The Awami League (AL) has finally proven what many outside observers had thought since 2011: a free and fair election is not possible in Bangladesh under its current political structure. The December 30 election appears from the results as well as the mounting evidence of an all-out wave of terror against the opposition, to be the most dishonest election held since the Soviet Union disappeared. Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League won 97.66 percent of the seats in the Bangladesh Parliament last Sunday, by pulling every dirty trick in the election stealer’s handbook.
Opposition candidates were threatened with violence if they campaigned or went to their constituencies; some were arrested on spurious charges; some had spurious cases filed against them in courts; some were disappeared; at least two people were killed. Opposition polling agents, vital cogs, were told not to go to their polling places on the pain of death; almost none braved the threats. Voters were threatened if they went to vote; in the rural areas, women voters were told by Awami League toughs that it was dangerous to vote; those voters that tried were kept out of the polls by threat or by the police; while inside the ballot boxes were being stuffed by AL apparatchiks. An enterprising reporter for the Daily Star wrote a matter-of fact article of the officially reported voting numbers of a random sample of 25 polling places, some of which some of which recorded 100 percent turnout (quite rare anywhere) and in most of which almost all the votes were for the AL candidate. One of my friends reported that every vote in a polling place he knew went to the AL.
It would take this entire article to describe the full extent of this wave of intimidation and violence waged by the AL government, using the forces at its disposal, the police, the Bangladesh version of Fascist Brown shirts (the AL paramilitary Chatra League) to win such an outlandish majority. I am told that there is no one in Bangladesh, even AL supporters, who believe it. And even most AL supporters are likely to view it as overkill (although they would not dare say so). Opinion polls by respectable pollsters showed that the AL would probably win a free and fair election. But public opinion is volatile and polls are unreliable because many Bangladeshis fear giving their political opinions in circumstances in which they might be identified, so clearly Sheikh Hasina concluded that the AL needed to ensure its re-election by unlawful means. Whether the PM meant to go so far and get such a large and clearly rigged majority is unclear. She seems, however, to be basking in the warm spotlight of victory and is very unlikely ever to give in to the increasing calls for a new election.
Since the AL plan to ensure its victory was on view for several weeks before the election, its actions in the last few days and on election day, though intensified, were not a surprise to onlookers. As the saying goes, the AL telegraphed its punches. The only unknown was the attitude of the army, the deployment of which was delayed by about two weeks on the order, I guess, of the election commission. Some of us who remembered fondly the army’s pro-democracy history had placed hope that it would create a safe space for voters and ensure the votes were valid and counted correctly.
On this, those few (myself included) who had hoped for history to repeat itself were profoundly disappointed. Not only did history not repeat itself, it did not even rhyme (a reference to an article I wrote recently in these pages). Obviously, the army has moved beyond its heroic stance of 1990 to throw in its lot with the authoritarian government that was overtly stealing the election, standing placidly around, according to reports, while voters were kept from voting, opposition polling agents were driven away from almost all polling places and the ballot boxes were stuffed, and even overstuffed. Whether an army so tied to an authoritarian regime and so unwilling to carry out simple oversight of an election in its own country should have a prominent place in UN Peacekeeping operations, which often involve elections, will be a question for the UN and its member countries to resolve.
In 2014, the last election, the major opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), boycotted because it contended there could never be a free and fair election after the AL government, elected in 2009, removed from the constitution the celebrated Caretaker Amendment clause which called for an interim government, non-party, neutral government to run elections.
This clause had been operative since 1991 and under it the two parties traded places in government every five years. Neither governed very well, nor seemed very interested in doing so and the voters turned to the other in desperation in every election.
With no opposition, the AL became a one-party government in 2014. Arguments that it was illegitimate and should call another election with a fairer election commission were met with the response that if the BNP had not boycotted it, it would not have won, and the legitimacy issues faded as the economy continued to grow at a good rate, infrastructure improved, social development indicators continued to improve, and the country became slated to move up and out of the LDC bracket.
So polls that it would win last Sunday’s election without cheating seemed to have some basis despite the voters’ traditional volatility. Moreover, the campaign of repression the AL waged against the BNP in the five years since 2014 had weakened its traditional rival to the point that it was a far weaker and unlikely to be able to compete.
It now seems clear that Bangladeshi political parties cannot deal with the prospect of losing an election. I have no doubt that had the BNP been in power, it would have made the same no-holds-barred effort to ensure its re-election. In fact its actions in 2006, when it was in power, prove this point; it went well over the top to ensure electoral victory (which led to a military intervention and two years of military rule).
Thus a political conundrum: Sheikh Hasina’s creeping authoritarianism is, if anything, likely to resume and intensify as she will drive to complete the demolition of the major opposition party, the BNP, and it would not be a surprise to see her move against key members of the center alliance which pulled those parties together with the remnants of the BNP to form the opposition Jatiya Oikiya Front (JOF) under whose banner this broad coalition contested the election against the AL.
How should the loose alliance of democracies respond? First, they should recognize some fundamental truths: first, that free and fair elections are not possible when the institutions that constrain government break down, and the political culture is zero-sum; second, that a government elected by a clearly stolen election should not be recognized as an elected, legitimate government, but as a government which took power by force—in other words it was a civilian coup d’état; and third, governments that seize power by force and call it an election should be treated like those that come to power through a military coup d’état.
I think the general mindset in Bangladesh after this stolen election is best illustrated by a video clip that I understand is circulating widely on social media in Dhaka. It opens in a class room with about 20 students of about 10 or 11 years old. The teacher writes on the blackboard that 2 + 2 = 5, and tells the students that this is the truth. One student protests that they all know that 2 + 2 = 4, and he is punished and metaphorically killed. The teacher returns to the chant that 2 + 2 = 5, and the camera slowly focuses on one student’s notebook in which he is writing and chanting 2 + 2 = 5, but slowly the pencil stops, then crosses out 5 and writes in 4. The video ends there. The message is Orwellian—that the government can declare its own truth as much as it wants, but in the end people will see through that to the real truth. And the real truth is that the election was stolen and the government is illegitimate.