In Bangladesh, reemergence of dictatorship feared over upcoming elections

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Bangladesh election
credit: Daily Star.

Benzamin Mendez

This December, Bangladesh is scheduled to hold its 11th national election to choose a new government for the next five years. As per Bangladesh constitution, general elections are held every five years. The country is a parliamentary democracy. The current government led by Bangladesh Awami League is in power since January 2009 and it got a second consecutive term in 2014 through a questioned general election. The major opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its coalition partners did not participate in the 2014-general election as the election greatly lacked transparency. The possibility of holding a free and fair election was almost impossible as the ruling party not only had consolidated power but also had planted its loyalists in almost all of the constitutional and administrative bodies. The election commission had been – by and large – a purpose-serving element of the ruling party. The sole agenda of these bodies were to ensure a ‘smooth’ continuation of the consecutive second term for the ruling party. During that election, as the main oppositions boycotted, India openly played a vital role in favor of Bangladesh Awami League. The entire state machinery of India – largest democracy in the world, had extended support to the ruling party and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as since coming to power in 2009, Ms. Hasina has always been very much loyal and beneficial to India. During her almost ten year’s tenure, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina never hesitated in keeping any request from India and had served all of the purposes, thus gaining full favor from the Indian policymakers. In the eyes of India, Sheikh Hasina now stands as the only trustworthy politician and it wants to see Ms. Hasina remain in power indefinitely. According to Indian media including The Indian Express, Sheikh Hasina has already become extremely unpopular and according to Bartelsman Stiftung, a German-based research group, Bangladesh currently is under autocratic rule.

But, the problem is arising from the West. The United States isn’t willing to let Ms. Hasina continue in power illegally or by force. Washington, as part of its commitment to the international community, isn’t allowing any illegitimate regime to continue in power. President Dolad Trump’s foreign policies are totally different than those of Barack Obama. The United States already has pulled back from the Nuclear Deal with Iran as well it has been exerting a fullest pressure of North Korea in denuclearization. Although there had been hopes of peace in the Korean Peninsula, following Trump-Un (Kim Jong Un) summit in Singapore, North Korean side isn’t showing the expected sincerity in denuclearization and still, are continuing barbaric intimidation on its citizen. Under such scenarios, experts are seeing much harsher sanctions on North Korea or even are seeing a possibility of an America-led attack on the totalitarian Stalinist nation with the goal of toppling-down Kim Jong Un from power and restoring democracy in that part of the world.

As to Bangladesh, the United States is willing to see a smooth transition of power through a free, fair and participatory election. This is something Washington has been repeatedly saying for past many months. But in reality, there truly is no real hope of any neutral election in Bangladesh. The ruling party has made every possible arrangement, including playing its loyalists in the election commission, with the goal of snapping the victory. The Chief Election Commissioner Nurul Huda is known as an activist of Bangladesh Awami League. Party loyalists are placed in the key positions of Bangladesh Armed forces, Bangladesh Police and civil administration. Even key positions in the intelligence agencies such as the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), National Security Intelligence (NSI) and Special Branch etc are occupied by time-tested loyalists of Ms. Hasina. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press is gouged, while repressions on religious minorities are continuing in full swing. The leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia is sent to prison with a court verdict of rigorous imprisonment. According to observers, the court was forced to convict Ms. Zia wrongly in the false corruption charge. Series of false cases also are being brought against her clearly with the agenda of keeping her in prison indefinitely. The ruling party also has influenced the Election Commission (EC) to abruptly decide of using Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) during the next general election in a significant number of seats. Such a decision has been made with the ulterior motive of manipulating election results. According to various sources in Dhaka, these EVMs would be imported from an Indian company. Prime Minister’s son Sajeeb Wajed Joy, an IT specialist is supervising the purchase process, most possibly with the goal of getting these machines delivered with the option of easily inserting Trojan Horse virus, which is required to gain control over these machines from a remote control or a SmartPhone.

Regarding the sudden decision of buying EVM, a former official of the EC said, the ruling party is aware of the fact that it cannot win even 70 seats out of 300 seats if the election is held in a free and fair way. So they are trying to do anything to manipulate the election result and ensure a smooth third consecutive term.

It said, long back, Bangladesh had gone under a total dictatorship. Numerous forms of intimidations are continuing on the opposition parties and media under heavy censorship. Thousands of false cases had been lodged against hundreds and thousands of the opposition activists. The government is such intolerant that it went into a drastic drive against small school kids (almost copying the Tiananmen Square massacre in China) when they came on the streets demanding safe roads. Leaders of the ruling party including some ministers had openly expressed anger on the school kids for taking onto the street demanding safe road. It may be mentioned here that, thousands of people die in road accident in Bangladesh every year, due to reckless driving. The government cannot take any action against drivers as two road transport owner’s association bosses occupy the important positions in the cabinet. These individuals are openly extending support toward drivers and transport workers and even forcing the government in refraining from making stricter laws for violating rules on the roads.

Since coming into power in 2009, the ruling party has taken the wrong policy of bringing false charges against its political opponents. The 10-truck arms haul case, August 21 grenade attack case, corruption charges against Ms. Zia etc are amongst those trumped-up charges.

Although Bangladesh is heading towards the next general election, there is a strong speculation of political movements waged by the main opposition BNP and its coalition partners. BNP has been silently negotiating with most of the political parties and fronts in finally emerging as a very strong political force in the country. Should the situation go confronting, there is a possibility of another military intervention (similar to that of January 11, 2007). People are whispering Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus emerging as a savior of the nation. It may be mentioned here that, following his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Mohammad Yunus had tried to emerge as a politician by forming a party named Nagorik Shokti (Citizen’s Power). This time he may enter politics with the help of Bangladesh Armed Forces.

Trashing this formula of Yunus entering politics, another source in Dhaka said, it is now difficult for Mohammad Yunus to enter politics and gain popularity. Instead, according to them, Sir Fazle Hassan Abed, founder of BRAC, the largest nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the world may emerge as the next savior of Bangladesh, as he enjoys good repute both in Bangladesh and abroad.

But nothing can be said with certainty as the situation in Bangladesh remains extremely fluid. It is even possible that global powers like the US may interfere at the last hour and change all of the political speculations thus forcing the ruling party is holding a free, fair and participatory election. Most possibly, this option remains as the most viable and real one.

Benzamin Mendez is a research-scholar and former university professor.

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