Updated at 5:02 p.m. ET on 2019-01-02
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other freshly elected candidates from Bangladesh’s ruling coalition will take their parliamentary oaths on Thursday, officials said Wednesday, while the United States and European Union cast doubt over whether the vote was free and fair.
Hasina’s Awami League party led the Grand Alliance bloc to a landslide victory in the Dec. 30 general election. But the opposition claimed widespread irregularities and voter intimidation had tainted the vote. The main opposition alliance also threatened not to seat any of its seven victorious candidates in the new parliament.
On Wednesday, the secretariat of Bangladesh’s legislature and the parliamentary speaker confirmed that newly elected MPs representing Grand Alliance constituent parties would be sworn in as MPs the next day.
“At first Awami League members will take their oaths, then members of the Jatiya Party, and then others,” Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, who was to administer the oath to the new class of parliamentarians, told BenarNews.
“The newly elected members of parliament are going to be sworn in tomorrow,” Election Commission chief K.M. Nurul Huda said Wednesday, according to the state-run BSS news agency.
A Bangladeshi court, meanwhile on Wednesday, granted authorities a three-day remand to hold a correspondent for the Dhaka Tribune, one of the country’s leading dailies, following his arrest on Tuesday over allegations that he falsely reported about alleged irregularities in votes cast at one constituency.
According to updated poll results from the commission, the Grand Alliance romped home by taking 288 out of 299 seats that were up for grabs in the first election contested in a decade, sealing a record fourth term for Hasina as prime minister, 71. Awami alone captured 257 seats.
But results for one of the 299 seats were postponed because voting at three polling sites in the Brahmanbaria-2 constituency had been suspended on Election Day because of violence, the commission said. A revote will take place at those three polling centers on Jan. 9, officials said.
The Grand Alliance crushed the National Unity Front (NUF), a recently formed opposition alliance led by Awami’s traditional foe, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. BNP’s chairwoman, three-time former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, was disqualified from the race because she was imprisoned after being convicted of corruption in February 2018.
On Wednesday, NUF leader Subrata Chowdhury said the opposition had not decided whether it would follow through on a threat made two days earlier that its seven winning candidates would not take their seats in the new parliament.
He said there were two schools of thought among opposition officials about which way the NUF should proceed.
“One is, our seven elected members should take the oath and use the parliament as a platform to boost up our politics. The other opinion is that if we go to the parliament, then it will mean that we have accepted the election results,” Chowdhury told BenarNews.
“We will decide whether to go to the parliament or not in couple of days,” he added.
According to the country’s electoral regulations, if a newly elected lawmaker does not take the oath within 90 days of day one of the new parliament’s first session, then his or her seat will be declared vacant.
‘Significant obstacles to a level playing field’
In the wake of her alliance’s big win on Sunday, Hasina and Awami officials have repeatedly claimed that the vote was free and fair. But on New Year’s Day, the United States and European Union came out with statements of grave concern over whether the polls were tainted.
In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. – Bangladesh’s biggest foreign investor and largest single-country market for Bangladeshi exports – remained “deeply invested in the future of Bangladesh and its democratic development.”
“[W]e note with concern credible reports of harassment, intimidation and violence in the pre-election period that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. We are also concerned that election-day irregularities prevented some people from voting, which undermined faith in the electoral process,” said Robert Palladino, a deputy spokesman for the department.
“We strongly encourage all parties to refrain from violence and request the Election Commission work constructively with all sides to address claims of irregularities,” he added.
The EU, another major market for exports of garments made in Bangladesh, said the mobilization of voters and participation of the opposition in the first competitive election in 10 years had reflected “the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to democracy.”
“However, violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the process and have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote,” said Maja Kocijancic, the EU’s spokeswoman on foreign affairs.
“The relevant national authorities should now ensure a proper examination of allegations of irregularities and commit to full transparency in their resolution,” she added.
On Wednesday, the secretary of Bangladesh’s Election Commission (EC) said it had instructed law enforcement agencies to investigate allegations of irregularities during Sunday’s vote, which drew 80 percent of the electorate, according to the commission.
“The EC has already decided to investigate minor incidents of violence that took place during the elections,” Commission Secretary Helaluddin Ahmed told BenarNews.
“The Chief Election Commissioner has already ordered the Inspector General of Police on this issue. The EC also asked police to submit a report on incidents.”
Elsewhere, a court in Khula, the third largest city in Bangladesh, granted police permission on Wednesday to hold Dhaka Tribune reporter Hedayat Hossain Mollah for three days of questioning under the nation’s Digital Security Act, in connection with his coverage of voting in the Khulna-1 constituency on Dec. 30.
An election official who oversaw voting in the constituency, Helal Uddin, brought charges under the act against Mollah and Rashidul Islam, a staff reporter of Manab Zamin, another Bangladeshi daily newspaper. Zamin has gone into hiding.
“We have taken action against those two journalist as instructed by the EC,” Uddin told BenarNews.
The two journalists were accused of reporting “false and fabricated” information about voting in Khulna-1 by using their electronic devices.
In their articles, they reported that provisional results had over counted the number of votes cast by about 22,000, compared with the number of voters registered in the constituency – suggesting an irregularity in the tally.
“The information reported by those two reporters was not true. I announced the written results received from election centers and sent them to the EC,” Uddin said.
Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) slammed Bangladesh’s action against the two journalists, alleging it was part of a string of hostile incidents targeting journalists during and after Sunday’s election.
“We call on the Bangladeshi authorities to immediately drop the charges against these two journalists,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement.
“Their only crime was to do their job to monitor the polling, as any journalist should in a functioning democracy. The repeated press freedom violations accompanying these elections have ended up undermining the credibility of the results,” the regional chief of the Paris-based group said.