Opinion: Bad governance and rigged elections in Bangladesh

Dhaka, Dhaka Division, Bangladesh Nov 23, 2017, 10.36 AM(IST) Written By: Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury

The next general elections in Bangladesh are expected in the year 2019. Photograph:( AFP )

It’s apparently premature, yet 2019 election talks have already started in Bangladesh and almost surely election fever will grip the country from early next year. There are reasons for this early election enthusiasm and the chief of which is that, the 2014 election was a one-sided affair without BNP, the main Opposition party, and that too with extremely low voter’s turn out. There is interest and urge for a proper election in the general populace, media and civil society.

Under the current circumstances, the vital question though is whether the next one will be an all-inclusive and fair one and whether the incumbent Awami League (AL) is ready for that. It seems that the main Opposition, although out of the parliament now, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) will participate in the next election with or without a neutral caretaker government, upon the demand of which they boycotted the last one. But, if there is another one-sided election or if a rigged election is on the cards, what will be the outcome of that domestically and internationally?

BNP tried to launch a popular agitation after 2014, sometimes with violence, but the AL government shrewdly suppressed it.
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Awami League’s political legitimacy in its second of these two consecutive terms came under scrutiny because of the questionable validity of the 2014 election. Many analysts have commented that there is a sense of a lack of accountability and bad governance, stemming from that dubious mandate. BNP tried to launch a popular agitation after 2014, sometimes with violence, but the AL government shrewdly suppressed it.

BNP learned the limit of its cadre power and now a tamed BNP is looking forward to the election and its political survival. Although the BNP still seems to have a considerable popular base, it failed due to its organisational and motivational weakness, to bring people on the streets and organise mass agitation to force the government for an early or midterm poll. AL political cadres on the streets and the police together suppressed their attempt fairly easily.

In Bangladesh, people are more concerned now about a proper election first and then it’s possible outcome.
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But in Bangladesh, people are more concerned now about a proper election first and then about it’s outcome. Performance wise, the AL government, by and large, maintained the momentum of moderate economic growth that had been there in Bangladesh for the last couple of decades. It delivered, in a big way, on its election promise of completing the trial of the war criminals of 1971 and, in the process, the leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Thus, a considerable political force and ally of BNP was eliminated. This party is also in disarray and it seems unlikely that they will be participating in the next election pending a possible ban on them.

The AL government came hard on the radical Islamists fractions in Bangladesh after the July terror attack in Dhaka in 2016. The government tends to project itself to the West and India as the true demolisher of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh. However, it’s not clear whether the key western countries upon whom Bangladesh’s vital exports depend will accept another 2014 style one-sided election.

BNP meanwhile was trying to convince the West and India that it’s not sympathetic to Islamic radicals, and there is no danger of the spread of Islamic militancy if they come to power. It also tries to assure India that if it comes to power in Bangladesh insurgents of India’s northeast will have no passage or sanctuary in Bangladesh. BNP believes that Indian support helped the post-2014 AL government to gain recognition in the international arena.

Bangladesh is in incertitude now and its pretty difficult to predict the country’s political course.
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Bangladesh is in incertitude now and its pretty difficult to predict the country’s political course. If there are enough genuine pressure from the EU, US, Gulf countries and, at least, a neutrality from India the Bangladesh government might have to shed any possibility of one-sided or rigged election. In that case, the government will be forced to negotiate with the Opposition to facilitate a free and fair election.

If the mentioned pressure is low from the quartet the probability of one-sided or rigged election might be on the cards. It’s tough to predict what happens in case of a divided quartet. The danger would be heightened if there is no negotiation between the government and Opposition. In such scenario, the AL might have no other way but to try to cling on to power at any cost as they would fear hostile reprisal from much oppressed BNP in any possibility of the latter’s coming to power. But if the AL try this and fail, the fall could be big and costly. Bangladesh has a bloody and tumultuous past.

Such uncertainty is bad for a reasonably large country of 165 million that has high potential under a stable condition. There could also be some considerable spillover effect in the region in case things go grossly wrong in Bangladesh. The commoners in Bangladesh expect that all key stakeholders should apply their prudence and good judgment for the greater and collective well being the country and its people.

(Disclaimer: The author writes here in a personal capacity).

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is Head of Operations at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Bangladesh.