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Bangladesh’s Electoral Deadlock: A Nation’s Struggle for Democracy

Dr. Md Nurul Amin: The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) made a significant announcement (12 July 2023) regarding a one-point movement for polls under a non-party interim government. During a massive rally organized by the BNP’s Dhaka north and south units in front of the party’s Nayapaltan central office, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the secretary general

Dr. Md Nurul Amin: The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) made a significant announcement (12 July 2023) regarding a one-point movement for polls under a non-party interim government. During a massive rally organized by the BNP’s Dhaka north and south units in front of the party’s Nayapaltan central office, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the secretary general of BNP, emphasized that the sole demand of the movement was the resignation of the government, dissolution of parliament, and the establishment of an election conducted under a non-party interim administration.  This one-point movement was also joined by 36 like-minded political parties who shared the same demand. Fakhrul revealed that the BNP and other like-minded parties involved in the anti-government movement had unanimously agreed to make a joint declaration for a simultaneous one-point movement from their respective positions. He called upon all democratic political parties to unite with the people and launch an unstoppable movement to remove the “fascist and autocratic” government and establish a government of the people. Fakhrul urged law enforcement agencies and government employees to fulfill their duties impartially in accordance with their oath, warning them of accusations of oath violation if they failed to do so. Accusing the government of engaging in rampant corruption and misconduct without being held accountable to the people, Fakhrul expressed that the government had obstructed party leaders and activists from attending the rally by creating obstacles in various areas. He also remembered the leaders and activists who had been forcibly disappeared or killed during the anti-government movement.

At the same time, the ruling Awami League declared that there would be no election unless it was held under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Their announcement was made during a large “peace” rally near the Baitul Mukarram mosque. In response, the BNP vowed to remove the government through their one-point movement at a rally held just a kilometre away. Obaidul Quader, the General Secretary of the Awami League, addressed the “peace” rally and stated that their one-point demand was an election under Sheikh Hasina. He encouraged supporters to take to the streets whenever asked, claiming that the game was ongoing until the election. These rallies took place while delegations from the United States and the European Union were present to assess the pre-election environment ahead of the scheduled national election in January of the following year.

While both parties strongly oppressed each other, playing a blame-game on each other, Uzra Zeya, the US under-secretary of state for democracy and human rights, expressed the desire for a dialogue among political parties regarding the upcoming national election in Bangladesh. She is currently visiting Bangladesh.  However, she emphasized that the United States would not play a directive role in the process. Zeya stated that dialogue among political parties is an internal matter for Bangladesh, and it is the responsibility of the parties to create an environment conducive to a free, fair, inclusive, and violence-free election. Zeya highlighted that the timing of the elections in Bangladesh will be decided by the country itself. She reiterated that the United States does not directly interfere in the dialogue process but has engaged in discussions with the government of Bangladesh regarding the importance of free, fair, and inclusive elections. Zeya also expressed the need for journalists to report news freely without fear. She praised the peaceful large-scale political rallies as a positive sign and expressed the US’s desire to see similar events in the future. During her visit, Zeya met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, where they discussed good governance and the importance of strong democratic institutions. Zeya emphasized the freedom of journalists and the role of civil society in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms. She expressed the US’s commitment to deepen its partnership with Bangladesh and support their vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Regarding elections, Zeya mentioned that the US announced a new visa policy to supplement Hasina’s commitment to holding free, fair, and neutral elections. Hasina emphasized that the Awami League has always fought for free and fair elections, while mentioning the vote rigging and violence perpetrated by the BNP in the past.

In this situation, Bangladesh’s upcoming election is deadlocked between the ruling Awami League and the main opposition BNP, with disagreement on the election process. Awami League wants to conduct it under their government, while BNP demands an interim administration. The upcoming national election in Bangladesh is anything but routine, given the country’s history of fighting for the right to free and fair elections. The current deadlock between the ruling Awami League and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) over the election process is a matter of great concern for the people and the nation as a whole.

Examining the Awami League’s stance reveals that it was the party itself that originally advocated for a non-party caretaker government during the BNP’s term from 1991 to 1996. The Awami League, along with allies such as the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jatiya Party, forced the BNP to adopt the caretaker government system after a prolonged general strike and negotiations with international mediators. The Awami League’s motivation behind this demand was its dissatisfaction with the 1991 election results, which it attributed to “subtle rigging.” It believed that the constitution needed to be amended to establish a non-party caretaker government to ensure fair elections. Notably, Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League, even expressed her desire for the caretaker government system to remain in place indefinitely.

The push for the caretaker government system gained momentum after the alleged rigging of the Magura by-election in 1994, which the BNP was accused of manipulating with the help of the civil bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies. The Awami League and its allies argued that the neutrality of these institutions was crucial for holding free and fair elections, even though they were not biased towards the BNP at the time. However, it is worth noting that during the Janatar Mancha movement in 1996, it was revealed that the civil administration was more politicized in favour of the Awami League than the ruling BNP. Nevertheless, the BNP eventually held the February 1996 election under the constitution, winning with a significant majority of 278 seats, as the Awami League boycotted the election. The BNP then used its parliamentary majority to pass the 13th amendment, paving the way for Bangladesh’s first national election under the caretaker government system in June 1996. Although the BNP narrowly lost the election (118-146), the difference in actual votes between the BNP and the Awami League was marginal, highlighting the potential of the caretaker government system to facilitate a free and fair election. This suggested that the system required further refinement through negotiations between the BNP and the Awami League. Overall, the caretaker government system received praise both domestically and internationally as a means of ensuring fair elections in a developing democracy.

However, the Awami League had other plans in mind for the caretaker government system, as revealed in Pranab Mukherjee’s autobiography, “The Coalition Years,” published in 2017. Mukherjee, who served as India’s influential Finance Minister during Bangladesh’s emergency government led by Mainuddin-Fakhruddin, disclosed a conversation with General Mainuddin, expressing the latter’s apprehensions about his future if Sheikh Hasina came to power after the December 2008 election. Mukherjee assured him of his personal responsibility for his survival once Hasina returned to power. This revelation shed light on the Awami League’s intentions during its movement for the caretaker government system, which aimed not only to remove the BNP from power but also to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament for amending the constitution. The Awami League sought to reintroduce the BAKSAL system, a one-party rule established in 1974 through the 4th amendment but aborted following its loss of power in 1975. However, the Awami League realized that the caretaker government system alone would not provide the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments, as observed in the 1996 and 2001 elections.

The meeting between Mukherjee and General Mainuddin presented an opportunity for the Awami League to achieve its objectives. The general’s control over the 2008 election, including the development of software (electronic voting machine – EVM) used during the election, ensured a landslide victory for the Awami League with the coveted two-thirds majority (230 seats against the BNP’s 30). This result enabled the Awami League to implement the BAKSAL vision through the 15th constitutional amendment adopted in June 2011. The 15th amendment repealed the 13th amendment and the caretaker government system, which had provided all political parties, including the BNP, with the opportunity to win national elections.

The 15th amendment, however, contained a provision that allowed sitting members of parliament to contest in the next election while retaining their seats and privileges. This provision, without annulling the existing parliament, would enable the Awami League and its allies to nominate the overwhelming majority of sitting MPs to contest in all 300 seats, leaving no room for opposition candidates. The absurdity of this provision became apparent, as it effectively tilted the next election heavily in favour of the ruling party.  The majority of major opposition parties boycotted the 2014 election held under the 15th amendment, leading to 153 out of 300 seats being uncontested. As a result, the incumbent Awami League-led Grand Alliance, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, secured a landslide victory taking 234 of the 300 seats. Similarly, the 2018 election witnessed alleged ballot-stuffing and irregularities (BBC, 30 December 2018: Bangladesh election: Opposition demands new vote), earning it the nickname “midnight election.” These elections revealed that Hasina’s Awami League had secured a record third consecutive term, taking along with its allies 288 of the 300 seats of the national assembly into a situation similar to the Magura by-election of 1994. The 15th amendment, combined with the politicization of civil bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies during the Awami League’s tenure, made it increasingly difficult for opposition parties to contest elections fairly. The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, and her ruling coalition secured a resounding victory, capturing 96% of the vote, a result that the opposition rejects (The Guardian, 31 December 2018: Bangladesh PM Hasina wins thumping victory in elections opposition reject as ‘farcical’). The ruling Awami League’s main rival, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), and its allies managed to secure only seven seats. However, this election was overshadowed by weeks of violence, the widespread arrest of opposition activists, and unfortunate incidents that resulted in the loss of at least 17 party workers and police on polling day.

External powers, such as the US, EU, and UN, were relatively passive during the 2008, 2014, and 2018 elections, driven by concerns about the War on Terror and the BNP’s alliance with the Jamaat. However, since President Biden assumed office in 2021, there has been a shift in their stance on Bangladesh. With the end of the War on Terror, these powers now emphasize human rights, democracy, and free and fair elections globally. Consequently, they are expected to exert greater pressure on Bangladesh for transparent and participatory elections, further complicating the Awami League’s ability to hold elections similar to those in 2014 and 2018. India, a traditional supporter of the Awami League, no longer offers the same level of backing as before, especially considering its diminished strategic dominance in Bangladesh and its strained relationship with the ruling party. As a result, external pressure on the Awami League for fair elections is expected to be significant.

In conclusion, the Awami League’s objective of establishing a one-party system has become evident through its actions and the adoption of the 15th amendment. The BNP, in contrast, has emerged as the champion of multi-party democracy in Bangladesh. The long-term impact on the Awami League’s image as a liberal and democratic party is at stake. The pressure from external powers, along with the united opposition movement for a caretaker government, and growing economic difficulties, makes it increasingly unlikely for the Awami League to repeat the outcomes of the 2014 and 2018 elections. The future of Bangladesh’s democracy depends on resolving the deadlock and ensuring cooperation from all stakeholders, including political leaders and the media, is essential for truly free and fair elections.


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