The sad state of Bangladeshi democracy
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The sad state of Bangladeshi democracy

THE recent death of the former president of Bangladesh HM Ershad has refocused international attention on the mixed legacy his eight-year tenure left behind. Although Ershad did manage to reintroduce some semblance of political stability into the country and oversee a modest upturn in its fiscal fortunes, these gains came at the hefty price of democratic freedom.

Almost 30 years after Ershad was deposed and indicted, many of the same issues which plagued his rule are still extremely relevant in today’s Bangladesh. The most recent election, taking place in December last year, saw Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secure a third successive term – but amid wide-ranging accusations of corruption, intimidation and vote rigging. As yet, the international community has offered only mild criticism of the whole affair, meaning things are unlikely to improve in the country without a concerted external effort to bolster transparency and integrity.

A chronicle of corruption

Ershad’s reign was bookended by dubious circumstances. He came to power after allegedly forcing his elected predecessor to abdicate at gunpoint in 1982, while a mass uprising against his office in 1990 forced his own resignation and subsequent arrest less than a week later. At the time, he insisted he did not regret any of his actions while in power.

Those actions constituted a lengthy list of democratic abuses, with his regime mainly characterised by its blatant vote manipulation. His Jatiyah Party (JP) won 251 out of 300 parliamentary seats in 1988 with 100 percent voter turnout reported in many constituencies.

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Supporters of Bangladesh Awami League shout slogans while taking part in a rally ahead of December 30 general election vote, in Dhaka on December 27, 2018. Source: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP

As the anecdotal testimony of one Guardian reporter reveals, a returning officer at one Dhaka polling station cheerfully announced that the improbable feat had been achieved before noon – despite the fact that the ballot boxes were literally burning in the streets, set on fire by an angry mob.

Even after his incarceration in 1991, Ershad still enjoyed a prosperous political career from behind bars. He entered and won five constituencies in Rangpur (his hometown) from his prison cell that same year, before being released on bail in 1997 and re-engaging with politics. At the time of his death, he was still facing pending charges over backing a military coup while serving his sentence.

As then, so now

Depressingly, little seems to have changed in the intervening three decades. Hasina claimed her third consecutive term (and fourth in total) late last year with an implausible majority of 288 out of 298 contested constituencies. Again, 100 percent turnouts were claimed in over one-third of those locales – despite the fact that foreign correspondents reported many polling places were deserted or closed.

What’s more, the victors stand accused of various methods of skulduggery to achieve a pre-arranged result. Examples of malfeasance include ballot box stuffing, voter coercion, restricted polling and media censorship – at least one journalist has been arrested for attempting to expose the corruption.

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An independent study by Transparency International found electoral irregularities in 47 of the 50 randomly selected constituencies it investigated and concluded that the winning Awami League (AL) party had spent five times the legal limit in its electioneering efforts. Meanwhile, at least 19 people were killed by eruptions of violence on election day itself.

Of course, Hasina and her party have denied all wrongdoing and suggested that Transparency International may be in cahoots with the leading opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). For their part, the BNP have called the election a “fraud” which made a “mockery of democracy”.

The BNP itself had been the target of a wave of political repression for months in the run-up to the elections, according to Human Rights Watch,  with allegedly “hundreds of thousands of its members” arrested. The most prominent victim of crackdown before the election was BNP leader Khaleda Zia, who was arrested in February 2018 and sent to prison – where she remains to this day –  after what was condemned as a show trial.

Caught between a rock and a hard place

With the AL maintaining an inescapable stranglehold on the country’s politics, Bangladeshi voters have little place to turn. That’s especially true when the Electoral Commission – the very body set up to regulate elections and enforce a level playing field – seems to have limited interest in doing so.

The EC’s Chief KM Nurul Huda recently acknowledged that 100 percent turnout was “abnormal”, but claimed that it could take no action over the irregularities since the results had already been submitted and that there was no cause to believe any wrongdoing had taken place. Transparency International have condemned that response, while Western powers such as the UK, the USA and the EU have called for a probe into the results.

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Bangladeshi army personnel drive a military vehicle through a street adorned with election posters near a polling station in Dhaka on December 30, 2018. Bangladesh headed to the polls on December 30 following a weeks-long campaign that was dominated by deadly violence and allegations of a crackdown on thousands of opposition activists. Source: Munir UZ ZAMAN / AFP

However, those tepid demands appear to have been brushed aside by widespread support from other global leaders. India and China were the first countries to offer congratulations to Hasina, paving the way for Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, Bhutan, Iran and the United Arab Emirates to follow suit. This has prompted a statement from the US indicating its willingness to continue collaboration with Bangladesh, effectively legitimising the results of the election and burying any chance of an enquiry.

External pressure essential

That turn of events must be hugely frustrating for everyday Bangladeshi citizens. With Hasina allowed to tighten her grip on power, the electoral watchdog confirming her victory, the opposition thwarted and the international community all but turning a blind eye, the outlook looks bleak for the future of Bangladeshi democracy.

With the ink still fresh on Ershad’s epitaph, his passing provides a timely opportunity for institutions such as the UN to take stock of Bangladesh’s political plight and assess their options in terms of leveraging pressure on those responsible. If the chance is missed, the country’s rulers are unlikely to change tack of their own volition and the populace will surely see its voice silenced for many elections to come.

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