Opposition parties hit by harassment in lead-up to Bangladesh poll
Opposition candidates say supporters and officials from the ruling Awami League government have attacked them and destroyed their capacity to campaign for the election
The BNP boycotted the previous election in 2014 after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected the opposition’s demand for her to step down and set up a neutral government to oversee the poll. That election was marred by violence and saw a low voter turn-out. And after, the Awami League government’s credibility was questioned internationally.
The opposition has repeatedly complained to the Election Commission about the uneven field. They are finding it almost impossible to conduct any “election-related activities” because of the hindrances created by Awami League activists, government officials and law enforcers allegedly working on the administration’s directives.
Hasina, eyeing a third stint as the nation’s head, has proclaimed that she does not want to come to power by unfair means.
Since the allocation of symbols to contesting parties on December 10, more than 2,241 of the leaders and activists from the main opposition alliance — Jatyio Oikkya Front (National Unity Front) — have been either arrested or detained in different parts of the country, Front leader Dr Kamal Hossain complained to the Election Commission in a written statement.
Even candidates allied with the Front have had to struggle with fresh legal barriers and old cases that they say are “fictitious”. At least 14 candidates contesting with the ‘Sheaf of paddy’ — BNP’s election symbol, with which the Jatyio Oikkya Front is contesting in the ballots — are still in jail.
“There is no precedent of arrest of candidates during campaigning in our history,” said ASM Abdur Rab, president of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, an ally in the Front. “How will the election campaign be carried out if the candidates are detained?” he said during a press conference on December 16.
Grim scenario for the opposition
Leading Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star reported that at least 26 opposition candidates’ motorcades had been attacked up to December 17, with 13 opposition candidates and 875 of their supporters injured, plus two arrested.
The paper said the government had arrested many members of the opposition, including 150 on December 14 alone. In the months leading up to the elections the BNP said that more than 300,000 leaders and activists have been accused in “false and fabricated” cases, with thousands arrested.
“We cannot stay in our homes,” said Sultan Ahmed, a BNP leader from the northeastern district of Habiganj. “Police come to our house and threaten us that if we conduct any election campaigns then they will arrest us,” Ahmed told Asia Times. “In many places, they [police] don’t bother to threaten, they simply detain our activists and leaders and implicate them in false cases.”
“How can we prepare for an election if the law enforcers visit the houses of our activists and leaders and either threaten them or detain them unlawfully so that they can’t be out there on the roads asking for votes?”, asked Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the BNP’s joint secretary-general.
Rizvi said the intention of the ruling Awami League — the BNP’s arch-rival — is to create such a situation in which people will feel reluctant to go to the polling booth on election day because they fear violence. “The worst part is they are using the administration and law enforcers to create that situation.”
Meanwhile, this has left voters wondering if there is an alternative to the governing party. “I don’t see any campaign from the opposition. They are too afraid to come out I think. I have heard of attacks on them in many places,” said Sajib Hossain, a voter from Lalbagh constituency in the capital.
The streets in Lalbagh are plastered with images of a ruling party lawmaker whose supporters have staged noisy parades. The same can’t be said of the opposition camps, which can barely bring out a procession without getting attacked by ruling party activists.
Afroza Abbas is a BNP candidate from a constituency in the capital whose motorcade got attacked four times in just a week. He said: “They [Awami League] claim the people are with them. Then why aren’t they letting everyone campaign freely?”
The national telecom regulator also shut down the BNP website, insisting that it contained “outlawed” material — a claim vehemently rejected by the party’s leaders. A BNP spokesman said that 18 of its online activists have been detained in recent months, including a former air force officer who was arrested on December 20.
Dr Ali Riaz, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University in the US, said he was deeply concerned on whether voters would be able to cast their votes freely.
“A free and fair election requires an environment which enables all candidates to campaign, supporters of all parties to have equal opportunities and voters to have the confidence that they will be able to vote. None seems to be present as of now. Whether a credible and acceptable election can take place in this environment is very much doubtable,” he said.
‘No level playing field’
One of the country’s election commissioners admitted publicly that “there is no level playing field in the election” and that opposition parties are finding it difficult to conduct election campaigns.
“I simply don’t think there is any level playing field. The words ‘level playing field’ have become meaningless,” Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukder aid in reply to reporters’ queries at his office.
His remarks contradict a recent comment by the Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda that a fair playing field was assured for all candidates. When reminded about the CEC’s comment, Talukder told the reporters: “You are journalists … you see everything. Ask your conscience whether the level playing field exists or not. You will get the answer.”
Professor Riaz said it was farcical to call the current situation a level playing field when opposition candidates cannot even campaign, are attacked in front of officials from law-enforcement agencies with impunity and the Election Commission insisting that all is well. “The statements from the CEC seem to give an impression that we are living in a parallel universe,” he said.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said opposition candidates in Bangladesh had complained to the Election Commission about attacks and biased actions by the police, but received no follow-up action including providing adequate security during the campaign.
“These are serious allegations that can undermine the credibility of the elections. The authorities need to take immediate steps to ensure that conditions exist for Bangladeshis to be able to elect the leaders of their choice,” she said.