Bangladesh: Elections and Beyond
Asia Briefing N°84
11 Dec 2008
Bangladesh’s 29 December 2008 general election is expected to end a two year military-enforced state of emergency and return the country to democratic governance. While an end to emergency rule and elections do not equal democracy, both are necessary preconditions for the country’s stability. Through peaceful dialogue – an important achievement in its own right – the army-backed caretaker government (CTG) and the country’s main political parties have reached agreements on many issues that could derail the elections. However, there are no guarantees that the election will take place on time, that all the major parties will participate, or that all of them will accept the results. Even a successful election will only be the initial step to developing a more effective democracy in Bangladesh. The immediate goals for all stakeholders – including the international community – should be to ensure that all registered political parties contest and that the elections are credible and free of violence. Beyond the general election the political parties will face the challenges of making parliament work and contending with an army seeking a greater say in politics.
By late 2007 the CTG realised that reforms were easier to advocate than execute. Corruption had worsened despite its anti-graft campaign, and the political parties refused to undertake reforms or go to the polls without their jailed leaders. Faced with a failing reform agenda and declining popular support, the CTG was forced to abandon its “minus two” policy of sidelining the two major political parties’ leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, and negotiate an exit strategy with the parties. Talks overcame many obstacles to elections contested by all the major parties, including the release of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, compulsory political party registration and the timing of the upazila (sub-district) polls. The upazila elections are slated for late January 2009, although their schedule is disputed.
The government has met many of the technical requirements to enhance poll credibility, but it has fallen short on several political conditions. New legislation aims to minimise the influence of ill-gotten wealth and a new electoral roll of over 80 million voters has been widely praised. However, a longstanding state of emergency curtailing fundamental rights, which may be lifted only after campaigning is under way, threatens the credibility of the election.
The political situation is complex and fragile. Bangladesh’s two largest political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are approaching the election from opposite positions. The Awami League, viewed as the frontrunner, is eager to contest the polls promptly and with few preconditions. The BNP is in disarray. The party threatened to boycott if emergency laws barring many of its members from standing in the election were not rescinded. BNP boycott threats have already forced one poll delay, and party leaders maintain a boycott is still an option if the state of emergency is not lifted by 17 December. If the election goes ahead without the BNP, its staunch ally and Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e Islami, believes it could go it alone and run as the default option for Bangladeshis who would otherwise vote for the BNP.
A number of factors could adversely affect the elections and their aftermath. Although the election laws make electoral malpractice more difficult, the Election Commission (EC) has been reluctant to enforce them. Allegations of rigging could spark a party boycott or political violence; the continued emergency could prompt rejection of results. Technical flaws on election day with ballots or the voter roll could cause a delay or require re-polling in some areas. Islamist militants like the Jamaat’ul Mujahideen Bangladesh are still active, even in Dhaka, and pose a threat not only to the election but also to the country’s longer-term security.
Keeping the military in the barracks will require the new government and the opposition to seek accommodation with each other and the army. Dialogue with the CTG has demonstrated to the political parties that they can advance their interests through peaceful negotiations. If civilian rule is to succeed in Bangladesh, cooperation must be placed before confrontation. A return to zero-sum politics by the parties could be an excuse for the army step in yet again. Only Islamist forces stand to gain from another military government.
In terms of next steps:
The caretaker government should completely lift the state of emergency before the elections and refrain from issuing presidential ordinances that restrict the rights and freedoms necessary for credible democratic elections.
The Election Commission should appropriately enforce the election law and the election code of conduct; immediately initiate a public information campaign on voting procedures, in particular clarifying what identification is needed to vote; publish results in a timely and transparent fashion and at all levels of the election administration; and refrain from positioning security personnel in polling stations or in a manner that interferes with the election process.
Election observers should consider the impact of the state of emergency or any emergency provisions issued as presidential ordinances on poll credibility before issuing public statements.
The political parties should abide by the election laws; continue to seek solutions to electoral-related issues through peaceful negotiations with the CTG and other parties; and accept the election results if independent election observers deem the elections free and fair.
The international community should pressure all parties to play by the rules and accept the results, as well as encouraging the new government and parliament to continue institutional reforms. The European Union (EU) should consider Instrument for Stability funding to support such steps.
Dhaka/Brussels, 11 December 2008