Uncertainty looms as Bangladesh awaits another chaotic elections

Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh

As Awami League gears up to seek a mandate for PM Sheikh Hasina’s fourth consecutive term in office during Bangladesh polls slated for January 2024, the main opposition party, BNP, insists that elections should be held under neutral caretaker administration, writes Nava Thakuria

The coming year will witness national elections in three countries which were incidentally one nation prior to its independence in 1947. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are expected to grace Parliamentary elections early next year and it’s presumed that the post-poll scenario will grossly impact the south Asian scenario for security, trade and tourism. While India, now opted to be reintroduced as Bharat, is destined to be a democratically elected government in New Delhi, speculations are afloat about its two neighbours slipping into the hands of armed dictators after chaotic polls. Both Islamabad and Dhaka have witnessed military coups from time to time.

As Bangladesh goes to general elections in January 2024, the ruling party (Awami League) will seek the mandate from nearly 120 million voters for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s fourth consecutive term in office. Prime opposition party of the poverty-stricken country, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) today faces a difficult situation as its uncontested leader Begum Khaleda Zia (77) continues to be unwell and its acting chairperson Tarque Rahman is exiled in London since 2008. But a recent demonstration by thousands of BNP supporters in Dhaka demanding the resignation of PM Hasina for a free and fair election drew the attention of international media.

BNP leaders are sticking to their demand for a neutral caretaker administration in Dhaka to conduct the forthcoming elections, as they publicly allege that the ruling AL and its allies will rig the polls. The opposition alliance, led by BNP, believes that the ruling alliance will lose the elections if held in a free and fair manner. So they are yet to agree to participate in polls unless PM Hasina (75) endorses a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee the electoral process. Otherwise, they may boycott the polls, as they did in 2014 and 2018 national elections. But the world’s longest-serving female government head refused to step down prior to the elections citing that it’s not mandatory under the Constitution of Bangladesh.

No doubt, BNP and its allies, particularly Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups, will not sit ideally  in favour of the incumbent PM. They will go for more street protests across the country in the coming days and many demonstrators may adopt violent means for national and international media attention. Even the turmoil can continue in the post-poll scenario, if the opposition alliance does not participate in the elections. The intense and uninterrupted political chaos may also invite the ‘men in uniform’ to step into the political space and finally another dictator can emerge in Dhaka, as Bangladesh has a history of military interventions in politics.

The ruling AL alliance won over 250 Parliamentary seats in December 2018 elections and thus enjoys an absolute majority in the 350-member Jatiya Sangsad, the highest legislative body of Bangladesh, which does not have provincial legislative assemblies like India or Pakistan. The daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman -who is respected as Bangla’s Father of the Nation – still enjoys the reputation as an influential leader and lately gained more political mileage after the special invitation from New Delhi to attend the G20 summit. PM Hasina was the only South Asian government head to be invited to attend and she also enjoyed a bilateral discussion with her host Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Over the years, the USA along with many western nations have repeatedly urged PM Hasina to hold the elections in a transparent way where all opposition parties can participate and the electors can vote freely. Days back, the USA and UK diplomats met the Bangladesh chief election commissioner and other officials to enquire about the poll preparations. European Union leaders are planning to send election observers to Bangladesh, which is welcomed by the AL government arguing that its Election Commission is capable enough to run the exercise honestly and independently.

Reacting to a recent observation by over 175 global leaders including Nobel laureates, elected officials, business and civil society leaders, where they firmly stated the two previous elections in Bangladesh lacked legitimacy, PM Hasina hit back with suggestions that they should send international election experts to observe the Bangla polls. But in reality, the general elections (precisely after Bangladesh transformed into a fully Parliamentary democracy from the clutches of military rulers in 1990-91) usually witness enormous chaos and violence. The BNP tried to manipulate the 1996 elections, but it had to succumb to massive public protests. Since then the idea of an election time caretaker government came to exist in Bangladesh.

The open letter by eminent personalities including Ban Ki-moon (former UN secretary general), Barack H. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton (former US President and secretary of State respectively), Shirin Ebadi, Orhan Pamuk with hundred other Nobel laureates, Narayana Murthy (founder, Infosys), etc also urged PM Hasina to suspend all legal proceedings against Professor Muhammad Yunus (83), the one and only Nobel laureate of Bangladesh. Commending the laudable progress made by Bangladesh in various sectors like education, health, poverty alleviation, women empowerment, etc since its independence in 1971, they however expressed concern over the deteriorating scenario for human rights and media freedom.

It was preceded by another letter to PM Hasina regarding her government’s ill treatment of Prof Yunus. The letter, endorsed by 40 global personalities, was published as an advertisement in Washington Post (7 March 2023). A minister in PM Hasina’s cabinet made a critical comment over the letter terming it as an advertisement only and not a media statement (meaning a lesser important approach). But days back, 34 eminent Bangladeshi nationals came forward raising voices for Prof Yunus. They opined that using various biased hostilities against the most awarded Bangladeshi gentleman, the incumbent government in Dhaka was only inviting negative comments from the international community.

Recently, the United Nations human rights office also issued a statement supporting Prof Yunus, who is globally recognised as an economist teacher-turned a revolutionary baker turned a unique social business entrepreneur, and currently facing a number of legal complaints in his home country. Terming that the revolutionary thinker has been put to harassment and intimidation for almost a decade, the statement added, “We are concerned that smear campaigns against him (Prof Yunus), often emanating from the highest levels of government, risk undermining his right to a fair trial and due process in line with international standards.” It also pursued many other human rights defenders in Bangladesh who have been facing continued harassment and detention from the authorities.

Probably PM Hasina was aware of the negative development in advance and hence she seemingly planned adequate media space in her favour. The politically conscious people of Bangladesh witnessed over a hundred newspaper-articles in various countries within a few weeks, where those articles were claimed to be prepared by independent experts on Bangladesh politics. The issue was later exposed by the Paris-based Agence France-Presse (AFP), where it explained that many of the writers had dubious backgrounds.

AFP reportedly analyzed more than 700 articles published in at least 60 domestic and international news sites with bylines attributed to 35 names, all of which appeared for the first time. While it was not possible to prove if all investigated bylines were real, no online presence apart from the articles could be found and none had a visible social media profile. The articles overwhelmingly endorsed narratives pushed by the AL government in Dhaka, with some of those were found posted on various Bangladesh government websites.

Speaking to this writer from Dhaka, a Bangladeshi editor informed that he too received a number of articles (with the prediction of PM Hasina’s convincing win in the forthcoming polls) with a request for kind publication. The young editor (who wanted anonymity) admitted that some of those articles were published in various Bangladeshi newspapers (including his one), certainly in good faith. But soon, he stopped publishing those articles after discovering that one particular article was re-sent with a different byline and the trend repeated for weeks. Finally, he agreed to the public perception that PM Hasina may lose the battle of ballots this time.