‘By hook, crook and ballot’ – Democracy the loser!

Prothom Alo English Desk | Update:

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina speaks to reporters after casting her vote in parliamentary elections in Dhaka, on Sunday.—Photo: APBangladesh Awami League’s election victory with a margin of victory at 96 per cent “was a result one might expect in a place like North Korea, not a democratic nation such as Bangladesh”, writes The Washington Post.

That is, according to the US newspaper, exactly the problem: prime minister Sheikh Hasina “consolidated her grip on power but at the cost of her own electoral legitimacy.”

Her party and its allies secured 288 out of 299 contested seats. The opposition BNP, which won only seven, has called the election “farcical” and demanded a do-over, TIME magazine mentioned in an article 'They Threaten Everyone', adding that Sheikh Hasina's “landslide win in Bangladesh marred by voter suppression”.

The Economist wrote, “… the embarrassingly skewed tally suggested that the BNP was not really the biggest loser. The biggest loss was for democracy itself.”

It observed that the flawed general election of 30 December represented a sharp reversion to the less democratic end of the spectrum. “The Awami League, which has been in power continuously for 10 years, flagrantly wielded the full power of state institutions,” the British magazine said in a piece “By hook, crook and ballot”.

TIME magazine cited an example of voting in Dhaka on 30 December, quoting a polls worker who tried to defend disruption in voting as “Lunch break”. But by 3.10pm, the explanation had changed. “We’ve already started to count,” a policeman was quoted to have said. The polls had been supposed to close at 4pm.

It also pointed out that the result of AL’s landslide victory has been clouded by pre-election violence and allegations of a crackdown on the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), as well as widespread reports of vote-rigging and intimidation on election day, some of which was observed by TIME on the ground.

The Washington Post reported that there were scattered reports of irregularities at polling stations, including possible vote tampering, “but observers said Hasina had used other means to tilt the field in her favour long before Sunday.”

Nazrul Islam Khan, a standing committee leader of the BNP, told TIME that "the extent to which the government has rigged these elections is beyond imagination."

The AL chief, Hasina, rejected all allegations of impropriety, at a briefing with journalists and election observers on Monday evening. Her advisor HT Imam was said to have called it "one of the best elections held ever."

Evidence of voter disruption was widespread, said TIME. At one polling station at Kabi Nazrul Islam College in Old Dhaka, TIME was reportedly harassed by dozens of government supporters and forced to delete a video showing a woman who got into a fight with poll workers.

It wasn’t just BNP supporters who claimed they were prevented from voting. "I wanted to vote for the Awami League anyway, but when I reached the polling station they told me my vote had already been cast," said one woman who asked TIME not to publish her name for fear of reprisals.

The Economist said the sweeping nature of the repression meant that on voting day, few of the BNP’s electoral agents — who guide voters and monitor the process — dared show up at the 40,000 polling stations. By contrast, the Awami League fielded 120,000 agents. In Dhaka, the capital, it was hard to find a single poster for the BNP among the tens of thousands boosting the Awami League, the magazine said.

The sweeping nature of Hasina’s victory raises “serious doubt” about the fairness of the election, the Post quoted Ataur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Political Scientist Association, as saying. He added that the opposition’s tiny number of seats also means there will be no mechanism for political accountability.

Hasina, according to the newspaper, is also viewed by some — including in neighbouring India — as an ally against the potential spread of Islamist extremism in Bangladesh.

After Sunday’s election, Bangladesh has become a “one-party democracy,” Kanchan Gupta, a political commentator in New Delhi, was quoted to have written. Hasina “faces no opposition worth its name.”

“Why should Sheikh Hasina pull out so many stops to ensure a victory that most observers had assumed was in the bag in any case?” wrote The Economist, adding that opinion polls had universally shown a solid advantage for the Awami League.

The magazine observed that Sheikh Hasina seems to bear a personal grudge against perceived enemies, which springs both from the murder of her family members including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mijibur Rahman in 1975 and from an attempt on her own life that has allegedly been tied to figures in the BNP.

Some of the ruling party’s rivals were quoted to have suggested that the AL needs to cling to power to cover its own corruption.

TIME quoted Bangladeshi editors and journalists as saying that it’s increasingly difficult to publish news that embarrasses the government. Some estimate they self-censor at least two-thirds of their stories. “I am not sure if I want to stay in this country now that the Awami League will feel even more entitled to stifle dissent,” one TV journalist, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, was quoted to have said.

And on social media, it reported, criticism of the government is carefully shrouded in irony. "Can someone please tell me if my vote was already cast? Then I don’t have to get out of bed this morning," a law student posted on Facebook on election day.

TIME referred to a BNP activist, Mozammal Hossain, one of a dozen BNP activists who were documenting fraud, arrests, voter harassment and violence during these elections, as saying that his parents were recently harassed by police for their son’s work. “They threaten everyone,” he was quoted to have said.

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