With just one week until the people of Bangladesh cast their vote in the country’s 11th parliamentary election, reports of attacks on members of the opposition alliance and fear amongst the media and public escalate.
Whilst leader of the Awami League and current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, seeks to secure a third term in power, the leading opposition alliance the Jatiya Oikya Front, pledges a new direction for Bangladesh. But what is this climate of fear?
A level playing field?
The start of a turbulent campaign season, beginning 10th December, has witnessed a surge in violence between political factions and parties, resulting in the death of two Awami League supporters. 13 candidates of the Jatiya Oikya Front and Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and over 900 of their supporters have been injured in attacks allegedly carried out by ruling party activists, the Daily Star reports.
Kamal Hossain, head of the opposition multi-party alliance, was amongst those targeted in an attack by ruling party activists who wielded sticks and stones at his convoy as he travelled through the capital last Friday, Reuters reports. Hossain was left unharmed but opposition spokesman, Latiful Bari Hamim, claimed that “at least 12 workers and activists of the alliance were injured and several vehicles of senior leaders damaged”.
Mahbub Alam Hanif, a senior official of the Awami League denied the accusations made against his party supporters regarding the attack.
Thousands of cases have been filed against opposition leaders and supporters, many of which have appeared fictitious as those accused were often found to be abroad, hospitalised or deceased at the time of the alleged offence, according to Human Rights Watch. In response to attacks on its members and supporters, the Jatiya Oikya Front wrote to the Bangladesh Election Commission (EC), demanding action over the attacks in a letter earlier this week.
Members of the opposition have scrutinised the performance of the EC’s apolitical role in the election process alluding that it is in favour of the incumbent party. Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP Secretary General, called the Chief Election Commissioner Nural Huda “biased”, claiming that the commission “is yet to ensure a congenial environment for elections”, in a press briefing last month.
Recent internal feuds between members of the EC have also revealed concerns over the conduct of the independent constitutional body. Mahbub Talukdar, election commissioner, told journalists on Monday that there is “no level-playing field at all” between the parties in contest. The Chief Election Commissioner swiftly dismissed the claim stating that Talukdar “did not speak the truth” and assured press that “the overall election atmosphere is good.”
Former cabinet minister, Ali Imam Majumder, raised further concerns over the public nature of the disputes between EC members.
“As a result, people will get confused and the electoral activities may be hampered”, he told the Daily Star on Thursday.
Despite global admiration for Hasina’s efforts regarding the Rohingya crisis, human rights groups have remained deeply critical of her domestic policies. In a damning report of the upcoming election recently published by Human Rights Watch, Asia director, Brad Adams, said:
“The Awami League government has been systematically cracking down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,”
“Creating an atmosphere of fear and repression that is not consistent with credible elections”.
As campaign violence continues, over 20,000 paramilitary troops have been deployed across the country. Earlier this week, EC sources stated that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), police and the army will provide additional support from the 26th December until early January, Dhaka Tribune reports.
Climate of fear
The suppression of dissent and criticism in Bangladesh prior to the election has contributed to the widespread climate of fear. The implementation of surveillance projects and restrictive media laws, like the Digital Security Act (DSA) have drawn global criticisms from numerous human rights groups.
Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), labelled ‘draconian’ by Human Rights Watch, has been exercised to eliminate anti-government sentiment, as seen in the incarceration of renowned photojournalist Shahidul Alam. In October, the DSA replaced the ICT act, granting greater restrictions on the freedom of speech accompanied by stringent punishments. Leading newspaper editors in Bangladesh have described the impacts of the DSA “chilling” for press freedom, Al Jazeera reports. The government’s rationale behind such laws is grounded in its rigorous project to eradicate ‘fake news’. However, the government’s efforts to tighten its grip on the media appear contrary to the growth of Hasina’s ‘Digital Bangladesh’.
Angst about the party in government extends far beyond the media. Last week, Bangladesh Politico revealed results of a focus group undertaken by Democracy International, in which public perceptions of Awami League leaders were questioned.
When asked how participants would interact with current government leaders, familiar responses included:
“I will not talk as I am scared for my life. I have a baby and for security I will not say anything to him.” (Chattogram urban man, over 35, more than 12th grade).
“I would be in jail for seven years and would have to pay BDT (Bangladesh Taka) 7000 in fines. Why would I tell them anything?” (Barishal urban man, under 35, more than 12th grade).
Despite a surge in campaign violence, international observers including the European Parliament revealed that it would not comment or examine the upcoming election, in a statement published last month.
However, eight Heads of Mission of the European Union, including British High Commissioner, Alison Blake, and the Heads of Mission of Norway and Switzerland published a joint local statement on the upcoming parliamentary election. Signatories called on the Bangladesh government to ensure a genuine and transparent electoral process, emphasising the integral role of the media and ‘civil society scrutiny’.
The U.K Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, condemned the recent political violence in Bangladesh in a statement published on his Twitter account on Friday. Field expressed concerns over NGOs that are being prevented from observing the election, and reiterated the importance of independent domestic and international observers who play “a crucial role in helping to support a free and transparent process for the elections”.
The U.K Department for International Trade and Development (DFID) currently grants foreign aid to Bangladesh. In the fiscal year 2018-2019, the department is set to issue £170m. Of this, £16.2m is specifically targeted to ‘strengthen locally led election observation and support civil society to demand more accountable politics’ and to reduce political violence during elections. Given the intensity of campaign violence the accountability of foreign aid may come into question.
As election day looms and tensions escalate, there is no doubt that the result of this parliamentary election will prove critical for the direction of Bangladesh.
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