How safe is the current Awami League government?

January 22, 2019

Originally published at Bangladesh Politico: A blog by David Bergman on Bangladesh politics, law, media and society

Why hold a free and fair election which you risk losing, when you can rig it to ensure certain victory, and get away with it? 

This was clearly in the mind of the Awami League in Bangladesh which three weeks ago won 293 of the 300 parliamentary seats in what must be the country’s most rigged national elections as the party won its third consecutive term in power. This weekend, Sheikh Hasina organised a victory rally in Dhaka where she told her supporters, "Please remember, retaining victory is harder than earning it.”

In the fifteen years between 1996 and 2009, Bangladesh’s three national elections, though violent, were relatively fair, resulting each time in a change in government. This had nothing to do with the just disposition of the country’s politicians but because three months before each election a neutral caretaker government took over power and ensured a level playing field.

In 2011, however, through a constitutional amendment, the Awami League government, newly in power, ditched the arrangement (which, ironically back in 1996 it had originally campaigned for), claiming that political governments like its own could now hold free and fair elections. The Awami League’s decision was widely unpopular at the time and the opposition boycotted the 2014 election, fearing voter manipulation - however, as a result the Awami League returned to power uncontested, with the party’s contention that it could hold free and fair elections remaining untested.

However, with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party deciding this time to take part in the December polls as part of a National United Front with a number of smaller parties, we found out the answer. 

This was not just ordinary rigging – it was systemic and systematic involving corruption at every level of the state including the election commission, presiding poll officers, the police and the army. 

The Awami League had started the rigging weeks before the election with widespread arbitrary arrests of activists from the opposition parties and steps taken to stop their campaigning. The control of the ruling party was so absolute that the capital city of Dhaka looked like it was hosting an Awami League festival as opposition posters, banners and festoons were effectively banned.