Although Bangladesh’s general election, scheduled on January 7, 2024, is a little over a month away, there is no confusion as to what kind of an election it will be, and there is no uncertainty as to what results the election will deliver. With the deadline for submission of nomination papers now passed, 29 parties have decided to join in. Another 15 officially registered parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, have boycotted the election. Importantly, the 29 parties that have registered to field candidates do not have the wherewithal to mount any opposition to the incumbent Awami League (AL). In fact, these parties are not participating to challenge the incumbent but to provide a seal of legitimacy to the election. Whether some of these parties have joined the election of their own volition is a valid question.
If the election goes ahead as scheduled it will deliver a victory to the incumbent, like the two previous elections held in 2014 and 2018. The fourth consecutive term of Sheikh Hasina, described by the Economist as “Asia’s iron lady,” is in the making. This is not because opinion polls have indicated enormous popularity of the incumbent party, nor because there is an absence of formidable opposition in the country, but instead because what is in the making is anything but an election. Drawing on the experience of two previous engineered elections, particularly the elements that diminished its moral legitimacy and led to questioning by the international community, the ruling party seems to have devised a strategy to hold the election as per its plan.
The defining feature of the 2014 election was that it was boycotted by all opposition parties, resulting in the election of more than half of the parliament members unopposed, and a historically low voter turnout. These data points showed that the election was neither inclusive nor participatory.
The 2018 election did see participation from the opposition parties, but the electoral process was marred by persecution of opposition candidates ahead of the election using legal and extralegal measures. Moreover, there were reports of ballot stuffing by civil servants the night before election day, and ruling party activists occupying polling centers and forcing the voters away. These diminished the ruling party’s claim to the moral legitimacy of the election.
As the international community, since 2022, has insisted on having a free, fair, inclusive, and participatory election, the ruling AL has devised a strategy to increase the participation of many parties. It is also intended to weaken and, if possible, split the main opposition party, the BNP. Although the latter effort has been ongoing for years, with little success, it was stepped up. The ruling party’s strategy is comprised of three elements: first, keeping a united BNP out of the electoral process; second, peeling off leaders from the BNP in newly minted parties to create an impression that the BNP is fragmenting, and its voters have an option in the election; and third, bringing in as many smaller parties as possible to the election. The latter two actions are meant to convince the international community that the election is inclusive. It’s also expected that with more parties joining the election the voter turnout will increase, providing an impression that the election was participatory as well.
In the past weeks it has been laid bare that in achieving its objectives, the ruling party is using state apparatuses such as the civil administration, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and the judiciary without any restraints. Establishing new parties, enticing and coercing leaders and parties to join the election, and setting up dummy candidates to provide an impression of an inclusive election all indicate that January 7 will be a stage-managed show.
The Election Commission (EC0 in particular has emerged as a pliant institution. As a part of the design to peel off the BNP leaders, the EC has registered three parties during the middle of the past year. While ignoring applications from political parties with a significant presence nationally, the EC gave the nod to little-known parties, allegedly built with support of the intelligence agencies. The three parties that received the EC’s approval – Trinamool BNP, Bangladesh Nationalist Movement, and the Bangladesh Supreme Party – are described collectively as the King’s Party, and seem to have been created with the plan to attract defectors from the BNP.
The BNP has been holding peaceful rallies and demonstrations across the country since August 2022, despite provocations of the ruling party, obstructions to their rallies by the government, arrests of its activists and leaders, and death of at least 15 activists. But on October 28, its rally at the capital was forcefully dispersed by law enforcement agencies, and since then an all-out crackdown has ensued. Human Rights Watch reported on November 26, based on 13 witnesses and analysis of videos, that it has found evidence that “security forces are responsible for using excessive force, mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in a recent spate of election-related violence.”
The number of arrests, according to a forum of lawyers, was about 20,326 as of November 29. At least 12 top leaders of the BNP, including the party secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, were arrested within a week after the crackdown began. Family members of BNP activists are also being arrested. The number of inmates in Bangladeshi jails testifies to the scale of the arrests. Bangladesh’s 68 prisons with a capacity of 43,000, housed 88,000 as of November 5. The number increased by 5,000 between October 31 and November 5. Meanwhile, the total number of people sued reached 73,213, by November 7. The frivolous nature of these cases can be understood such that even dead people have been implicated in these cases.
BNP leaders are being convicted at an unprecedented rate. As of November 29, at least 500 BNP leaders have been convicted at lightning speed. It is alleged that in many instances, due process was ignored, and verdicts were given based on witnesses who are the same police officers who filed the case in the first place. The process began before October 28, when the courts started to hold trials at night after regular business hours. There is very little reason to question the allegation that the judiciary has been weaponized at the behest of the ruling party.
Of the 29 registered political parties that have fielded candidates, some were on the street until the crackdown began. Many have changed their position since, alleging that they have faced “pressure” to shift their stance. The unnamed source of the “pressure” is alleged to be the country’s intelligence agencies. Such an allegation has become credible as these parties declined to name the source on the one hand, while on the other hand, it is evident that the country’s intelligence agencies are engaged in the electoral process.
On November 7, ahead of the announcement of the schedule, the heads of the three intelligence agencies met the chief election commissioner. It was an unprecedented event, and no details were provided of the discussion. The involvement of agencies in domestic politics of Bangladesh is not new, but using them to cajole and coerce individuals in such a manner has not been seen in recent times. The nature of such measures became evident with the case of BNP Vice President Shahjahan Omar. He was arrested on November 4 in a case of arson, but surprisingly secured bail and walked out of prison on November 29. The next day he joined the AL and was nominated to contest for a parliamentary seat on behalf of the party.
Many other parties, even some close to the AL, that wavered on taking part in the polls have reportedly been nudged to join and are under constant surveillance. To show that the election has a significant number of candidates, the AL has “encouraged” aspirant party members who didn’t get the official nomination to run as independents. Although they are described as “dummy candidates,” they too are being vetted by the party, and state agencies are engaged in gathering information about them. In fact, this will ensure that the contestation takes place only among the chosen individuals.
Beyond the use of state institutions, there are other measures that are intended to create fear within society and scare opposition activists. BNP leaders’ homes, businesses, and