Election rigging: Past and present

It is now clear that our 12th parliament election will be held on the coming 7 January without BNP and a few other important political parties.

We witnessed a one-sided election in 2014. Later we saw a few contrived local government polls, which were precursors to the manipulated national elections that followed. In fact, they were the ‘curtain openers’ for the subsequent rigged elections. These elections deprived citizens of their voting rights making our democratic system dysfunctional and causing those in power to lose popular support. If a similar rigged election is held once again on 7 January 2024, the consequences are likely to be dire.

It may be recalled that before the 2018 parliament election, ‘managed’ elections took place in five city corporations, starting from Khulna. I had dubbed those ‘engineered’ elections as the 'Khulna model' of polling. The characteristics of these elections were:

1. The police were used before the election to file cases against the opposition leaders and activists, driving them out of their homes so that they could not campaign for their candidates.Of all the five city corporation elections held in 2918, police were most aggressive in Gazipur.

2. Using threats, the BNP candidates’ election agents were either kept away from or forced out of polling centres on the election day. Some of the agents were detained for the day in jail.

The government drastically shrunk the civil society space through regulatory restrictions, repressive laws and creation of a culture of fear. In fact, the civil society, because of suppression by the government, has now become ineffective and is unable to play any significant role during the election.

3. On the day of the polling, the ruling party activists gathered in front of the polling centres to create a fearful environment to prevent the opposition supporters from coming to cast their votes.

4. Miscreants suddenly and selectively turned up during the voting to capture voting booths and stuff ballot boxes with stamped ballots before quickly disappearing. Barishal was an exception,where there was a total capture of all voting booths from the opening of the polling. The election commission even seriously contemplated on stopping the polling there which ultimately did not take place.

5. The Nurul Huda Commission, constituted in 2017 with partisan individuals, using a unique strategy, remained indifferent about these electoral offences punishable with jail sentences and monetary fines.

6. Cases were filed against some of the Mayors – all of whom belonged to BNP – and some were sent to jail. They were also deprived of governmental funds, which prevented them from carrying out development activities in their cities.

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Although the elections of all these five city corporations, held in 2018 prior to the 11th parliament election, were participatory –BNP and other parties were in the contest – but they were not competitive due to manipulations and rigging. Consequently, the BNP’s mayoral candidates lost in all cities except in Sylhet, where the incumbent mayor enjoyed the blessings of the then Finance Minister, who hailed from that city.

Because of the bitter experiences of these city corporation elections and the blatant politicisation of the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies over the years, BNP decided not to participate in 11th Parliament elections. It was adamant not to participate in the election, to be held under the Awami League government, because of the unilateral and unconstitutional enactment of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution in 2011 using a brute majority in the parliament.

Faced with a potential boycott of the 2018 elections by BNP and others, the ruling party drastically modified it previously tested Khulna model:

1. Before the election, the prime minister held dialogues with all political parties, making unequivocal commitment and giving her personal guarantee, as the daughter of the father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that the 11th parliamentary election will be free and fair.

2. At the start of the election process, the ruling party activists, aided and abetted by the police in many instances, launched violent attacks on the Oikya Front (an alliance formed by BNP under the leadership of Dr. Kamal Hossain) leaders and activists, preventing them from carry out their campaigns. Some Oikyo Front candidates could not even go to their constituencies for electioneering because of the fearful environment created.

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3. During the scrutiny process of the nomination papers, the election commission cancelled the nomination papers of 786 persons, most of whom were Oikya Front candidates.

4. The court declared many Oikya Front candidates, including that of Begum Khaleda Zia, ineligible to contest although court was to intervene only in cases where alleged ‘coram non judice’ and ‘malice in law’ took place. As a result, Oikya Front had no candidates in 18 of the 300 constituencies.

5. Before individuals for election duties were recruited, police visited their homes and ensured their allegiance to the ruling party.

6. The police filed innumerable fake cases against leaders and activists of BNP and its allies so that on the day of the election they would be either in jail or outside their own constituencies. Prothom Alo published an investigative report, entitled ‘Black September,’ on 50 such cases filed in Dhaka in September 2018 and found that all those cases were fake.

7. Activists and supporters of the ruling party, a section of government officials and member of the law enforcement agencies, in connivance with the election commission, filled the ballot boxes on the night before the election with stamped ballot papers. BBC showed a picture of the stuffed ballot box in the morning of the polling.

8. On the day of the election, the ruling party activists captured targeted centres , stamped ballot papers and stuffed ballot boxes. Transparency International Bangladesh did a study of 50 constituencies and found evidence of ballot box stuffing the night before and booth capturing on the day of the polling.

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9. Journalists were seriously constrained from doing their election reporting work as they were instructed by the election commission to ‘stand as statues’ during the performance of their election duties.

10. At the end of the polling, the results appeared to have been announced without counting the ballots. This is evidenced by the fact that in two constituencies, results initially declared showed more than 100% turnout rate, which was later corrected. Cases under the Digital Security Act were filed against journalists for reporting the results initially declared.

11. The winners declared from the so-called election of 30 December 2018 appeared to have been based on cooked up election results. ‘SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance’ analysed the center-wise results obtained from the election commission by filing an RTI application and found that in 213 centres the voter turnout rate was 100% and in 586 centres boat symbol of Awami League received all votes. BNP in 1,177 centres, and even the ruling party in two centres, did not receive any votes at all. These anomalies were due to vote rigging and declaration of results without counting ballots.

12. No international observers were given visas by the government to come to Bangladesh to observe the 11th parliament election, except for a partisan organisation named ‘SAARC Human Rights Foundation,’ which brought a few foreigners from Canada, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka including a certain Tanya Foster from Canada. On the day of the polling, Tanya Foster told the media that the election was free and fair, which she later retracted.

Due to the above manipulations, the 11th parliament election was participatory, but not competitive. In fact, it was a blatantly manipulated rigged election, resulting in a lopsided victory for the ruling party, which ‘won’ in 289 out of 300 constituencies.

From the bitter experiences of the 2018 national elections and the city corporation elections prior to that, BNP decided to boycott all future elections under the PM Sheikh Hasina. It also became adamant about its demand for the restoration of the Caretaker system. On top of it, the government faced the challenges caused by widespread discontents among citizens about unashamed cronyism, flagrant looting and plundering, flight of capital, run away price hikes and economic mismanagement, human rights violations,misgovernance and denial of people’s civil rights. Faced with these challenges, the government, and the ruling party, which became one and the same over the years, decided to further calibrate its Khulna model of manipulated election:

1. The government appointed the Awal commission in February 2022 with loyal individuals in violation of the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioner Appointment Act, 2022. The Act authorized political parties and professional bodies to nominate names from which the search committee, formed under the Act, was to recommend 10 names to the President, out of which 5 were to be appointed to the commission. But the search committee, opened up the nomination process allowing individuals, who were not legally eligible to nominate names, based which the new election commission was appointed. This calls into question the legality of the appointment of the Awal Commission, which in turn raises questions about the legality of all its actions, including the declaration of the election schedule.

2. The election commission registered some ‘king's parties’ ignoring several other active political parties. This was part of a grand strategy to break BNP by enticing its leaders to join these spurious new parties.

3. The government captured all democratic institutions by either appointing partisan individuals or conveying to the incumbents the dire consequences of disloyalty (NYT).

3. BNP was kept out of the upcoming election by using the violence of 28 October as a pretext for the police to file dozens of cases and arrest over 20,000 of their leaders and activists, including almost all of their senior leaders, and driving away many from their homes. Clearly, these cases were filed, and arrests made to keep BNP out of the 12th parliament election as it would have been impossible for them to file nomination papers by November 30th, even if they wanted to do so.

4. The election commission declared that it would not take the responsibility for political harassment, thus encouraging the police to further repress and harass BNP.

5. The election commission asked the Home Ministry to stop all political activities opposing the co-called election of 7 January, which is a clear violation of the right to dissent, a fundamental right of the citizens.

6. Through increased threats and intimidation by security agencies, use of draconian laws such the Cyber Security Act, and giving party loyalist the registration and licenses for new outsets, the media has been made to play the role of lapdog rather than watchdog. In fact, the media, with few exceptions, has now largely become a propaganda machine for the ruling party.

7. The government drastically shrunk the civil society space through regulatory restrictions, repressive laws and creation of a culture of fear. In fact, the civil society, because of suppression by the government, has now become ineffective and is unable to play any significant role during the election.

8. The government fast-tracked the trial of many cases, most of which are fake cases, filed earlier against the BNP leaders and activists,and quickly convicted them. According to media reports, over 1000 persons, most of whom are BNP leaders and activists,were convicted in different courts of Dhaka in the last four months, which made most of them ineligible to run for parliament.

9. According to media reports, in some areas of the country beneficiaries of the social safety net programmes are asked to turn in their cards to local ruling party leaders and collect those after casting their votes. This is intended to pressure the beneficiaries to cast their votes, thereby increasing the turnout rate.

The new government after the election is also likely to become even more dependent on its foreign allies to overcome its legitimacy crisis, which may put our sovereignty at stake.

All these election engineering is carried out to keep BNP out of the contest and ensure the victory of the ruling party in the coming election, which is normally the part of the playbook of an ‘electoral autocracy’ – an arrangement where regular elections are held in a non-competitive manner. However, the ruling Awami League is now trying to make the one-sided election of January 7 look competitive by allowing dummy and ‘independent’ candidates from its own party and keeping its alliance partners in the electoral game by giving them its boat symbol. It is also in negotiation with Jatiya Party and other king’s parties to be in the contest by guaranteeing them some seats.

Can such a contest among the ruling party members themselves and candidates from its loyal parties be viewed as free, fair and competitive election? How does such a one-sided contest qualitatively differ from Chinese election with multiple loyal parties and the turnout rate of 99%?

According to Black's Law Dictionary, which is widely used by the legal profession, an election is an act of choice from alternatives – legitimate alternatives. In other words, genuine elections require: (a) voters,(b) the opportunity for them to choose, (c) from legitimate alternatives, (d) a level playing field for all alternative choices,and (e) the voters enjoying the right to choose without fear or pressure. An electoral contest where all these five conditions are met can be viewed as a genuine election as it provides no certainty of electoral outcome.

In Bangladesh politics, there are two brands, namely Awami League and BNP. If BNP is not in the contest, the results of an electoral contest under the ruling party is pre-determined in that the Awami League will win all seats unless it makes deals to give away some seats to its loyal parties. Such a manipulated arrangement, where who will win is certain,cannot be called a genuine election despite high turnout rate. Rather it is a farce designed to fool the people.

We are afraid that another rigged election can cause economic disaster creating extreme hardship for the people. The new government after the election is also likely to become even more dependent on its foreign allies to overcome its legitimacy crisis, which may put our sovereignty at stake. In addition, disenfranchisement of the citizens for the third time will further deepen their sense of deprivation and alienation, which is not a sign of strength for our nation.

More seriously, the sense of deprivation of voting rights may turn into a public rage causing an outburst against the regime in the future. After all, the aspirations for voting rights do not go away, rather grow stronger and sharper with time. We must not also forget that our war of liberation owes its origin to people’s sense of deprivation of voting rights.

* Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary, Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN

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