Bans and boycotts: the turbulent history of elections in Bangladesh | Elections News


On Sunday, Bangladesh, a nation of 170 million people, will go to the polls to elect a new government in the country’s 12th general election.

But in a country with a checkered history of violence and protests against dubious polls, the vote is already generating controversy.

Since 1971, when the country split from Pakistan, only four of the 11 elections held in Bangladesh have been considered “free and fair.” The rest have frequently been embroiled in violence, protests and accusations of vote manipulation.

This year, following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s refusal to accept the opposition Bangladesh National Party’s (BNP) demands for a neutral caretaker government to conduct the elections, the BNP has opted to boycott the elections. In the past, caretaker governments have achieved results generally considered credible and usually a victory for the opposition.

There is widespread speculation that this vote, in which Hasina could win a fourth consecutive term and a fifth overall term, will be altered. Again.

The international community has expressed concern about the conduct of the vote. Charles Whiteley, the European Union ambassador to the country, said in a letter to the Bangladesh Election Commission that the bloc would not send a full team of observers because “it is not sufficiently clear whether the necessary conditions will be met.”

The country also deployed the military on Wednesday to monitor the elections amid fears of violence.

Here is a summary history of Bangladesh’s controversial elections.

Bangladesh Army personnel have been deployed across the country to ensure security ahead of the upcoming general elections on January 7. [Rehman Asad/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

1973 – Awami League wins after separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan

After overseeing Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan, the ruling Awami League, led by independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, held the country’s first elections on March 7, 1973.

But despite being favored to win, the Awami League orchestrated the kidnapping of opposition leaders and, in some constituencies, stuffed voting papers. The party then won 293 of parliament’s 300 seats in a landslide victory that nearly eliminated other political parties in the chamber, including Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal and Bashani, which won one parliamentary seat each. Those polls marked the beginning of autocratic rule in the new country. In 1974, Rahman continued to ban all opposition parties, as well as most members of the press, from parliament, essentially turning Bangladesh into a one-party state.

1979-1980 – Single party, military government and false elections

Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975 and the Bangladesh army took power for the next decade and a half. The presidential and parliamentary elections between 1978 and 1979 were held under the leadership of former army chief Ziaur Rahman, who is credited with establishing a multi-party system and rescuing the troubled state institutions of Mujibur Rahman’s government. His newly founded Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won an overwhelming majority. The Awami League, now the main opposition party, claimed the vote had been rigged.

In 1981, after the assassination of Ziaur Rahman, his deputy, Abdus Sattar, held general elections on November 15. The BNP won again with 65 percent of the vote.

Hussain Muhammad Ershad, head of the army, seized power in a coup in 1982. In the parliamentary elections of May 7, 1986, and the presidential elections of October 15, 1986, his Jatiya party won an overwhelming majority amidst opposition boycotts. The elections were poorly attended and the Ershad government was reported to have increased the numbers. It was widely seen as a farce.

In 1988, another widely discredited vote was held amid intense protests calling for Ershad’s ouster. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina (Mujibur Rahman’s daughter), and the BNP, under Khaleda Zia (Ziaur Rahman’s widow) joined hands to lead the protests, resulting in the 1990 popular uprising that forced Ershad to resign. .

1991 Bangladesh election
BNP’s Khaleda Zia speaks at a campaign rally on February 26, 1991 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The next day the first parliamentary elections would be held, after 10 years of martial law. [Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison]

1991 – Interim and acting government

All major parties participated in the February 27, 1991 elections under a caretaker government headed by Shahabuddin Ahmed, Chief Justice and future president. The elections were considered neutral and gave a narrow victory to Zia’s BNP, which surpassed the Awami League by 250,000 votes. The BNP got 140 seats in parliament, while the Awami League got 88 seats.

1996 – BNP administration lasts 12 days before Sheikh Hasina wins

However, another controversial election followed. On February 15, 1996, opposition parties boycotted the planned general election and only 21 percent of registered voters turned out. Tensions between the Awami League and the ruling BNP had calmed down by 1994, when parliamentary by-elections were held. The opposition claimed that the vote was rigged and began pushing for Zia to resign and move to a caretaker government, as had happened in 1991. That did not happen, so in February 1996, the BNP won the election unopposed.

The administration only lasted 12 days, after strikes by opposition parliamentarians. On June 12, 1996, new elections were held, this time under an interim government. He garnered a large voter turnout (just under 75 percent) and was considered neutral. Sheikh Hasina won his first term with the Awami League. The party won 146 seats in parliament, just ahead of the BNP, which won 116 seats.

2001 elections – Feeding changes to BNP

The 2001 elections were held in October without much drama, once again under an interim government. The previous parliament (the seventh in the country’s history) was the first to complete its five-year term and was dissolved in July.

Some 1,935 candidates, including members of 54 parties and 484 independents, ran for 300 seats, with 30 more seats reserved for women.

Voter turnout was high (75 percent) and the BNP won 193 seats with nearly 40 percent of the national vote. While the Awami League also won more than 40 percent of the national vote, it only secured 62 seats under Bangladesh’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP, was invited to form the government. While the elections themselves passed without incident (international observers declared them “free and fair”), there was some violence against the Hindu minority afterwards.

Electoral violence in Bangladesh 2007
Protesters throw bricks at riot police in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday, January 8, 2007, the third day of a nationwide transport blockade designed to force the government to cancel its upcoming national elections. [David Greedy/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Political crisis of 2006-2008

Elections that should have taken place in 2006 were never held because the outgoing BNP and the main opposition, the Awami League, failed to agree on a candidate to head the necessary interim government.

At the end of October, the country’s president, Iajuddin Ahmed, declared himself leader of the caretaker government and announced that elections would be held in January 2007.

A bitter dispute over the inclusion of fake names on the candidate list led to unrest and violence in the country: thousands of protesters blocked the country’s transportation system and the country fell into a political crisis that lasted until 2008.

The military intervened when Ahmed declared a national emergency and the Awami League withdrew from the elections in protest.

2008 elections: highest turnout in history

Elections were finally held on December 29, 2008, with a turnout of 80 percent, the highest ever seen in the country. This time the Awami League formed a coalition – the Grand Alliance – with other opposition parties and was led by Sheikh Hasina. Khaleda Zia returned to lead the BNP.

The Awami alliance won in a landslide, taking 230 seats and 48 percent of the popular vote. The BNP and its allies, who had also formed a coalition, won only 30 seats with 32.5 percent of the vote.

The military-led interim government formally handed over power in January 2009.

2013 Bangladesh election
Bangladesh police take action against activists as they march on December 27, 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. People were injured days earlier when police opened fire on a protest against the general election. [Mobarak Hossain /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

2014 elections and repression of the opposition

Following the political crisis of 2006-2008, the Awami League decided to abolish the requirement for a caretaker government to oversee the elections in 2011. Hasina, the prime minister, was highly critical of the previous military-led caretaker government, which had delayed the elections. for two years and that, he noted, he was not elected.

A parliamentary vote on the amendment to remove the interim provision was approved by 291 to one after it was boycotted by the main opposition party, the BNP.

An offensive against the opposition followed. Before the elections which were held on 5 January 2014, BNP leader Zia was placed under house arrest and there were widespread reports of violence towards other members of the opposition. Opposition parties, including the BNP, boycotted the vote and Hasina’s Awami League won in a landslide, winning 234 seats in parliament.

2018 Bangladesh election
Bangladeshi voters wait outside a polling station in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on December 30, 2018. [Mamunur Rashid/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

2018 – Ruling Awami League obtains supermajority

In 2018, electronic voting was introduced in Bangladesh. But the BNP and other opposition parties accused the ruling Awami League of rigging the December 30, 2018 general election. Reports of violence against opposition BNP members and supporters, as well as voter suppression, marred the polls. again. The government also shut down mobile internet access in the run-up to election day, saying it wanted to stop the spread of fake news about the election.

Hasina’s Awami League, after merging with the Jatiya Party to form the Grand Alliance, again won in a landslide. The Grand Alliance won more than 90 percent of the seats in parliament. Kamal Hossain, who led the Jatiya Oikya Front-BNP alliance after Zia was banned over corruption convictions, won only seven seats. Hossain criticized the elections and called for them to be held again, without success.

2024 – BNP boycotts once again

As Hasina’s ruling party continues to ignore her demands for a caretaker government, the BNP is again boycotting Sunday’s elections. The party has led strikes and mass demonstrations to assert its demand, but without success.

The ruling Awami League is generally seen as already having the electoral system largely under its influence, and these elections are expected to be a repeat of recent polls. Prime Minister Hasina is likely to win a majority for her fifth term, which would make her government the longest-running government in Bangladesh’s history.

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