Sus­pi­cion over Hasina’s Bangladesh poll landslide

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Michael Safi and Red­wan Ahmed DHAKA

Bangladesh’s op­po­si­tion has re­jected the “far­ci­cal” re­sults of na­tional elec­tions of­fi­cially de­clared to have been won by the prime min­is­ter, Sheikh Hasina, in a landslide.

The Bangladesh elec­tion com­mis­sion said early on Mon­day that Hasina’s Awami League had won a record third con­sec­u­tive term, tak­ing – along with its al­lies – 288 of the coun­try’s 298 par­lia­men­tary seats on of­fer.

The thump­ing mar­gin was framed as an en­dorse­ment of Hasina, 71, a dy­nas­tic leader who has over­seen boom­ing eco­nomic growth but is ac­cused of run­ning an au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment that al­lows hu­man rights abuses to flour­ish.

The Awami League’s main ri­val, the Bangladesh Na­tional party (BNP), and its al­lies won only seven seats in the coun­try’s first con­tested elec­tion in a decade, one marred by weeks of vi­o­lence, the mass ar­rest of op­po­si­tion ac­tivists and the deaths of at least 17 party work­ers and po­lice on polling day.

Al­le­ga­tions of vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, in­clud­ing polling booths clos­ing for “lunch breaks”, vot­ers be­ing turned away, and bal­lots be­ing counted un­re­al­is­ti­cally quickly, were wide­spread.

Lo­cal me­dia pub­lished ac­counts by

cor­re­spon­dents who claimed to have wit­nessed Awami League mem­bers stuff­ing bal­lot boxes in the pres­ence of po­lice and elec­tion of­fi­cials.

The op­po­si­tion sig­nalled it would re­ject the re­sults even be­fore the polls had closed last Sun­day. “We call upon the elec­tion com­mis­sion to de­clare this far­ci­cal elec­tion void and de­mand a fresh elec­tion un­der a neu­tral gov­ern­ment,” said Ka­mal Hos­sain, who co­or­di­nates an al­liance of op­po­si­tion par­ties that was hop­ing to un­seat Hasina.

Ja­hangir Kabir Nanak, the joint sec­re­tary of the Awami League, said the op­po­si­tion had been “re­jected by the peo­ple of Bangladesh” and that its re­fusal to ac­cept vot­ing re­sults was “not un­usual”.

Hasina’s of­fice told a lo­cal me­dia out­let the In­dian prime min­is­ter, Naren­dra Modi, was the first for­eign leader to call with con­grat­u­la­tions. The Awami League is tra­di­tion­ally more in­clined to­wards In­dia, the re­gion’s ma­jor power, than the BNP.

Bangladesh’s 11th gen­eral elec­tion was the lat­est chap­ter in a his­tory of po­lit­i­cal un­rest for the coun­try that will cel­e­brate the half-cen­tury of its ex­is­tence in two years’ time. The coun­try freed it­self in a bloody lib­er­a­tion war with Pakistan that still res­onates and de­fines its po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

Vi­o­lence is a per­sis­tent fea­ture of its pol­i­tics, and the coun­try has al­ter­nated be­tween frag­ile forms of democ­racy

‘We call upon the elec­tion com­mis­sion to de­clare this far­ci­cal elec­tion void and de­mand a fresh elec­tion’

and sev­eral bouts of mil­i­tary rule. Its first prime min­is­ter, Hasina’s fa­ther Mu­jibur Rah­man, was mur­dered in an army coup in 1975 along with most of the fam­ily while Hasina was out of the coun­try. For more than two decades, she has traded power with Khaleda Zia, the head of the BNP, whose warhero hus­band Zi­aur Rah­man was as­sas­si­nated while serv­ing as prime min­is­ter in 1981.

But Hasina has ce­mented her dom­i­nance in the past decade, us­ing the state tools at her dis­posal to weaken the BNP and its or­gans, clamp down on ju­di­cial and me­dia dis­sent, and mostly check the coun­try’s small but po­tent Is­lamist move­ment.

Zia is cur­rently serv­ing a 12-year prison sen­tence after be­ing con­victed twice last year of cor­rup­tion. Her son, Tarique Rah­man, is in ex­ile in Lon­don after be­ing sen­tenced to life in prison for his part in a plot to as­sas­si­nate Hasina.

The BNP was also ac­cused of per­pe­trat­ing hu­man rights abuses dur­ing its rule but rights group say Hasina’s clam­p­down on dis­sent has been more sys­tem­atic and ef­fec­tive at hob­bling her op­po­nents.

Her dom­i­nance has con­trib­uted to a pe­riod of rel­a­tive po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity that has helped the coun­try’s econ­omy grow at more than 6% each year, thanks largely to the gar­ment in­dus­try that con­trib­utes more than four­fifths of Bangladesh’s ex­ports. For­eign di­rect in­vest­ment has re­mained low, how­ever, due to poor in­fra­struc­ture, cor­rup­tion, pol­icy un­cer­tainty as well as lin­ger­ing con­cerns about the coun­try’s pol­i­tics.

Poverty rates have fallen and the coun­try’s GDP has grown by 150% in the past decade. But some an­a­lysts say the wealth is not spread­ing fast enough and has not trans­lated into more re­silient or trans­par­ent pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, deep­en­ing pop­u­lar dis­quiet.

De­spite the buoy­ant bal­ance sheet, the cap­i­tal, Dhaka, has been shut down twice this year by protests that some an­a­lysts say are ev­i­dence of a wider malaise. “We have the fastest growth of ul­tra-rich in the world,” said Sha­hab Enam Khan, the re­search di­rec­tor at the Bangladesh En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “But that doesn’t mean the lower strata has ben­e­fited.”

Demon­stra­tions in Au­gust were stoked by pop­u­lar out­rage at un­safe driv­ing and a wider cul­ture of im­punity. “Pub­lic se­cu­rity is­sues in terms

of law and or­der, how the law is be­ing en­forced, whether peo­ple have con­fi­dence in the ju­di­ciary, will be de­ter­mi­nate,” Khan said.

Ear­lier Bangladeshi gov­ern­ments have also been ac­cused of tram­pling hu­man rights, but watch­dogs say Hasina’s re­pres­sion has been more ex­ten­sive. Hun­dreds of peo­ple have been dis­ap­peared or de­tained in se­cret pris­ons and nearly 450 have been shot dead by po­lice amid a crack­down on the nar­cotics trade this year, ac­cord­ing to the hu­man rights group Od­hikar.

Bangladesh’s au­thor­i­ties also se­verely re­stricted in­ter­net ser­vices across the coun­try in an ef­fort to fight “pro­pa­ganda” ahead of the elec­tion. In­ter­net ser­vices were slowed across the coun­try with some sus­pended for sev­eral hours last Thurs­day, a Bangladesh Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion (BTRC) of­fi­cial said.

“We asked tele­com op­er­a­tors to halt 3G and 4G ser­vices tem­po­rar­ily … We have done it to pre­vent pro­pa­ganda and mis­lead­ing con­tent spread­ing,” the of­fi­cial told AFP.

The au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism has been ac­cel­er­ated by a uniquely weak pe­riod for the BNP. The party boy­cotted the 2014 polls, which it claimed would be rigged, and so has no pres­ence in par­lia­ment.

De­spite the BNP’s weak­ness, Hasina’s party took no chances, bring­ing an es­ti­mated 300,000 cases against the ma­jor op­po­si­tion party in the run up to the elec­tion and or­der­ing thou­sands of its mem­bers to be ar­rested.

Face­book told As­so­ci­ated Press last week that it had taken down 15 pages that it said were spread­ing pro-Hasina fake news in the run-up to the poll.

When polling day came, mem­bers of op­pos­ing par­ties clashed. At least eight peo­ple died in scuf­fles be­tween party work­ers, and po­lice shot an­other three. A mem­ber of an aux­il­iary se­cu­rity force was also killed by ac­tivists from the BNP, po­lice al­leged.

Bangladesh’s elec­tion com­mis­sion told Reuters it was in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions of vote-rig­ging com­ing from across the coun­try.

Hos­sain said Hasina had changed while in power. “The urge for power can make some­one who’s hu­man into some­thing less than hu­man,” he told the As­so­ci­ated Press in an in­ter­view. MICHAEL SAFI IS THE GUARDIAN’S SOUTH ASIA COR­RE­SPON­DENT

REHMAN ASAD/ BARCROFT IM­AGES

Vot­ers queue out­side a polling sta­tion in Dhaka last Sun­day. At least 17 peo­ple died in elec­tion vi­o­lence across Bangladesh

MONIRUL ALAM/EPA

A mu­ral in Dhaka of Sheikh Hasina and her fa­ther, Mu­jibur Rah­man

INDRANIL MUKHER­JEE/ AFP/GETTY

Ka­mal Hos­sain, who co­or­di­nates op­po­si­tion par­ties who were aim­ing to un­seat Hasina

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