Two deeply flawed elections in the past 16 months have left Bangladeshi observers wondering whether dysfunctional politics is pushing their country toward authoritarian rule.
“It’s a cruel fact in our history that no ruling party has ever lost an election because it can control the election commission and the law enforcement agencies,” A.T.M. Shamsul Huda, a former chief election commissioner in Bangladesh, told BenarNews.
The Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), rival parties headed by women who are bitter foes, dominate the political scene and have repeatedly traded places ruling this impoverished nation of 166.2 million people.
In the last two elections, the January 2014 general election and last month’s City Corporation municipal elections in Dhaka and Chittagong – which the ruling party won hands-down – the opposition BNP accused the ruling Awami League of “massive” vote-rigging.
The BNP boycotted last year’s general election because party officials said conditions for the vote were unfair. And on April 28 – polling day for the City Corporation contest – the
BNP pulled out when it accused the Awami League of “massive fraud” and voter intimidation.
Awami League officials brushed off such criticism.
“All these allegations are misplaced and don’t reflect the reality on the ground,” H.T. Imam, political advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, told Channel 24 News, a local broadcaster, last week.
“The BNP has become very unpopular for their destructive politics of blockade, strikes and killing innocent people [with] petrol bombs, and that is why they are afraid to take part in polls,” he added.
Imam was referring to a recent transportation blockade and strike called by the opposition party, which dragged on for three months and left 120 dead in ensuing violence.
The BNP launched the blockade and strikes on Jan. 5, the first anniversary of the 2014 general election.
Absence of ‘caretaker’ provision looms large
The opposition also boycotted that election to protest the ruling party’s refusal to allow a non-partisan caretaker administration to lead the country during the electoral season.
Huda and other analysts pointed to the Awami League’s move to scrap the “caretaker government” provision from the constitution as the main factor that has allowed the party to hold onto power.
“It was done to perpetuate the rule of the ruling party and, unfortunately, every government in the past 40 years has tried the same method,” said Huda, who supervised the 2008 general election as chief election commissioner.
This may explain why a popular consensus behind the idea of creating a neutral administration to oversee future elections emerged right after the toppling of the military dictatorship of Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad in 1990.
Consequently, four general elections that were held between 1990 and 2008 under neutral administrations saw the humiliating defeat of the ruling party, as it had been required to hand over power to the caretaker government three months before the vote.
“Each victorious party in those elections quickly proved to be highly corrupt and authoritarian and became highly unpopular, leading to its crushing defeat in the fair polls,” Huda said.
“No wonder each party in power tried its best to do away with the caretaker provision and invest all their energies to politicize the democratic institutions such as the election commission, judiciary and the anti-corruption commission,” he added.
Badiaul Alam Majumdar, president of Sujon, a watchdog group advocating the rule of law in Bangladesh, agreed.
“This is unfortunately true for both Awami League and the BNP, which ruled alternately since 1991, and that’s the saddest part of our democracy,” Majumdar told BenarNews.
But it was not until 2013 when the Awami League took advantage of a Supreme Court ruling that said that the principal of a caretaker government was incompatible with a democratic system. The party succeeded in doing away with the provision by amending the constitution through a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
The end of free and fair elections?
The last few electoral rounds dating to the last general election have “created an impression in the international community that fair polls in Bangladesh are no longer possible without further reform of the electoral process,” observed Humayan Kabir, a senior research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and former ambassador to the United States.
Shakhawat Hossain, a former election commissioner, sounded even more pessimistic in assessing the future of Bangladeshi democracy.
The alleged vote-rigging by the ruling party with the help of the state machinery was eroding people’s trust in the whole system, he said.
“You cannot strengthen democracy with eroded [popular] trust,” he told BenarNews.
“When democracy weakens, undemocratic forces such as militants rise. Only healthy democratic practices can deter militancy and encourage development,” he said.