A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent days analyzing the recent public opinion poll published by the International Republican Institute (IRI). Some of the analysis has been thoughtful and has helped to further understanding of the Bangladeshi public’s mood as elections approach. Other commentary has proven to be decidedly less constructive, as partisans across the country’s political divide have sought to use the poll to simply reinforce pre-existing narratives. As with many topics in Bangladesh these days, the IRI poll has become a litmus test for determining where one stands on the country’s political spectrum. What this debate obscures, however, is the reality that there is only one poll that matters in Bangladesh—that delivered by the voters on election day.
This begs the question of whether Bangladesh’s voters will have an opportunity to cast their ballots in a free and open manner when election time comes. There is a widespread international consensus that voters were denied this opportunity in 2014 and 2018 after enjoying a rare free, fair and festive chance to cast ballots at the end of the Caretaker Government’s tenure in December 2008. In recent weeks, the European Union sent a pre-election assessment mission to Bangladesh and the United States is set to follow suit soon. These visits, along with high level engagement by Bangladesh’s international partners will help determine whether the forthcoming elections will fall into the “free” or “not free” category. At this point, sadly it seems that the latter result is more likely.
In recent days, human rights groups and other observers have attempted to highlight many of the challenges standing in the way of free elections in Bangladesh. None of these are new. They include a repressive media environment (notwithstanding the government’s recent announcement of plans to revise the Digital Security Act), uneven application of the law with respect to political activists of the ruling party and opposition, and partisan behavior by agents of the state, to include the security forces. Human rights advocates have urged governments to take steps to address these impediments to free elections, including additional bilateral and multilateral sanctions. So far, the Government of Bangladesh has shown no signs of backing down from its pledge to remain in power until elections, while the Opposition has remained equally adamant that it will not participate in polls under the incumbent. Meanwhile, online vitriol has increased as both sides seek to dominate the social media landscape.
Overall, the picture is bleak as the Northern Hemisphere summer ends and Bangladesh’s elections rapidly approach. The coming months are likely to see further planning and actions by Bangladesh’s domestic and international stakeholders, with the outcome still uncertain. Even as these actors develop their strategies for the pre-election period, however, it is not to early to think about what will come after elections—regardless of which scenario plays out. The one thing that all can agree upon is that the people of Bangladesh stand to gain (or lose) the most depending on the outcome.