Elections in Bangladesh that beckon death, and Australia’s ‘no’ vote

Ballot Box
Prothom Alo illustration

On 14 October this year, a referendum in Australia was held to recognise the rights of the indigenous people there. However, the majority of the 17.6 million voters voted against the proposal and so the ruling Labour Party’s attempt to recognise indigenous people in the constitution, fell through.

The referendum had two proposals. One was to recognise indigenous people as the original inhabitants of the country, and the other was for them to establish a representative body that could provide advice to the parliament regarding their interests. But the people of the white-inhabited Australia failed to display that broadness of mind.

A Bangladeshi human rights activist who had been rallying for the rights of the indigenous there, angrily said, “We have lost.” He is a supporter of the Labour Party. No matter what difference the Labour Party and Liberal Party have on domestic issues, when it comes to foreign policy, they are in total consensus.

No matter what the outcome of the referendum has been, no local or foreign observer could raise questions concerning the process or method of the vote. Like us, Australia also follows the Westminster system in the election, where a single vote can make a difference between victory and defeat. In the referendums and general elections here, the election commission, the administration and the contesting parties are all aware of their respective responsibility and do not interfere with each other.

In legal and structural terms, there is hardly any difference between the election commission of Australia and that of Bangladesh. However, the Australian election commission is accountable to the parliamentary committee for election affairs. Our election commission is not accountable to anyone. Not even their own conscience.                         

I asked a few Bangladeshi-origin Australians about the election system there. They said that in Australia, it was compulsory to vote. Any Australian citizen who failed to vote, without valid reason, would be fined. That is why, once the election schedule was announced, any Australian citizen would cast a postal vote. Secondly, a citizen could go even a week before the specified election date to the polling centre and place their vote in the ballot box there. Voting in advance does not entail any fear of rigging or forceful capture of the ballot box. Unlike Bangladesh, there is no such grabbing of the votes. That is why there have been no questions or debate over the Australian elections which started way back over a hundred years ago. The Australian election is held every three years.

Also unlike Bangladesh, the political parties in Australia do not consider each other enemies. No one declares they have the sole agency of patriotism. There are no excesses centering the election, again unlike Bangladesh. No one blocks fields or streets o hold public rallies. The contesting candidates debate over television. They value the national press club highly. Candidates take part in lively debates organised by the press club. The political parties do not only voice commitments. They have to explain to the voters how they will fulfill these commitments, where the funds will come from to do so and so on.

Every day saddening news streams in from Dhaka. There are the arrests by the police on one hand, the opposition’s blockades and hartal on the other. When I left Dhaka for Australia on 25 October, tension was prevailing over BNP’s programme. One journalist friend jokingly said, “When you return, you won’t find the same Bangladesh you are leaving behind.” While political tensions prevailed before 28 October, there had been no violence. But on that very day Bangladesh saw deaths, arson, damaging of property, arrests, searches, raids and remand.

A few activists of BNP and a member of the police force died. A number of BNP top leaders including the party’s secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir were arrested. Many went into hiding. Even during the Pakistan rule, political leaders were not arrested in this manner from their homes at midnight and with no arrest warrants

During the rule of Pakistan, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani would hold ‘gayebi janaza’ (funeral prayers in absentia) from the martyrs. But Bangladesh’s enthusiastic law enforcement agencies started ‘gayebi mamla’ (fictitious cases). In such cases, the unnamed accused, outnumber the named accused by far. This makes it easy to later fill in the blanks with any name at will.

The election commission has reduced the dialogue process to a farce and abused the powers bestowed upon it by the constitution.

The government and the opposition leaders are now blaming each other for the 28 October incident. The government claims BNP and Jamaat have resumed resorting to arson. BNP says that the government is using its agents to carry out sabotage and terrorism so that they can hold a one-sided election. Lost amid all this mud-slinging are the anguished sighs of those who have lost their loved ones, of those who have lost work, their means of survival. The general people have had to play the steep price for democracy under all the governments and are still paying the price. But democracy remains a far cry in Bangladesh that emerged through a war of liberation.

It is simply because of the absence of a fair election that a member of the police force died, that a number of BNP activists were killed by police bullets, that the country came to a standstill due to the one-day hartal and five-day blockade in one week. On 28 October 2006 there was a movement with activists wielding oars and poles, for the same cause. BNP was in power at the time. This time Awami League is in power. No matter how far the country surges ahead in the development indexes, it steadily falls back in the indexes of democracy and human rights.

What do the Awami League leaders who all these days had said BNP doesn’t have the gumption to carry out a movement, now have to say?

Awami League leaders may claim that BNP’s blockade and hartals do not have public support. The streets are in the hands of those in power. But whether the government admits it or not, the businessmen and the general people realise only too well that keeping the streets in control and keeping the wheels of the economy in motion, are not one and the same thing. The country’s economy is in a precarious condition as it is. And the spate of hartals and blockades certain do not bode well for the economy. Eminent businessman and former caretaker government advisor Syed Manzoor Elahi expressed his concern about this in columns he wrote for Prothom Alo and the Daily Star.

The discussions of election preparations that the election commission held with political parties amid all this political unrest and violence, has given no indications of any resolution to the crisis. The day the election commission messenger slipped a letter through the locked collapsible gates of the BNP office, was exactly one day after BNP’s secretary general was sent to jail.

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The independent and sovereign election commission could not stand up to the government and say we have called for dialogue aiming at a fair election. Release the second top BNP leader. Instead, the election commission has reduced the dialogue process to a farce and abused the powers bestowed upon it by the constitution.

The Australian referendum failed to give the indigenous people their rights this time. But those who are in favour of the indigenous people’s rights, hope that this recognition will be given in the future because they have the right to vote. But the elections held every five years in Bangladesh do not guarantee people’s right to vote. To the contrary, it ushers in death. Such elections that beckon death must halt.

[05.11.2023 from Sydney]

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

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor at Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]