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Why Bangladesh is About to Have a Lopsided Election

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Why Bangladesh is About to Have a Lopsided Election

The ruling Awami League has ensured that major opposition parties, especially the BNP, will not be able to contest the election even if they want to.

Why Bangladesh is About to Have a Lopsided Election

Relatives of imprisoned leaders and activists of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party participate in protest in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 28, 2023.

Credit: Deposit Photos

During cricket matches, viewers can see a win probability percentage of the teams playing on the field. Sometimes, in the last few overs, the result of the match becomes so obvious that the winning team’s win probability turns 99 percent.

A similar scenario is unfolding in Bangladesh. In an election scheduled for January 7, 2024, the country is expected to elect its “new” prime minister. Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) have a win probability in this election of over 99 percent, thanks to the boycott of the election by Bangladesh’s major opposition parties. In a recent article in Time magazine, critics described the election as “tantamount to a coronation.

This won’t be the first. Bangladesh has already had two elections in 2014 and 2018 won by Sheikh Hasina’s AL that lacked legitimacy according to the letter of around 200 global leaders, including 105 Nobel laureates.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s largest opposition party, and its allies have called for a boycott of the poll. However, unlike most South Asian political parties, the boycott decision was not imposed by the BNP leadership but came from the grassroots. The BNP’s grassroots activists used a series of meetings held from 2021 to 2023 to make clear their opposition to the idea of taking part in any election under the AL government.

In fact, not only the BNP members but also the Jatiya Party’s grassroots leaders were against participating in the upcoming election.

So why are the major opposition parties, and even some pro-government parties’ grassroots leaders, against participation in an election under the Sheikh Hasina government? To find the answer, understanding the political landscape is imperative.

Unfair Umpires

Bangladesh had a technocrat election-time government known as the caretaker government to oversee four elections — in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008. The system was codified into the constitution in 1996 to oversee the national election and a peaceful handover of power.

But in 2011, after the Supreme Court of Bangladesh judged that the system needed amendment, the AL, used its two-thirds majority in the parliament to abolish the system by amending the constitution. A political crisis was born.

Due to the politicization of the bureaucracy by ruling parties, it is difficult to hold fair elections in Bangladesh under a partisan government. A researcher from the University of Oxford has shown how the local police and ruling party form a nexus to defeat the candidates of opposition parties before elections. In addition, the politically charged speeches from senior and junior bureaucrats in favor of the ruling AL show a clear bias in the bureaucracy.

In the run-up to the elections, these bureaucrats turn into presiding officers, the “gods of election” in their respective areas thanks to the limitless power bestowed on them. Having bureaucrats biased toward the ruling party in charge of the electoral processes, responsible for everything from approving nominations to counting the ballots, is a threat to any credible election and the grassroots know it better than anyone else.

Technically, it is the election commissioners who are supposed to have the final say and ensure a check and balance. But their role has been equally dubious. For example, the Election Commission registered two less-known political parties with a minimal public presence in August 2023, even as it rejected the applications of around a dozen serious contenders.

In addition, there is a precedence among former election officials, including an Election Commission secretary to buy nomination papers from the AL, a sign of their bias toward the ruling party.

A Bad Investment

With these unfair umpires to oversee the elections, contesting in an election of this kind is a bad investment. An example can clarify this a bit more.

In Bangladesh, the least number of voters — 212,012 — reside in the Jhalakathi-1 constituency. The Commission has declared that the expenditure per voter should not be more than 10 takas, equivalent to 9 cents. It is well known that the amount actually spent by candidates far exceeds what is legally permitted. Even if a candidate were to play by the book, they would have to invest around $20,000 to reach and convince the voters. This is not a small amount.

Which rational person would invest this amount of money in an election where they know that the administration will work for the Awami League candidate, and the possibility of winning the election is close to zero?

Crippling Convictions

Several opposition leaders, mostly from the BNP, who contested in the 2018 elections have either been convicted or are in custody to prevent them from filing their nomination papers. They include BNP’s secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, its standing committee member Mirza Abbas and Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, ex-candidate from Dhaka-18 S. M. Jahangir Hossain, ex-candidate from Dhaka-10 Shaikh Rabiul Alam, ex-candidate from Dhaka-17 Saiful Alam Nirob, ex-candidate from Dhaka-8 Habibun Nabi Khan Sohel, ex-candidate from Khulna-4 Azizul Bari Helal, ex-candidate from Noakhali-4 Mohammad Shahjahan, ex-candidate from Pabna-4 Habibur Rahman Habib, ex-candidate from Tangail-2 Sultan Salahuddin Tuku and so on.

In Bangladesh, a conviction for more than 2 years disqualifies the individual from contesting in an election. Other potential candidates are mostly on the run.

In certain cases, the judge relied completely on the testimony of police officials according to news reports, to convict and in some cases, the judge even punished individuals who died long ago.

A reasonable question here is whether the government even wanted the BNP to participate in the election. The answer seems to be a big no.

As stated above, the senior leaders and potential candidates were arrested ahead of the declaration of the poll schedule and they were not released before the deadline for filing nomination papers. This effectively killed the possibility, no matter how small it was, of the leaders convincing the grassroots and other leaders to participate in the election.

No Way to Join

In a nutshell, there was no room left for BNP leaders to backtrack from their initial decision of not participating in the poll due to the crackdown and convictions of the leaders and activists, and a host of relevant matters discussed above, since the declaration of the poll schedule.

This has further proved the point made by the grassroots that no fair poll is possible under Sheikh Hasina’s government, leaving the party no choice but to stay strong on its decision to boycott the upcoming election, effectively giving AL a walkover.