Cambodia’s politics and our election

This combination photo shows Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and his son Hun Manet during election campaign rallies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1 July, 2023 and 21 July, 2023 respectively

For quite some days now Awami League leaders have been vehemently stating that the opposition BNP is scared of the election. That is why they are in an effort to thwart the forthcoming national parliamentary election in the pretence of carrying out a movement.

In a statement made on 26 July, Awami League’s general secretary said that BNP’s sole political agenda has been to render the election and the election process questionable. That is why they are bent upon using their criminals and cadre force to disrupt the free and peaceful political environment.

A week or two after this statement of his, Jubo League submitted a memorandum to the election commission, calling for BNP to be banned. The organisation said that they had submitted similar letters to the home ministry, foreign ministry and law ministry, calling for BNP’s registration to be cancelled and its politics to be banned. Explaining the reason for this demand, Jubo League’s general secretary Mainul Hossain Khan told the media that BNP wants to usher in a rule of terror. They want to create violence to convey a message to foreign powers that Bangladesh is a failed state.

BNP apparently hasn’t taken the matter very seriously. Even in the media, the issue is being viewed as purely political and so there has not been much debate or discussion on it. However, if one takes into consideration a number of other occurrences and statements from those in power, then these incidents can indeed be seen as omens or warning signs.

The first thing that draws attention is the government’s announcement of its inflexible stand to hold the elections under Sheikh Hasina and one-sidedly accelerating its election campaign. The government officials and employees, business federations and all those whose interests are linked with the continuity of the government, are being assured that no matter who joins the election or not, or whatever the foreigners may say, there is no need to bother. The election will be held as per schedule in keeping with the constitution and there will be no change in power.

To the apparent eye, the government’s objective may seem to be ensuring that the election is inclusive. And there is a feeling among some that if a few renegades of BNP like Ukil Abdus Sattar take part in the election, then their objective may even be successful to an extent.

The election commission under Kazi Habibul Awal is also playing quite a supportive role. Two new parties that have suddenly sprouted up out of nowhere – Bangladesh Nationalist Movement (BNM) and Bangladesh Supreme Party (BSP) -- have been given registration by the commission. Media probes have revealed that these parties have not fulfilled the conditions of registration, but the commission is not bothered. BNM is now trying all out to draw Ukil Sattar into its fold, according to news reports.

It is not that the election commission has only stretched out a helping hand to the government concerning the registration of parties. It has done the same in the case of election observers. They held a meeting with much flurry and fanfare with a group of so-called foreign observers invited by a group close to the ruling party. They came and, in advance, spoke against the caretaker government system in favour of the government. Then the list of local observers published by the election commission also has evidence of political bias, as revealed by the media.

There are elements within Awami League and its allies who are openly now saying that BNP and Jamaat will not be allowed to come to power. When Prothom Alo asked about such statements, Workers Party head Rashed Khan Menon said, “I said you must take into consideration where the country will go if BNP comes to power…. The people have an idea of their past activities. In that consideration, the people will not allow BNP-Jamaat to come to power.”

This can be done in two ways. One, use pressure or certain amount of compromise to hold an election as in 2018. Two, to create an situation where BNP will not join the election or be disqualified, and then hold the election with others to make it seem credible, even though in actuality Awami League has no competitor other than BNP.

The exertion of party influence on the administration, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary – all bring to mind the example of Cambodia

Menon also came up with an explanation in response to the question as to whether the election will be credible if it is held in a slipshod manner, using the constitution as an excuse. Even if BNP does not join, the government will hold the election. There will initially be some criticism perhaps and maybe even some sanctions. But just as Bangladesh needs the US, the US needs Bangladesh too. So even if there will be discussion and debate after the election this will not create any problem for the government. After all, the election will be held in accordance to the rules.

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These incidents and statements, along with the country’s repressive laws, the cases and arrests against the opposition leaders and activists, steps to suppress dissenting voices, constricting the work of various civil society bodies, as well as the exertion of party influence on the administration, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary – all bring to mind the example of Cambodia.

Only very recently an election bereft of opposition was held in Cambodia. No one knew very much about the circumstances before the election. After the election, the US imposed visa sanctions on politicians of the country’s ruling party, the election commission, judges and certain persons of the law enforcement. This news was published quite prominently in our media.

The Cambodia parliament election is just before ours. In the 2013 election, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) became a strong opponent, securing 55 seats against the 68 seats of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The history before this was not too pleasant either. In the two decades before, Hun Sen was focused on consolidating power and his opponents failed to find much of a foothold. Their success in 2013 proved to be a curse for them. CPP appointed highly educated professionals in key posts of the party so as to rapidly bring to the fore the implementation of a number of ostensibly people-oriented projects. The salaries of public servants were raised. Special facilities were given to cronies for profitable business including mineral mining. In the 2017 Transparency International corruption index, the country ranked 156 among 176 countries.

The opposition leaders faced all sorts of harassment. In 2015 when the opposition party leader Sam Rainsy was sentenced to two years imprisonment on defamation charges, he was forced to leave the country. In apprehension that the party may be banned, in 2017 he stepped down as party chief. But that was not enough. Hun Sen enacted a law so that if any party leader was convicted for any offence, they party would be prohibited. So the 2018 election was held without any opposition. The US and the European Union moved away from election observation.

At the time, the US president Donald Trump’s foreign policy had been more inward looking and there was a disinterest in supporting democracy overseas. And Hun Sen did not have to face much of an adverse situation because Cambodia had support from China due to the special relationship between the two countries. It is noticeable that Cambodia always stands as an obstruction in talks among ASEAN member states concerning the contentions over the South China Sea territory.

Hun Sen adopted the same strategy this time too. CNRP had reorganised and emerged in a new form as Candlelight Party. It became a real opposition to Hun Sen’s CNP. But the election commission cancelled its registration on the excuse that it had submitted photocopies of its documents rather than the originals. The party approached the constitutional court, but the court also upheld the election commission’s decision. CNRP’s co-founder Kem Sokha was sentenced to 27 years imprisonment on charges of sedition. Another former opposition leader Mu Sochua was obliged to leave the country too.

How can we ignore the similarities between our election politics and that of Cambodia?

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist                      

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir