Bangladesh: Are the January 2014 Parliamentary Elections Legitimate?
The political crisis in Bangladesh had deepened further with the BNP-led 18-party opposition alliance’s call for “March for Democracy” rally on December 29. More than seven hundred opposition party supporters were detained and many more were arrested at different entry points to Dhaka since December 26. One person died during a clash between opposition party activists and security forces in Dhaka on December 29. Earlier, in an effort to prevent the rally, the government had deployed security forces, including the Army, in the city and virtually kept the opposition leader Khaleda Zia under house arrest. Media reports indicated that heavy security was deployed around the residence of opposition leaders. Apart from surrounding Zia’s home and BNP headquarters in Dhaka, police had sprayed water cannons at lawyers supporting the BNP at the Supreme Court premises and prevented them from leaving the premises to join the rally.
Anticipating violence during the rally and after, shopkeepers and transport owners stopped business a day before the rally. More than 270 people had been killed and many more were injured since the declaration of November 29, announcing elections in January, and also the start of the war crime trials in the beginning of this year. An unspecified amount of public and private property was damaged.
There was a perception among common people that there might not be any respite from hartals and violence despite the elections in January. The Awami League (AL) might lose its support base as common people are badly affected by the frequent strikes, and as the ruling party it may face the brunt of the public ire. People are also not happy with the violent activities of the opposition parties. People criticize the BNP for setting up the tradition of conducting one-sided elections in 1996 and 2007. The common people are the losers in the ‘tit for tat’ tactics of thetwo main political parties. There is a feeling that if the political parties do not have faith on the role of democratic institutions during the elections then they should conduct the elections under a neutral caretaker government as has happened in the past. They (the two leaders) should not let the people suffer just to satisfy their egos.
Further, in a major blow to the AL’s decision to holding the 10th parliamentary elections on January 05, 2014, the civil society groups in Bangladesh on December 28 appealed to the government to defer these elections. The appeal came just one day before the BNP called the “March for Democracy” rally. The civil society groups believe that the election has lost its legitimacy due to non-participation of opposition parties. Most importantly, the elections are being conducted without declaration of the party manifestos in advance and the transfer of key government officials, who may influence the electoral process. Out of 300 parliamentary seats, the AL has been declared winner in 154 unopposed and decided to hold the elections for rest of the seats on January 05. People have expressed concern over them not being allowed to exercise their franchise in the already declared 154 seats and the lack of alternatives to choose their representatives in the absence of opposition parties. All those who have filed nominations for the January elections surprisingly belong to the AL alliance.
Interestingly, the Jatiyo Party (JP), the third largest political party in Parliament and an alliance partner of the AL, had opposed the latter’s decision of holding elections under the amended law and supported the BNP-led resistance for the January elections. The JP formally dissociated itself from the January elections on December 3, 2013 by declaring “there exists no proper environment for polls.” Although the JP did not join the BNP alliance, it boycotted the January election by not filing nominations.
Earlier, the US, the UK and the Commonwealth had decided not to send their observers to the January elections. The international community has been impartial to the political developments in Bangladesh. It has repeatedly advised both the party leaders to resolve the political stalemate by dialogue. The international community also asked the AL government to annul the death penalty against those who were convicted in the 1971 war crime trials. The European Union, the UN Human Rights Commission and the Australian government had opposed the execution of convicted war criminals in December.
The frequent hartals and blockades since November this year have adversely affected the economy and exports and imports. The rural poor and small traders are the worst affected. The situation worsened while the security forces imposed an undeclared blockade one day before the scheduled rally and the BNP extended the same while its leader Khaleda Zia failed to address the rally. The city was virtually cut off from the rest of the country.
Quoting the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the media reports indicated that the economy has suffered a massive loss (approximately 120 million USD) in the year 2013 because of frequent strikes, blockades and overall political crisis. Domestic investments have dropped drastically with bank loan defaults piling up. Moreover, 21 commercial banks and 31 non-banking financial institutions have also incurred losses during January-December. In fact, other business chambers also expressed apprehension about the negative impact of strikes in future. One media report said the ADB has projected slow GDP growth rate at 5.8 per cent due to lingering political tensions. The agricultural sector is equally affected. The farmers are worried about non-availability of fertiliser in the middle of the Boro paddy cultivation season. Around 11.95 lakh tonnes of fertiliser is stuck at the Chittagong port due to strikes. The export of garments has also come down due to poor demand from international buyers. The exporters also do not accept heavy international orders anticipating more political turmoil in future.
Periodic elections with the participation of political parties are an indicator of a healthy democracy. The BNP-led 18-party alliance’s decision not to take part in the elections certainly derails the electoral process. When a large number of political parties have been demanding elections under a caretaker government, the ruling party should consider that demand. The opposition parties’ lack of trust for the ruling party in this regard, reflects that democracy in Bangladesh is still nascent and needs time to mature. Till then, the parties should conduct elections under a neutral caretaker government to avoid a political crisis. In Bhutan for example, there is a special provision in the 2008 Constitution for holding elections under an interim government. Recently, Nepal successfully held its second Constituency Assembly elections under an executive council led by the Chief Justice. Moreover, the existing democratic institutions in Bangladesh will be affected if the political crisis aggravates due to frequent strikes and violence which in turn will lead to a constitutional crisis in the absence of an elected government. In that case, the Army may have a role in the politics of the country.