI in the election.

“This upsets me. The Jamaat should be banned,” mentioned the renowned 62 year old Bangladeshi writer of children’s literature and science fiction.

A year on, the autocratic rule steadily worsens:

Less than 2 months after the so-called national elections, the BNP-led alliance competed in the fourth nationwide upazila (sub-district) elections where the BNP and its allied BJI backed chairperson candidates showed a grand performance, bagging close to two-thirds of the seats, in a poll that was still declared by observers as being widely rigged and unfair. The local elections, if more than anything, showed a glimpse of the real popularity of the opposition BNP-Jamaat in general, and the Islamists in specific. This was inspite of a state sponsored campaign to defame leading Islamist politicians and subject them to sham trials in the name of justice for crimes purportedly committed more than 40 years ago. It is worthwhile mentioning that popular Islamist politician Abdul Quader Mollah was sentenced to death and was executed on December 12, 2013, just weeks away from the upcoming election. This happened despite appeals for his life by national and international groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations itself, as well as the heads of state of some major countries.

With all of the above, in mind, 5 January 2015 was scheduled to be marked by BNP and its allies as “Democracy Killing Day”, with a huge demonstration planned in Paltan at the capital Dhaka. The government, anticipating unrest on the account of the upcoming protests, reacted preemptively in a rather harsh manner, cordoning off the BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, who is also the leader of the 20 party grand alliance, in Dhaka, before the 5th of January, by positioning sand trucks in front of her residence and deploying hundreds of security officials around the place, in effect placing her under house arrest which continued to be in effect as of the writing this article. Coupled with a security crackdown and a ban on rallies, opposition activists were forced to react, calling an indefinite nationwide “oborodh” (blockade). The government administration, in continuance with its intolerant and abusive policies, dispersed public demonstrations using ruthless measures such as indiscriminate lathi charging cum riot policing, pepper spray, running security vehicles upon protesters and in many cases live ammunition. Protesters, ill equipped and unprepared for facing the full brunt of the state security machinery, on their part have sometimes resorted to vandalizing vehicles amid otherwise peaceful protests.  More than seven protesters have been killed so far, with arrests figures running into the thousands over the past few days alone.   

The administration led by Sheikh Hasina, in an ever increasing show of its inherent intolerance, has arrested a couple of high profile senior opposition figures, namely BNP Joint Secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, Acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir and Vice Chairman Shamser Mubin Chowdhury among others since January 5. Moreover, the High Court has issued an injunctive to prevent broadcast or publication of speeches and statements by exiled opposition politician Tarique Rahman, who is Mrs Zia’s heir apparent. The injunctive came in quick succession after police arrested Abdus Salam, chairman of Ekushey TV (ETV), on "trumped-up" pornography charges after it aired a speech from Mr. Rahman calling for a popular uprising against the current government after it locked up Begum Zia ahead of the scheduled protests. Presently, Ekushey TV, the first private channel of Bangladesh is off air from January 5, 2015 as well. The arrest of its chief Abdus Salam has been condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US based press freedom organization who called for his immediate release.

With no peaceful end in sight, developments on ground suggest that Khaleda Zia herself may be arrested on charges of instigation of the popular protests rocking the nation. As unrest and injustice pile up, it is imperative that the international community join hands in firmly calling for an immediate re-election subject to impartial observation in order to lay tensions to rest and restore the rule of the ballot and ultimately democracy itself.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 10 Ocak 2015, 13:07