17 April 2024 08:10 AM



Bangladesh Election Primer: Here’s What You Need to Know

The Citizen’s foreign affairs primer. We take a look at the political scenario in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh would be holding general elections on December 30, 2018. Originally scheduled for 23rd December, the date of the elections was postponed following requests from the Bangladesh National Party and others, who had boycotted the 2014 elections, but had decided late in the day that they would participate in the forthcoming polls.

In 2014 the Awami League had had a walkover with the BNP and other opposition parties refusing to participate because their demand that a caretaker government be installed for the elections was not accepted by the Awami League government. The result of the opposition boycott was that the Awami League garnered 154 seats without a contest out of the total of 350 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad , the unicameral Parliament of Bangladesh. Commentators have suggested that the Awami League used its unfettered power to place loyalists in almost all institutions of the country including the army, police and judiciary.

The contest in the forthcoming elections had been expected to be between Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League and its allies and Begum Khaleda Zia’s opposition Bangladesh National Party. But recent developments could make things difficult for the BNP.

The courts had extended Begum Zia’s jail term from five to ten years for alleged corruption in the establishment of an orphanage fund during her first term as prime minister in 1991-1996 and sentenced in a second case sentenced her to seven years in jail on corruption charges linked to a charity fund named after her late husband.

The latest blow to the BNP came when a High Court rejected five applications seeking suspension or a stay on conviction and sentences to allow the petitioners to contest in the elections. The Court ruled that a person sentenced to more than two years in jail could not contest any election unless five years had passed after serving the sentence even if an appeal against the conviction was pending. This in effect would debar Begum Khaleda Zia from fighting the elections though the BNP was seeking a stay from the Supreme Court. Her son Tarique Rehman, living in the United Kingdom in self -exile was sentenced to life in prison in connection with a 2004 grenade attack case.

The Supreme Court had upheld the ban on Begum Zia. The opposition would effectively be led by 82 year old Kamal Hossain though he had announced that he would not be participating as a contender in the polls. An Oxford-educated international jurist who had drafted the country’s constitution and a friend of Sheikh Hasina’s late father he had called the present government an unelected one and said that his joining with the opposition was critical to restoring democracy in the country. He had also demanded that the Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda be replaced with a credible person for holding a free and fair national election. Sheikh Hasina said Hossain had joined hands with “ the killers”.

Hossain had formed the Gano Forum, or People’s Forum which was part of a new three party opposition bloc called the Jatiya Oikya Front, or National Unity Front with which the BNP had forged an alliance. Hossain had made it clear that there was no place for the Jamaat e Islami, a long term ally of Begum Zia, in their bloc. The Communist Party of Bangladesh had also ruled out any dealings with the Jamaat. The Jamaat’s political registration had already been cancelled by the Election Commission on the grounds that the Jamaat’s registration violated election laws and the spirit of the constitution because the party had opposed the country’s war of independence with Pakistan in 1971. But the BNP’s alliance with the Jamaat remains and 25 Jamaat leaders have been nominated by the BNP to fight the elections. Nazibur Rahman, son of former Jamaat ameer and executed war criminal Motiur Rahman Nizami, had also filed his nomination papers but as an independent.

The intent, if indeed Sheikh Hasina’s government had manipulated all these moves as many observers insist, was to ensure the minimum opposition to the Awami League in the elections on December 20, 2018. But the example of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed was being cited and some analysts speculated that anti-incumbency would be a major factor as Shiekh Hasina’s government was viewed as increasingly authoritarian.

At the opposition’s behest talks had been held between the ruling party and leaders of the opposition parties. Jatiya Party Chairman HM Ershad claimed the talks between the newly floated Jatiya Oikyafront and the ruling Awami League-led alliance had not resulted in any outcome as the government did not agree to any of the Oikyafront's seven-point demand which included the dissolution of Parliament and a neutral caretaker government to oversee the elections.

The entrance of new young voters between the ages of 18 and 28 could also have an impact on the outcome. According to the Election Commission around 23.5 million young voters, mostly university students or job seekers registered since 2008, would be voting this time.

Sheikh Hasina’s Government had been rocked by student protests in 2018 after the driver of a speeding private bus lost control and killed two students in Dhaka. Students and job seekers demands turned to a reduction to 10% of the 56% quota of jobs in the public sector reserved for children of freedom fighters, women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and citizens of some backward districts. To assuage the students Bangladeshi Prime Minister Minister Sheikh Hasina announced she would be abolishing the quota system for government jobs.

The Constitution does not bar any person from holding office based on gender, race, ethnicity and religion. The 15th amendment to the Constitution, introduced in July 2011, restored the 1972 secular constitution, but Islam remains the state religion. Militant Islamists are questioning the basis of the nation-state and its identity. Democracy has strong roots in Bangladesh, but there has been a consistent attempt by the cadre based Jamaat e Islami and other groups to indoctrinate the youth. The attacks on secular bloggers and activists and minorities in recent years is only one of the manifestations of this trend. It remains to be seen whether the radicalisation of the youth has been widespread enough to make them challenge the Awami League which many perceive as pro India and not sufficiently committed to governance according to Islami practices.

While women empowerment in Bangladesh has been lauded by international organisations, notably in the educational and economic sphere, political parties have so far failed to ensure a significant participation of their female members in decision- and policy-making processes compared to their male colleagues. Several female politicians were reported to have said that women were, in most cases, “assigned to decorative posts”. For an ordinary woman without influence or connections, it is a struggle to take up a career in politics because of the traditional structure of the country’s political arena, and the patriarchal mindset that continues to thrive in Bangladesh.

The Constitution of Bangladesh requires that elections take place within the 90-day period before the expiration of the term of the Jatiya Sangsad. The current Sangshad first sat on 29 January 2014. In the Sansad 50 seats are reserved for women, who are elected by the 300 directly elected members on the basis of proportional representation in the Parliament through a single transferable vote system. Each constituency is represented by a single Member of Parliament.

The Election Commission, currently headed by KM Nurul Huda is an independent constitutional body whose restructuring, and reform and renaming to its present form took place in 1972 after the Bangladesh Liberation War. The commission has quasi-legal powers as a law enforcement agency to investigate and indict those who compromise election laws through bribery, corruption, vote buying, or blackmail. Under the constitution, the term of office of any election commissioner is five years from the date on which he enters office. A person who has held office as chief election commissioner is not eligible for appointment in the service of the Republic. Any other Election Commissioner is, on ceasing to hold such office, eligible for appointment as Chief Election Commissioner, but is not eligible for appointment in the service of the Republic. The National Identity (NIDW) functions under the Election Commission Secretariat.

Shiekh Hasina has on many occasions reiterated her determination to prosecute and punish those responsible for the genocide during the Bangladesh War of Liberation. She has brushed aside criticism from many western human rights groups and even governments which have questioned the functioning of the International War Crimes Tribunal. The international justice community has said that the Awami League, and the current leadership of Sheikh Hasina, is after revenge rather than justice. One of the key differences between the ICT and the other international tribunals is that under the Rome Statute, the ICC is not permitted to give death penalty to the guilty unlike in Bangladesh.

The International Crimes (Tribunals) Act was drafted in 1973. The Act was later marginally amended in 2009. The Tribunal was established with a controversial amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh in 1973. The amendment provides that a person charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or other crimes under international law cannot challenge any law providing for their prosecution and punishment. It is inconsistent with any of the provisions of the Constitution. That means the Act cannot be challenged on the basis that it violates basic constitutional rights.

Since the International Crimes Tribunal’s inception in March 25, 2010, judgments have been delivered in 34 cases against 83 war criminals. Among them, 52 were sentenced to death. The Tribunal had sentenced Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah, who was known as the Butcher of Mirpur during the war, to life imprisonment. This led to a mass protest known as the Shahbagh Movement, fuelled by sentiment that anti-Liberation War forces had become too powerful in Bangladesh. The Appellate Division eventually changed the tribunal’s verdict, sentencing Quader Mollah to death.

Five top leaders of the Bangladesh Jamaat e Islami have been hanged including its Ameer (President) Maulana Motiur Rahaman Nizami and Secretary General Ali Ahsan Muhammad Muzahid. Salauddin Quader Choudhury of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was also hanged. The War Crimes Fact-Finding Committee, has identified 1,775 people, including Pakistans’s generals and local Islamists allied with Pakistan -- mainly the leaders of Jamaat -- as having been involved in the atrocities in 1971.

Despite criticism from abroad, the trials of war criminals 39 years after the country’s independence are considered one of the biggest achievements of the nation. Other areas in which the government has claimed success are action against extremism and terrorism and a special focus on women’s empowerment and strengthening the economy. Despite obvious signs of increasingly authoritarian rule by Sheikh Hasina, including repression of the media and civil society groups and NGOs considered inimical to the Awami Laegue’s interests, some western think tanks have had to concede that approval for the government remains high possibly because of economic performance of the government and its ability to project itself as pro-development and capable of taking strong measures against terrorism.

The government had passed a new media law recently which combines some existing measures such as the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough new provisions including a provision that allows police to arrest any individual without a warrant; a maximum sentence of 14 years for espionage if an individual is found secretly recording information with electronic instruments inside a government building; the same jail sentence for spreading “propaganda and campaign” against Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. The new law has been criticised by Human Rights Watch which has called it a “tool ripe for abuse and a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech”.

Reports in the Bangladesh media indicate that the main focus of the Awami League’s election platform will be its Vision 2041. The party has vowed to build a sustainable developed country that would be free from poverty, terrorism, and extremism. There would be increased attention paid to the development of information and technology; the nutrition, fuel, and mineral sectors; and educating the youth. A 13 member committee is said to be working on the mechanism to attract the youth vote. Mega projects that are likely to figure in the party’s manifesto include efforts to upgrade Bangladesh to a middle income country in 2021, and a developed country by 2041; improve the lives of people living in remote areas; improving the life of minority communities, and encouraging female entrepreneurship.

The increasing impact of extremist ideology has been of concern to the government and Bangladesh’s neighbours. Three radical Islamist parties, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkatul Jihad were banned in February 2005 on grounds of militancy and terrorism. Bangladesh has witnessed some serious terrorist incidents and attacks on those considered atheists for their secular beliefs. According to the media intelligence reports suggest that the Jamaat Mujahideen Bangladesh which was formed in 1998 to establish an Islamic state based on Sharia was planning fidayeen attacks during the elections and that it had decided to recruit 300 more cadres for this purpose. It was also trying to conduct two-week weapons training in Chittagong and other districts.

The JMB came to prominence in 2005 when on the 17thof August 459 bombs were detonated in 63 out of 64 district towns within seven minutes. The administration of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia admitted, for the first time, the presence of Islamist militants in the country, declaring Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh responsible for the blasts. Some 743 suspects were apprehended, and the leadership of the JMB and its affiliated party Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) were arrested and executed. The JMB was also said to have created an offshoot the Shahid Nasrullah Arafat Brigade to undertake high risk operations such as bomb making and suicide attacks. The Harkat ul Jehad e Islami Bangladesh whose members were veterans of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union was the other prominent group that initially came to notice for fostering terrorist activity.

Bangladesh had continued to insist till recently that Islamic State was not operational in the country. But the July 1, 2016, assault on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka , in which 22 people were killed was claimed by Islamic State through its Amaq News Agency. The United States Department of State in its annual report on terrorism cited the Bakery attack, the murder of an Italian aid worker in Dhaka͟ and ͞other attacks carried out across the country͟ as being the work of Islamic State in Bangladesh.

Another new Islamist force Hefajat-e-Islam emerged in 2013. The Hefajat is said to run approximately 14,000 unregulated Madrasas and is probably more conservative than the Jamaate Islami Bangladesh in demanding the removal of every trace of liberalism from Bangladeshi society.

Out of the country͛s 29 to 33 possible terrorist groups , only four are officially banned: JMB, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), JMJB, and Shahadat-e al Hikma . While there is always the temptation to charge the military to stem terrorist activity so far the Government has treated it as a police/law-and-order problem. Any recourse to military action which would likely be more lethal with more collateral damage could turn people against the government thereby possibly creating fresh cadres of militants for the radical groups.

The government has also been trying, unsuccessfully, to stem the flow of funds to the terrorist groups. Despite re-enaction of the Money Laundering Prevention Act in April 2008, and the passage of an Anti-Terrorism Ordinance in June 2008 the country’s anti-money laundering (AML) and counterterrorist financing (CTF) measures are reported to be ineffective because of corruption and politics. It is assessed that the militants get nearly US $7 billion annually through illegal channels.

The government believes that charities and NGOs have contributed to the problem. British citizen Dr. Faisal Mostafa the founder of the British-registered charity Green Crescent was said to have had close links to the JMB and its current leader, Saidur Rahman. There are some 2,500 officially registered NGOs operating in Bangladesh The Saudi Arabia-based al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, banned internationally by the United Nations Security Council Committee 1267, has come under suspicion, along with other charities from the Middle East, for financing terrorism in Bangladesh. NGOs and charities have also been linked to the rise of Islamic extremism in the country, with the Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS] and the Saudi Arabian organization Hayatul Igachha (HI) connected to funding for some 650 mosques that have been used by organizations such as Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh.

Who will win the elections? With Khaleda Zia banned and Kamal Hossain declaring he would not contest the field appears to be clear for the Awami League to win. Sheikh Hasina’s Government has been enjoying the fruits of incumbency which however might prove to be not so healthy as demonstrated in Malaysia. The expectations of the youth; the increasing radicalisation; the manner in which the opposition has been sought to be emasculated and the anger of the media could work against incumbency. But much would depend on whether the opposition is able to exploit these factors and to convince the voters of their ability to change the country for the better. With new developments taking place on a daily basis and the BNP supporting the Jamaat one has to wait and see till almost the eve of the elections to make a somewhat educated guess as to who would become the new Prime Minister of Bangladesh.