The Truth About Bangladesh's Upcoming Elections
Government opponents claim that democracy in Bangladesh is broken. They call the 2014 general elections invalid and say the upcoming elections will be, too. They allege that the disappearance of some opposition leaders was a government conspiracy.
They are wrong. None of these claims are true.
The truth is that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP chose to boycott the last election. It then complained that too few political parties participated, resulting in a sham. This was a cynical ploy.
Blame for the imperfect 2014 election rested entirely with the BNP, not the governing Awami League party. The BNP didn’t put up a single candidate for parliament to add controversy to the elections.
The BNP failed Bangladesh in 2014. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said repeatedly that free and fair elections are the cornerstone of democracy and even asked the BNP to help oversee the elections. But the BNP rejected her concessions and walked away rather than wage a public fight. Instead, several of its leaders chose to firebomb polling places.
Worse, the BNP appears poised to turn its back on the elections again this year. It has again threatened to stir civil unrest and violence.
BNP leaders – along with members of the allied and often belligerent Jamaat-e-Islami – sparked violent protests that suppressed the vote and tore at the soul of our nation in 2014. They and their collaborators set fire to thousands of homes, cars, buildings and businesses. They demolished power stations, murdered 20 law enforcement officers and torched government buildings. On election day, they terrorized their political opponents with Molotov cocktails.
As one man interviewed by Human Rights Watch recalled: “The attackers were our neighbors from the other side of the village. They are all BNP-Jamaat. They asked us not to vote. Between 9 and 11 a.m., they actually blocked the road so no one could go to the polling center. Then at 11 they began the attack.”
Several BNP leaders were charged for their roles in the violence. As a result, the party’s popularity dwindled to all-time lows.
But the BNP never accepted responsibility for its recklessness. When BNP-linked agitators fled prosecution, the BNP alleged that they had been the victims of “enforced disappearances.” Bangladesh police have investigated every instance of a reported disappearance. They have found no evidence of government involvement. What they have found is that some of the "disappeared” went into hiding to evade prosecution for violent crimes.
Take Salahuddin Ahmed, who was reportedly abducted by Bangladesh police in 2015. He was found two months later, hiding in India where the police quickly concluded that he concocted the entire episode in an attempt to evade justice in Bangladesh. Others reappeared quickly. BNP-linked intellectual Farhad Mazhar was found just hours after he was reported missing on a bus travelling from the southwestern city of Khulna to the capital, Dhaka.
The government hopes that the BNP has recognized its mistakes and is willing to fight a war of ideas, not violence in 2018. Bangladesh should expect nothing less from an opposition party.
Some in the BNP assert that they can’t do so because their former leader, Khaleda Zia, is in jail. Some commentators are demanding her release, even threatening to “take to the streets” to disrupt elections if she isn’t freed.
If that happened, Bangladesh would be relinquishing its hard-won adherence to the rule of law. Zia was sentenced to five years in prison in February for stealing for herself more than $250,000 that was intended for the welfare of orphans. Nineteen other charges are pending against her. Five relate to corruption during her tenure as Prime Minister years ago and were filed by an independent Anti-Corruption Commission. Fourteen charges relate to the riots in 2014.
Khaleda Zia’s son and acting BNP Chairman Tarique Rahman also faces charges, including for the embezzlement of $250,000 intended for orphans. In 2016, the Bangladesh High Court found Rahman guilty of money laundering, a case that included the first time a U.S. FBI agent provided evidence in a Bangladeshi court. Rahman has also been charged in relation to a 2004 grenade attack on a political rally that killed 24 and injured 300, including Sheikh Hasina. Like many of the BNP’s leaders, Rahman has fled the country to avoid prosecution.
That absence – indeed, the absence of any one person – is no excuse for an entire party to duck the voters. The BNP refused to participate in the 2014 elections and created the situation that it now decries. That irony might be lost on the international media. But it is not lost on the people of Bangladesh. They know better. They deserve better.
Sajeeb Wazed is the Information & Communications Technology Advisor of Bangladesh and the son of the prime minister.