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Protests, Crackdowns, Boycott Calls Complicate Bangladesh’s Election Scenario

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Protests, Crackdowns, Boycott Calls Complicate Bangladesh’s Election Scenario

Amidst a boycott call by the opposition BNP, several new parties have thrown their hats into the electoral ring.

Protests, Crackdowns, Boycott Calls Complicate Bangladesh’s Election Scenario

A poster of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, November 27, 2023.

Credit: X/Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP

Bangladesh will vote in parliamentary elections on January 7. However, the election is far from inclusive, as around one-third of the country’s 44 registered political parties will not be participating.

Several opposition parties have called for a boycott of the election since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina refused to heed their demand to hold elections under a non-party caretaker government.

The parties that are boycotting the elections include the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), its smaller allies, an alliance of Left parties called Bam Ganatantrik Jot, and the Ganatantra Mancha alliance.

Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), will not be contesting either. Its registration was canceled by a high court order in August, and its appeal against that verdict was later dismissed in the Supreme Court.

The ruling Awami League (AL) and its allies have welcomed the announcement of the election schedule. Both factions of the Jatiya Party (JP), the third largest party in the country and the official opposition in the parliament, look set to contest the election.

While November 30 is the last date for filing nominations, the BNP, its allies, and the Leftist parties have called for an intensification of protests to press their demands that elections be held only after Hasina steps down.

A free and fair election is crucial for democracy in Bangladesh amidst growing charges of authoritarian rule against Hasina’s AL government, which has been ruling the country since 2008.

The last two general elections, held in 2014 and 2018, were controversial. Both were held under the AL government and not a neutral caretaker as demanded by the opposition. While opposition parties did not participate in the 2014 election, the 2018 election was condemned for widespread rigging.

Of the 300 seats in the national parliament, the AL alone won 258 seats in 2018 and its allies won another 30, including 23 by the JP. The BNP won only six, while one of its allies secured two seats.

However, later the JP quit the AL alliance and became the main opposition party. The JP has often been derided as a “domesticated” or “pet” opposition, as opposed to the “real opposition” (i.e. the BNP).

Now, amidst a fresh boycott call from the BNP and several other parties, one of the most interesting developments is the emergence of a number of new parties that are set to enter the fray. Many of them include BNP deserters.

These parties include Trinamool (grassroots) BNP, Bangladesh Nationalist Movement and the Bangladesh Supreme Party, all of which got electoral registration earlier this year. Two BNP national executive members also launched the Swatantra Ganatantra Mancha (independent democratic platform) on November 15 to contest the election.

These parties are being referred to as “King’s parties“, meaning parties formed by opposition deserters with state patronage to serve the ruler’s interest.

Besides, the Bangladesh Kalyan Party, which has been part of the BNP-led 12-party alliance formed last year, has floated a new alliance, the Jukta Front, to contest the elections.

Dhaka-based newspapers like Prathom Alo, Samakal, Bhorer Kagoj, and The Daily Star have reported that several BNP and JeI leaders may contest the elections either on tickets of one of these parties or as independents.

“The government and the ruling party are trying their best to get as many opposition faces as possible into the election fray,” a Dhaka-based journalist told The Diplomat. “This preparation started last year, when the BNP made it clear that they would boycott the election unless Hasina stepped down before it. The initiatives have picked up pace since September.”

The participation of all these parties could help the Hasina government gain international legitimacy for an election boycotted by the main opposition party, say political observers in Bangladesh.

On Wednesday, AL General Secretary and Bangladesh Minister for Road Transport and Bridges Obaidul Quader told journalists in Dhaka that the absence of BNP alone does not warrant an election to be called one-sided.

“Many parties will take part in the election. The decision on election cannot be determined by one single party,” he was quoted as saying.

On the other hand, Samakal, a Bengali language daily, quoted BNP executive committee member Shahidul Alam as saying that “people from certain government levels” telephoned him on November 18 and “pressurized to contest the elections through a King’s Party.” He alleged that following his refusal, the police raided his house at night and different family members were harassed.

The announcement of the schedule for Bangladesh’s 12th parliamentary election amidst a government crackdown on the leaders of the main opposition party, and the latter’s call for election boycott and countrywide street protests, have brought Bangladesh to a critical juncture.

Since mid-October, in the run up to, during and aftermath of the October 28 BNP protest rally in the capital Dhaka, the country has witnessed a crackdown on the main opposition force, with the BNP alleging that over 13,000 leaders and workers have been arrested in connection with nearly 300 police cases. Many BNP leaders have gone into hiding to evade arrests.

The arrested include top leaders like BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Vice Chairpersons Altaf Hossain Chowdhury and Shahjahan Omar, Organizing Secretary Imran Saleh Prince, Joint Secretary General Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal, standing committee members Mirza Abbas and Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, and media cell convenor Zahir Uddin Swapon.

Besides, there have been a chain of arrests and convictions in connection with old cases. The police had started reviving years-old cases against BNP organizers in JuneJuly and 112 BNP organizers were sentenced on November 21 alone in connection with five cases filed between 2013 and 2018. Overall, more than 150 BNP leaders and activists have been sentenced in the past few days.

“In the run-up to the national elections, there has been an escalating crackdown on the opposition, marked by thousands of fabricated cases filed against its supporters and raids on their residences,” said a statement by CIVICUS, a global non-profit working in the sphere on civil rights. In September, the organization added Bangladesh to its civic space monitoring.

This chain of arrest of BNP leaders have left the party almost leaderless and in a shambles ahead of elections.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Election Commission has welcomed global observers.

A Commonwealth pre-election assessment mission arrived in Bangladesh after the election dates were announced and met delegations from the Election Commission and political parties.

As part of its proactive steps to ensure a free and fair election in Bangladesh, the U.S. has sent a joint team from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are affiliated to the Democrats and the Republican Party, to Bangladesh as a pre-election observer mission. Another five-member team is set to arrive to monitor pre-poll situation and the election process.