Bangladesh will hold its first competitive election in a decade come Sunday, but the government is under scrutiny from home and abroad over whether the polls will be free and fair, amid reports of deadly political violence and intimidation during the final stretch.
More than 100 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in the Muslim-majority nation’s 11th general election, but the polls will have a sharply reduced presence of neutral election monitors – both foreign and domestic – compared with 2008, according to figures from the Election Commission. And this could lead to vote-rigging, analysts say.
“The number of election observers will be least this time. Polls observers, mainly foreign polls observers, contribute hugely to stop manipulation of elections,” Dr. Sakhawat Hossain, a Bangladeshi former election commissioner, told BenarNews.
“Those who plan to rig the polls think twice when polls observers visit the election centers.”
According to the latest information from the commission on Wednesday, only 176 foreign observers and some 26,000 domestic ones have been accredited for the parliamentary polls.
“So far, we have approved 176 foreign observers from 18 organizations and foreign missions in Bangladesh,” S.M. Asaduzzaman, the Election Commission’s chief of public affairs, told Benar.
The numbers reflect a sharp drop from the 593 foreign representatives and nearly 160,000 domestic observers who were accredited to monitor Bangladesh’s last contested general election, in 2008, according to commission records.
“The Awami League has repeatedly been assuring that they would hold a free and fair election. The BNP also demands more observers. So, the election commission should ensure presence of more election observers,” Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political science professor at Chittagong University, told BenarNews.
He was referring to the ruling party and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
“The people want to know about the standard of election from the polls observers,” he added.
More than 207 incidents of political violence have marred the campaign period, which began Dec. 10, leaving six people dead and hundreds injured, according to Agence France-Presse and Prothom Alo, a leading Bangladeshi newspaper.
In Sunday’s election, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is going for a record fourth term in office, while arch rival and BNP leader Khaleda Zia is in jail, where she has been disqualified from the race as a result of a corruption conviction.
Meanwhile, an alliance headed by her BNP has joined forces with a new coalition, the National Unity Front (NUF), in a bid to block Hasina from securing a third consecutive term. The NUF is led by Kamal Hossain, an octogenarian who has vowed to “restore democracy” in Bangladesh.
Hossain has not registered as a candidate in the parliamentary polls, and neither the BNP nor NUF have revealed who they would pick as prime minister should their bloc defeat the ruling coalition.
In total, 299 parliamentary seats are up for grabs, after one contest was postponed due to the death of a candidate.
Among foreign countries monitoring the polls, the U.S. is deploying the largest contingent of 65 observers, and U.S.-based NGOs are sending additional monitors, according to the Election Commission figures.
But the United States criticized Bangladesh’s government after a Thai-based and U.S.-funded group, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), announced it was cancelling its plans to send 32 election observers due to “significant delays” in the accreditation process.
Washington was disappointed by Bangladesh’s “inability” to grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission, the State Department said in a statement Friday.
“We encourage the Government of Bangladesh to uphold its commitment to a democratic process by ensuring all Bangladeshis are free to peacefully express themselves and participate in December 30 election,” the statement went on to say.
Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs fired back two days later, saying it was “disheartened” by the U.S. statement, and defending its accreditation process.
ANFREL’s decision to terminate the mission was “entirely their own,” it said, adding that a Bangladeshi NGO linked to ANFREL, Odhikar, was “widely known for its disproportionate bias and prejudice against Bangladesh, in particular the government of Awami League.”
“As one of the largest democracies in the world and mutually respectful to others, Bangladesh would expect and welcome constructive statements towards its democratic process from its friends and partners,” the ministry said.
Sunday’s poll will take place amid a tense atmosphere and restrictions imposed by Bangladeshi authorities, such as a move to slow internet broadband speeds down to 2G from 4G in order to prevent “fake news and propaganda” from being spread online.
In November, local newspapers quoted election officials as saying poll watchers would be instructed to “stay at polling stations like statues” and not speak to reporters or issue statements while performing their duties.
In addition, the Election Commission announced earlier Wednesday that campaigning would end at 8 a.m. Friday instead of the previously scheduled time, 12 a.m. Saturday.
The High Court has disqualified 19 opposition candidates, including Zia, from contesting the election. No politicians from Awami have been disqualified.
Opposition leaders meanwhile allege that police have carried out mass arrests of thousands of opposition supporters.
Late Tuesday, representatives of opposition parties walked out of a meeting with chief Election Commissioner Nurul Huda, accused him of bias and demanded that he be replaced.
“It is not possible to get a non-partisan and neutral election from him and there is no possibility of fair treatment from him,” AFP quoted opposition spokesman Fakhrul Islam Alamgir as saying.
The government blamed the opposition for political violence in recent days.
“The government of Bangladesh supports and strives to conduct free, fair and safe elections. It hopes that the upcoming elections scheduled for December 30 will remain peaceful. Unfortunately, certain opposition factions have begun to instigate conflict,” it said in a statement this week.