By Nava Thakuria
When Bangladesh embraced the 12th general election amidst violence and boycott call from the prime opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), it was predicted that the ruling Awami League (AL) led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was winning for the fourth consecutive time to lead the poverty stricken south Asian nation for another five years. Accordingly, the national polls on Sunday (a working day for the Muslim majority country) gave an absolute majority to the incumbent AL with 222 seats in Jatiya Sansad, the highest legislative body of the populous country strategically located between India and Myanmar.
The parliamentary election to 350-member Jatiya Sansad (where 50 women members are elected indirectly) reflecting a poor voters' turnout (less than 42% of 120 million registered electorates exercised their franchise) witnessed the electoral victory of 62 independent candidates (many even defeated AL nominees), a record since its birth as a nation in 1971. A compromised opposition Jatiya Party won only 11 seats and three smaller parties emerged winning one constituency each.
Sporadic incidents of violence and rigging of polls were reported, as BNP leaders called for a 48-hour Hartal (general strike) beginning the previous day to polls. Alleging that elections under Hasina's government would never be free and fair, the BNP and its political allies stick to their demand to conduct the polls under a caretaker neutral government in Dhaka, which Hasina strongly denied. Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical political party of Bangladesh, even took out processions in the capital city on the polling day supporting the BNP's boycott call.
A mass rally on 28 October by the BNP and its friendly parties turned violent, where at least four people were killed and nearly 300 vehicles torched on the streets of Dhaka. The government started a massive crackdown and put thousands of BNP leaders (including its secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir) and workers behind the bars. Even on the eve of polls, a series of violent incidents rocked the country. The burning of Benapole Express's four coaches by the miscreants resulted in the death of five passengers and injuries to many others. Next morning, a polling station (under Bandar police station) and a vehicle were torched in Chittagong locality. Two more people were killed on the counting day of ballot papers.
Meanwhile, the UN rights chief expressed serious concern over the violence and repression reported during the electoral exercise in Bangladesh. Violations and irregularities during the campaign and on election-day should be thoroughly investigated, asserted the global rights chief, adding that the hard earned democracy in the country should not become cosmetic. The United States stated that the Bangladesh elections were neither free nor fair. Moreover, not all political parties were engaged with the electoral exercise, said a government representative, adding that Dhaka should investigate reports of violence and make the perpetrators accountable.
Terming the 12th national election as a fake one, the BNP leaders claimed that such a low turnout in the polling indicated the people's rejection following their boycott call. Alleging the Hasina government of running fabricated cases against 5,00,000 BNP leaders and even imprisoning over 1,700 party workers in the last 15 years, they asserted that the Bangladeshi voters thoroughly rejected the one-sided election. Now the BNP leaders have decided to intensify their movement against the fake regime with a series of peaceful public demonstrations across the country.
BNP's president Khaleda Zia (78 years old) is currently ailing and amazingly the former Bangla Premier is also under house arrest for graft charges. Even the party's acting president Tarique Rahman, son of former Bangla President Ziaur Rahman and Begum Zia, has been living in self-imposed exile since 2008. Tarique faced 18 months jail term before leaving to London and staying there till date. So the party remains almost a leaderless political force on the ground and BNP leaders were assumed not interested in contesting the elections.
Dhaka-based political analysts opined that it was an opposition-less election indeed as Jatiya Party too received favour from the ruling AL. Initially, the party was planning to boycott the election along with the BNP-led opposition alliance. But the ruling party vacated 26 seats for Jatiya Party nominees to get the only opposition party in the fray. Hasina's party also encouraged more AL leaders to file nominations so that the election can be shown as a participatory one. Most of the independent candidates were either deprived AL leader or just dummies. Thus Bangladesh has emerged as a one-party nation, where the logical question being asked- who would play the role of an opposition in the parliament.
Hasina (76) had earlier won the three national elections continuously from 2008 to establish herself as the longest-serving government head among women in the world. Daughter of Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina maintained that only her party can lead Bangladesh towards peace, prosperity and growth. In the election manifesto, Hasina promised to convert the digital Bangladesh to a smart nation. She also committed to protect and promote the spirit of democracy, offer quality education to youths, modernise agriculture, and make healthcare services affordable to all Bangladeshi nationals.
The Paris-based global media rights body Reporters Sans/Without Borders (RSF) also condemned the violence against the journalists during the Bangladesh polls, when at least 12 reporters were attacked and expelled or denied entry to voting stations, in most cases by supporters of Hasina's party. The AL supporters attacked reporters covering the cases of electoral fraud, asserted the RSF, adding that the relevant authorities should launch independent probes so that the responsible individuals can be brought to justice.
"Furthermore, in a context of stifled media freedom, muzzled by governmental suppression of all criticism, we urge the newly re-elected authorities to finally adopt strong measures to safeguard unrestricted Internet access and protect the freedom of the press enshrined in Bangladesh's constitution and freedom of expression, which is being obstructed by the draconian new cyber security act. The government's toxic control over news and information must end," asserted the statement.