Bangladesh election at risk of low turnout in climate of fear as voters search for party more likely to fulfil promises
The outcome of the Bangladesh election depends on whether the current atmosphere of fear changes in the coming days, allowing citizens to cast their votes freely and if their votes are counted fairly.
While all parties in the fray have made a 'promising' start to their campaigns for the 30 December parliamentary election in Bangladesh, the two Gs — governance and growth — have become the key issues in the manifestos published by the incumbent Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) and its primary contender, the Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF).
BAL's manifesto highlights the economic growth of the past and pledges to boost the GDP growth rate to 10 percent from the current 7.8 percent in the next five years. In the 21-point manifesto titled "Bangladesh On March Towards Prosperity", it also makes promises about development in technology infrastructure. JOF's manifesto offers various economic plans, focuses on halting the attenuation of democracy and improving the quality of governance.
About 100 million Bangladeshi voters face a crucial choice: continuity, or change. About 40 million are youths, half of whom will vote for the first time since 2008. All political parties, including those that boycotted the polls in 2014, are participating this time.
Instances of violence against Opposition candidates and activists by the ruling BAL, arrests of at least 15 aspirants, cancellation of at least seven nominations through court's intervention and the inaction of the Election Commission of Bangladesh to ensure a level-playing field have all augmented the fear that the environment may not be conducive to a large turnout and the election may not be free, fair, credible and acceptable.
Yet, the newly-emerged Opposition alliance in the form of JOF, led by eminent octogenarian jurist Kamal Hossain, has unequivocally stated that it will remain in the race until the end. The decision of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which vacillated until early October, to join the alliance and participate in the election without its leader Khaleda Zia is a significant departure from its past position. A three-time prime minister, Zia is serving a 10-year prison term on corruption charges and is barred from the election.
BAL's election manifesto has pledged to curb graft and promised to ensure independence and dignity of the judiciary and the rule of law. But many of its promises to ensure good governance made before the last two parliamentary elections remain on paper, and the country has experienced serious violations of human rights, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the past decade. International human rights groups and organisations working on press freedom have raised voices against the poor state of freedom of expression in the country and demanded that the government stop arbitrary use of laws to silence its critics.
Moreover, many have expressed concerns regarding the independence of the judiciary. Despite remarkable economic growth, disparity and the rate of joblessness has increased. The unemployment rate among the youth, according to a recent report by the International Labour Organization, stands at 12.8 percent, doubling in the past seven years. There are no promises to change course, yet a promise to create jobs for 12.8 million youths in the next five years is included in the manifesto.
Though the BNP has published a separate manifesto, it practically echoes the pledges of the JOF. The central thrust of the JOF's statement of belief is to bring about changes in the political culture and institutions and to reverse the course of rapid attenuation of democratic norms and practices in Bangladesh. For instance, it has promised to bring about a balance of power between the prime minister and president— currently a titular head — impose a two-term limit on holding the prime minister's position; ensure freedom of the judiciary; introduce the provision for a polls-time government and create an Upper House in Parliament. The alliance's promise to appoint a "truth and reconciliation commission" to investigate all extrajudicial killings and incidents of enforced disappearances of the past decade with a goal to create national unity has already engendered discussions. While these promises are encouraging, critics have raised questions on whether the JOF will be able to deliver on these promises with the BNP as its partner. The party, with a record of poor governance during its tenure, has hopefully learnt a lesson after being at the receiving end of voters' ire.
As the election is being held under an incumbent party, the neutrality of the administration, including the law-enforcing agencies, has been questioned, particularly since candidates filed their nomination papers on 9 December. BAL, on the other hand, has not only dismissed the allegations of influencing the administration, but has also repeatedly insisted that the Opposition is hatching a conspiracy to foil the election. It has criticised Kamal Hossain, a former Awami League leader, for joining hands with "corrupt, convicted criminals and killers", referring to the BNP and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). Jamaat-i-Islami is not officially a member of the JOF but is allied with the BNP. Jamaat-i-Islami, which had opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, is barred from polls by the Election Commission, but it has fielded candidates under the banner of the BNP.
On 23 December, the Election Commission had rejected a plea against allowing JI nominees from contesting after a high court ordered it to swiftly decide the matter. While the polls are expected to be a two-way contest between the JOF and the BAL-led Grand Alliance, which includes the Jatiya Party of General HM Ershad, Leftist parties have coalesced as the Left Democratic Front. In the turn of events, the Jatiya Party, which is the official Opposition party in the current Parliament, and its leader General Ershad, have been eclipsed.
The polls are a test of the ruling party's repeated claim since 2010 that a caretaker government is not necessary for a free-and-fair election; the constitutional provision was removed by BAL in 2010.
Bangladesh's previous participatory elections had produced an alternation of power between BAL and BNP, an indicator of strong anti-incumbency sentiment among voters. After 10 consecutive years in office — the longest in the history of the nation — BAL faces a tough challenge in wooing the voters again.
However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has insisted that continuity is necessary for development. Her appeal to people, while unveiling the manifesto, to view the mistakes she and her party colleagues have made since assuming office in 2009 with "kindness" is a welcome gesture.
But is this plea enough to convince voters to keep her in power? Alternatively, will the promise of the JOF to bring a change in the direction of the country resonate with the electorate? The answer can be found only if the current atmosphere of fear changes in the coming days, allowing citizens to cast their votes freely and if their votes are counted fairly. That will determine whether the new year will mark a new beginning for the country.
The author is a distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, USA. His publications include Bangladesh: A Political History since Independence
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