Bangladesh is heading towards the most consequential election in its history on December 30. This was the conclusion of a policy discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC on November 6. This small but densely populated South Asian country will reach a political inflection point after 5 years of growing authoritarian rule by the one-party government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL). The AL’s traditional major opposition, The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which has competed with it for power over the past three decades (the two traded off periods of governance every 5 years between 1991 and 2008) has been incapacitated since 2014 by the government’s campaign of intimidation and harassment aimed at eliminating it as a viable major party. Its leaders have been disappeared, arrested, run into exile or forced to renounce politics and it is not able to participate in the election on its own. At the same time media voices that were critical of such policies have suffered similar harassment as the government has, in effect, made it dangerous and costly to criticize the government. The recent midnight operation to imprison world acclaimed photo journalist ShahidulAlam and his subsequent torture inside prison for critical comments of government action is the most recent case in point.

But seemingly out of morass of smaller parties this summer, a new force, called the Oikiya (Unity) Front has emerged, led by the iconic secular figure Dr. Kamal Hossain, which has combined with the remnants of the BNP to pose a formidable challenge to the government. The critical task before it is monumental. The inflection point that has been reached is the choice between the consolidation of one-party authoritarianism that the AL government has been pursuing, or a return to a more democratic path that the country was on until 2014. And all indications are that return to the democratic path will be resisted fiercely by the government using many of the same methods that it has used since 2014 to destroy the opposition. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government has many tools of repression and intimidation at its command, the tool box of repressive measures widely used by authoritarian governments around the world. This starts with the complete politicization of the election commission, the police and the courts. Anything from arrests of the opposition on phony charges, to extrajudicial killing, to enforced disappearance, to filing spurious court cases is possible and many are in use. BNP leader Khaleda Zia, the first female Prime Minister of the country, is in the jail. There have been a number of attacks on leaders of the next opposition front and these are expected to grow.

From all appearances therefore, the government has given up on running on a platform to win hearts and minds and will rely on violence and the threat of violence to crush the opposition. Another indication of this is the government’s postponement of the deployment of the Army, scheduled for December 15 but now postponed to December 23, which will allow it to continue its repressive attacks on the opposition without the interference of the Army whose job it is to provide a peaceful environment for the election in order that people can vote without fear and also that the votes will be counted fairly. It is well within reason that the public, which seems clearly to want political change, could react violently to these measures. Pitched street battles and mass uprisings have marked the history of Bangladesh elections. 
Despite the highly unfavorable electoral environment, heavily controlled by the government, and a stifled and self-censored media, the political coalition that is challenging the government seems determined not to be cowed or to bend to the force being used against it. It is hoping that Western governments and institutions will voice condemnation of the government’s clearly authoritarian tactics and the human rights abuses they entail. Meanwhile, the House of Congress passed a unanimous resolution reaffirming the US commitment to promote free, fair and credible elections in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh public is also hoping that between Western pressure and the Army’s eventual deployment they will be allowed to vote in peace and in a free and fair environment. Despite the roller coaster path of Bangladesh politics, Bangladeshis have historically been firm on their desire and right to determine their own future. They hope to do so again on December 30.

M MushfiqulFazal (Ansarey)
Bangladeshi journalist based in Washington DC
General Secretary, Right to Freedom

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