The amount of discussion I have been observing regarding the forthcoming parliamentary election of Bangladesh, I don’t think this has ever happened about any election in the subcontinent. We have especially been observing the tug of war between the global powerhouses. Not from behind the curtains, not from afar, rather they have been directly engaging in discussions inside the country, and taking various steps.
Even a few months ago we saw a peaceful atmosphere in the political arena. We thought that we may see a different picture this time around. But that atmosphere is no longer seen after 28 October.
Most of the political parties outside the government want to see the election taking place under a neutral government. The reason is that the way the elections were held in 2014 and 2018 were not happy memories. Not only in the country, those two elections have been criticised even abroad. In recent times, we did not see any of the elections, be it a local government or a by-election, taking place at an expected level of acceptability. But we did not see the election commission playing a strong role to stop irregularities and rigging. The EC may argue that they could not take steps due to inadequacy of the law. But we did not see the EC exerting its power that is bestowed on them by the constitution.
Different quarters have been talking about the 12th parliamentary election over the last couple of years. Unfortunately, the governing party and the government stated time and again that they will not go beyond the constitution. But just before the election we have been observing that almost all the central leaders of the party that could be considered as the main opposition are confined to jail. A chaos is reigning in the grassroots level of BNP as there are not enough leaders to control the activists. They have been enforcing programmes like hartal and blockade.
Following the announcement of the schedule, BNP has rejected it and decided not to take part in the election. The left leaning parties have also rejected the schedule. LDP, Kalyan Party, Gonotontro Moncho and many other parties have been waging simultaneous movement with BNP with the demand of an election under a neutral government.
One can sense the signs that Bangladesh may face a crisis due to the steps of the US and its allies in the future. If the US imposes targeted restrictions under its visa policy, it will be implemented at the individual level. But there are also fears that the ban will reach a collective level
They did not welcome the schedule either. Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami is also in the field notwithstanding they do not have registration as a political party. The Jatiya Party (JaPa) has been in a dilemma about what to do. They have been facing an acute problem about leadership for a long time. As a result, their stance remains unclear.
The governing Awami League is accompanied by 14 parties including JASAD and Workers’ Party of Bangladesh. It is difficult to say how much popular support there is for the parties other than Awami League. These parties do not participate in the election alone and the public support cannot be measured when one participates in the election under the aegis of a bigger party. All in all, a profound political crisis is sustaining in Bangladesh.
Along with this, there is a big pressure from the western world this time round as well. The United States has announced its visa policy. At first, they talked about free and fair elections. But now they have been talking about free, fair and inclusive elections. An inclusive election means allowing all the registered political parties to compete in the polls. Indeed, this is the true democratic value.
One can sense the signs that Bangladesh may face a crisis due to the steps of the US and its allies in the future. If the US imposes targeted restrictions under its visa policy, it will be implemented at the individual level. But there are also fears that the ban will reach a collective level. It has been seen in many parts of the world that they imposed sanctions on organisations too. A US sanction means there is a risk of facing steps from Europe, Canada, Australia and even Japan.
Bangladesh is the only exception in South Asia about holding elections. Maldives organised an election recently. Although Maldives has a very low population, the election there was very competitive. We did not see so much hullabaloo, violence, or arrests before the election there. Last year Nepal also organised an election that was universally accepted. Pakistan may have many political crises but no one raises questions about the election there. India will also hold an election next year. There is no chance to raise questions about their elections as well.
The reason behind the elections of those countries being beyond question is that their election commission, judicial and other state institutions are effective. Our main problem lies there. When we are talking about democratic values, we should hold elections with all the stakeholders.
A large chunk of the voters could not franchise in the last two general elections. They are doubtful whether they would be able to cast their votes this time as well. The announcement of the schedule under this circumstance made the whole issue even more complex.
No one can comprehend how the election commission may establish the authority they are supposed to have after announcing the schedule. The main point is that a fair, acceptable and inclusive election environment has not been created. In that case, the election will be questioned not only in the country, but in the whole world. Even if it is seen that 60-70 per cent of the votes are cast in the elections, there will be questions regarding the election. The percentage of vote is not the issue. Rather, the main question is whether the majority parties could participate in the elections spontaneously or not.
The EC is supposed to realise before anybody else that an atmosphere of a free, fair and inclusive election is not there. The schedule was announced by the Chief Election Commissioner at the election commission amidst tight security of law-and-order forces. The schedule was not accepted spontaneously. A long gap has been kept in the schedule between the dates of submission of nomination papers and casting votes. The schedule will add fuel to the ongoing political unrest if the government and political parties fail to use this opportunity to create an environment for discussions.
The CEC said during the announcement of the schedule that reaching a consensus and solution through dialogue is not impossible. But the big question is whether the political parties will pay heed to his words.
The role of EC is very limited in terms of organising dialogue and reconciliation between political parties. The onus is on the government to create an environment for fair elections. The EC should try to create an election environment at the field level. But now it is very difficult to do that.
Despite everything, we want to be optimistic. We hope the politicians can sense the storm ahead and try to save the country from that tempest. Since, all decisions are in their hands.
* M Sakhwat Hossain is an election analyst, former army officer and senior research fellow of SIPG (NSU)
** This op-ed was originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Syed Faiz Ahmed