Five takeaways from recent Dhaka elections

By-elections of the Dhaka-17 constituency of Bangladesh parliament consequent upon the incumbent’s death took place on July 17th. This constituency is the home to the richest and most powerful people of Bangladesh. The Prime Minister’s office, the military headquarters and the parliament are located in or near its perimeter. In terms of political, economic and educational status of its residents, it arguably houses the most well-informed voters in the country.

After two consecutive parliamentary elections conducted under the ruling Awami League (AL) government that were widely perceived as grossly irregular, the Dhaka-17 polls afforded AL an opportunity to showcase its oft-stated “commitment” to hold free, fair, participatory and credible general elections due in next six months. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself made known her pledge to do so to the high-level US delegation that visited Dhaka the week prior to the elections.

The largest political party BNP boycotted the election as its refuses to take part in any polls under the AL government and has been demanding restoration of the erstwhile election-time non-party caretaker government that the ruling AL abolished through a constitutional amendment after in came to power in 2008.

In a non-competitive field, the ruling party candidate received the highest number of votes in an election that saw historically low voter turnout. However, this victory of the ruling party is seen as pyrrhic due to a number of incidents, including credible reports of voting irregularities and the appalling treatment accorded to Mr. Ashraful Alam, aka Hero Alam, who was an independent candidate and received the second highest votes by official count. He was severely beaten on the election day by ruling party thugs in plain sight of law enforcing agencies.

Here are our five take aways from the polls.

1. Voters stayed away. With official count at 11.5 per cent, this election saw the lowest voter turnout in recent memory. Even this low figure has been called into question by credible media reports exposing instances of ballot stuffing and fake voters on hire employed in favor of the ruling party candidate. Perhaps a more genuine picture of the order of magnitude of participating votes is provided by the numbers in the polling stations in the military cantonment area where ruling party operatives found it difficult to practice their craft. The percentage of voters casting their votes in this area ranged from less than 1 per cent to under 3 per cent.

These numbers send an unmistakable signal that the voters in arguably the most consequential constituency of the country overwhelmingly rejected the notion of polls under a partisan government. By abstaining from voting, the voters, including those in the military cantonment, added substantive strength to the opposition’s demand for reinstalling the previous caretaker system.

Against the backdrop of an intensifying opposition movement, this election offered an opportunity for AL voters to showcase the popularity of their party by showing up at voting booths in great numbers. However, even the official numbers confirm that this was historically the lowest amount of votes an AL candidate received in this constituency. This could well be taken as a rough predictor of the state of country-wide popularity of the ruling party.

2. PM’s credibility took a hit. The last two general elections in 2014 and 2018 conducted under the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are widely viewed at home and abroad as grossly irregular. In particular, the 2018 polls witnessed widespread ballot stuffing by ruling partymen during the night before elections.

Despite BNP’s decision not to participate in Dhaka -17 by election, Sheikh Hasina could have used the event as an opportunity to bolster her oft-repeated claims that she could be trusted to oversee free, fair and credible parliamentary elections due in the next six months. She shared this “commitment” with the high-level US delegation that visited Dhaka the week before the polls, led by Under Secretary of State Uzra ZJeya. However, she proved unable or unwilling to deliver on this commitment so soon after this visit. Going forward, it will be very difficult for those interested in free, fair, participatory and credible national polls in Bangladesh to sustain trust and confidence in her words.

3. Officials and institutions dealing with elections have developed built-in bias in favor of the ruling party. The Dhakaa -17 polls once again laid bare the fact that even if one is credulous enough to believe that Sheikh Hasina genuinely wants the forthcoming national elections to be free, fair, participatory and credible, she would not be able to deliver on it. This is principally because under her fifteen-year long authoritarian rule the institutions and individuals dealing with elections have become hard-wired to directly and indirectly favor AL candidates and systematically undermine the opposition.

The Dhaka-17 by-election is a glaring example of the failure of the election commission to create a level playing field, ensure reasonable protection to non-ruling party candidates and rein in irregularities. In particular, its downplaying of the assault on Mr. Alam, in which police was credibly reported as complicit, served to reinforce the commission’s image as a partisan body.

The same can be said about a whole gamut of institutions ranging from the police and security forces to civil administration and the judiciary, many of whose functionaries have become instinctively pro-regime and anti-opposition. So, tweaking the system by removing a few tainted individuals here or some faulty processes there will do little to ensure free, fair, participatory and credible elections. The system needs major overhaul of personnel and processes.

4. Urgings of the US, EU and other democratic nations have apparently fallen on deaf ears. These nations have been advancing the case for free, fair, participatory and credible national polls for some time now. Some countries took specific measures to encourage such polls such as the recent US visa restriction policy. The US Undersecretary of State Uzra ZJeya reiterated the US position and expectations during in her recent Bangladesh visit in the week prior to the Dhaka polls. An election-related EU delegation was in town during the polls day when the Hero Alam incident took place.

A group of 12 envoys stationed in Dhaka including US, EU, Canada and a number of European countries issued a joint statement in which they condemned the attack on Mr. Alam and called for a full investigation and accountability for the perpetrators. The UN Resident Coordinator also made issued a tweet expressing concern. The regime reacted strongly and bitterly through a number of cabinet ministers. In an unusual action, it even summoned the acting UN mission chief to express its disapproval.

Through this coordinated “in your face” reaction, the regime appears to be signaling that it would not pay attention to their concerns going forward. It is supplementing its stiffened position with deeds such as frontloading regime-inspired legal cases against members of the opposition parties ostensibly to disqualify their candidatures in the forthcoming national elections, and denying registration to some of the emerging parties with significant following while granting the same to a couple of relatively unknown entities. According to influential media reports, the regime might be moving towards creating conditions to keep BNP out of the forthcoming elections.

5. Scope for negotiated resolution has become even slimmer. The opposition, with BNP in the lead, has in recent months mounted an increasingly strong movement demanding reinstallation of the election-time non-party caretaker government to oversee holding of the next parliamentary polls. To their credit, they have so far managed to keep their activities relatively peaceful despite reports of provocations by the ruling partymen, often aided by law enforcement.

However, with the regime apparently digging in, the prospect for a negotiated settlement of the issue of election-time government is shrinking. The regime also has let known that the election schedule might be advanced. Recent US actions such as sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and visa restriction policy is credited for creating some space for the opposition and the media. However, if the regime unilaterally proceeds towards holding elections while in power and advances the election date, it is likely that this limited opening might be reversed. In that event, continued actions by the opposition might be dealt with violence by law enforcers and ruling partymen. On the other hand, facing an existential challenge, the BNP and its allies will have hardly any option save pressing on with their movement. Such a situation will make the prospects of a peaceful and orderly settlement increasingly elusive.

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