ANFREL voices concern, calls for genuine democratic polls

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has expressed profound concern over the 12th Parliamentary Elections slated for Sunday, 7 January.

The Bangkok-based alliance of civil society organisations across 17 Asian nations, including Bangladesh and India that works to ensure free and fair elections in Asia voiced its concern in a statement on Friday.

ANFREL said they strongly believed that this election is at risk of lacking genuineness and electoral competitiveness, raising serious questions about its adherence to democratic principles and international election standards that assess the legitimacy of the electoral process.

The statement said ANFREL believes that the risk of lacking genuineness and electoral competitiveness emanates from the observed absence of accountability, fairness, and inclusivity in the electoral processes.

This has given rise to significant electoral challenges such as the suppression of the opposition, constraints on political freedoms, limited access to impartial information, and prevalence of political violence, it added.

The statement further said the current electoral environment marred with electoral violence, is predominantly targeting the opposition parties and independent candidates. Reports of electoral camps being set on fire, the hurling of crude bombs, and violent confrontations between supporters of the ruling Awami League (AL), and independent candidates have surfaced from various parts of the country. These confrontations have resulted in numerous injuries and, tragically, the loss of lives. On top of these, the Election Commission and law enforcement agencies have inadequately addressed the escalating political violence.

Referring to the recent spree of detention following the 28 October rally of BNP in Dhaka, ANFREL said the government's unlawful detention of over 21,000 BNP leaders and activists since 28 October 2023, has raised serious human rights concerns, further exacerbated by the tragic deaths of nine BNP leaders and activists in custody.

The situation demands urgent attention and a comprehensive response to ensure the protection of democratic values and the rule of law, they observed.

ANFREL said Bangladesh operates within a multiparty system, yet the political landscape is largely defined by the dominance of two major parties, the Awami League and BNP, with the Jatiya Party also securing electoral success over the years. Unfortunately, the current government appears to be systematically targeting and suppressing leaders and activists from opposition parties, with a particular focus on the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami.

Recent developments have seen multiple candidates and opposition parties and alliances, including BNP, Left Democratic Alliance, and the Ganatantra Mancha, declaring their boycott of the elections, and they point to the perceived bias of state institutions, including the Election Commission, the evident one-sidedness of the upcoming election, and the crackdown on opposition figures as reasons for their withdrawal. Numerous candidates have also opted out of the electoral race, echoing similar concerns, the statement read.

Despite calls for dialogue from both domestic and international stakeholders, the ruling Awami League has steadfastly refused to participate, imposing prejudiced preconditions. This impasse further complicates the electoral landscape and raises serious questions about the fairness and inclusivity of the democratic process, ANFREL said.

ANFREL underscored the fundamental importance of a free and fair election as a cornerstone of participatory governance.

The organisation earnestly called upon democratic governments and the wider international community to actively champion a democratic process that authentically mirrors the will of the Bangladeshi peopl