International

Bangladesh elections held amid climate of fear

The 11th General elections in Bangladesh were held on 30th December 2018. The result was an overwhelming victory for Sheikh Hasina. For the first time Bangladesh made use of EVMs. The elections were marred by violence and claims of rigging.

The 11th General elections in Bangladesh were held on 30th December 2018. The result was an overwhelming victory for the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina. For the first time Bangladesh made use of electronic voting machines, though only on a limited scale. The elections were marred by violence and claims of vote rigging. The Bangladesh Election Commission responded by saying that it would investigate reported vote-rigging allegations from “across the country”.

In previous elections, which were held under caretaker governments between 1991 and 2008, no winning party ever won more than 48 percent of the votes. But In this election, the winners secured more than 90 percent of the total votes cast, which as per media reports, raises serious doubts over the transparency and fairness of the polls.

As per UN reports around 380 members of minority groups were attacked in the first half of 2018 and security forces reportedly arrested and intimidated opposition figures and dissenting voices. The UN expressed grave concerns over the rise of religious fundamentalism and its negative impact on human rights, including the right to life, the right to participate in cultural life, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion or belief.

While addressing the issue, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune said: “The increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, combined with election-related violence and the rise of fundamentalism, have together created a climate of fear in Bangladesh.”

The election saw a series of brutal attacks, mostly on opposition party candidates, and clashes between ruling and opposition party supporters. According to UN human rights experts, from December 9 to 12, a total of 47 such incidents of violence were reported, in which eight people were killed mostly from ruling party and 560 were injured. The victims of violence include former ministers, parliamentarians, veteran freedom fighters and senior leaders from the opposition alliance. At least 70 candidates from opposition alliance Jatiya Oikya Front claimed that they did not even participate in the campaign fearing attacks.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its bulletin titled “Bangladesh: Crackdown as Elections Loom” said Bangladesh security forces have been arresting and intimidating opposition figures and threatening freedom of expression ahead of national elections. On 3 January 2019, the HRW called for an investigation into attacks on members of the opposition party on and before December 30 elections.

According to Kamal Hossain, no less than 100 candidates were allegedly attacked by Bangladesh Awami League men throughout the country. Even the leaders who were not taking part in the election were attacked in the daylight with police standing as spectators. Even women leaders were not spared. US’ Department of State issued a statement on December 21, 2018 that the United States government is disappointed with the Government of Bangladesh’s refusal to grant visa for the observers of Asian Network for Free Elections. British Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field in a statement urged everyone in Bangladesh to refrain from further violence.

A joint statement by 15 international election observers including Asian Human Rights Commission and International Federation for Human Rights termed the electoral environment of Bangladesh ahead of 2018 election, "undemocratic". In response to all this criticism, Prime Minister Hasina rejected her critics in an interview in December with the New York Times, claiming that only urban elites were concerned about the right to criticize her government freely or assemble for protests. She went on to say that the opposition was pursuing an anti-government agenda and inciting violence. She said, “If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights… I know my country, and I know how to develop my country.”

International media like Al-Jazeera while covering the elections, also reported that over the past decade, judicial appointments from the lowest to the highest courts have been made along party lines. In 2017, Surendra Kumar Sinh, the sitting Chief Justice of Bangladesh, was forced to resign and leave the country when he acted out of sync with the party line. Such subjugation of the judiciary allowed arbitrary arrests and political detentions in the lead-up to the latest election. Police recruitment has also been done along party lines, rendering the police force an easy tool of political suppression. Recruitment for the civil bureaucracy, including the election commission, are also going through a partisan process where about 30 percent of all government jobs are statutorily allocated to the children of “freedom fighters”, a loosely defined group of men who fought for Bangladesh’s independence some 47 years ago”.

What happened on December 30 clearly shows that Bangladesh has officially become a one-party state of an exotic variety. This new wave of oppression and exploitation will likely keep Bangladesh’s streets quiet for a short term and all this is not well for the future of the country.

Syed Mujtaba Hussian, a rights defender, can be reached at jaan.aalam[at]gmail.com