‘The vote doesn’t count’: Bangladesh’s ‘strange’ elections test ties with the West | Elections News

Dhaka, Bangladesh — Bangladesh will hold its national elections tomorrow amid a boycott by the main opposition party, a crackdown on protesters and intense pressure from Western countries that have warned for months that the vote’s lack of credibility is damaging the country’s democracy. nation.

With the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main political opposition, not running in the elections, Sunday’s result is almost a foregone conclusion, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League is expected to win its fourth term. consecutive.

But that victory could come with a loss: Experts and political analysts say the way the election is conducted could affect the South Asian nation’s diplomatic and economic relations with its Western partners, particularly the United States.

The Biden administration has repeatedly criticized the Bangladesh government for its handling of the election and in September declared visa restrictions on select people accused of subverting the democratic process. Bangladesh’s two previous elections were also similarly tainted: the BNP boycotted the 2014 election and the 2018 vote was marred by allegations of major voter fraud.

A more significant reaction from the United States could hit Bangladesh’s already fragile economy and bring its roiling political unrest – witnessed by large protests in recent months – to a boiling point.

The ruling Awami League has tried to give the elections a competitive veneer by fielding several what they call “dummy candidates” and running full-fledged election campaigns that ended early Friday morning.

Meanwhile, the BNP has declared a 48-hour national strike starting Saturday after running its own campaign urging people not to vote. “Boycott the elections in the public interest, in the interest of civil liberties and in the interest of basic freedoms of the people,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, deputy general secretary of the BNP and one of the few senior leaders who is out of prison, told the media. on Friday.

He also urged the government not to “push the country into danger by forcing fictitious and unilateral elections” and warned that “power cannot be retained by deceiving the people in this way.”

Low voter turnout?

For many ordinary people, this choice no longer makes sense. “The Awami League urges people to vote, knowing that their vote will not matter as they will win anyway,” said Tanvir Siddiqui, a Dhaka businessman. “And the BNP is declaring a hartal (a protest) on election day to stop people from going to the booths! “I have never seen anything stranger than this.”

Asked if he would vote in Sunday’s election, Siddiqui told Al Jazeera: “What’s the point? “Our vote stopped being counted since the 2014 elections.”

Sharmeen Murshid, who heads the reputed election observer group Brotee, said her organization was also confused about what it would do on Sunday. “It’s like the Awami League vs. [Awami League] fictitious candidates. What will we observe and how could we measure whether the elections were free and fair?” she questioned.

Murshid was also skeptical about the likelihood of reasonable voter turnout. “AL has a huge fan base, but I’m not sure many of its own supporters bother to visit polling stations,” he said.

For the Awami League, voter turnout, however, is a major concern. “In fact, this is our only concern now,” said Bahauddin Nasim, deputy general secretary of the party.

Since Bangladesh’s democratic transition from military rule in the early 1990s, the country has witnessed two unilateral elections. In 1996, when the BNP was in power and the Awami League boycotted the elections, the turnout was only 28 per cent.

In 2014, when the roles were reversed (the Awami League was in power and the BNP boycotted), only 39 per cent of voters turned up at the polls. In both cases, the boycotting opposition parties said even those figures were inflated.

Nasim, however, said he was hopeful of a strong turnout, citing the millions of new voters he said would be willing to exercise their democratic right. According to data from the electoral commission, around 15.6 million new voters have been registered since the last elections in 2018. The country’s voting population currently stands at 119.6 million.

“Most of these voters are very excited to cast their first votes,” Nasim said, “and by holding the elections on time, we are giving them this opportunity.” Nasim also said that since the BNP failed to win a significant number of parliamentary seats in the last three elections, they will soon fade from people’s minds.

“In addition, 28 of the 44 registered political parties participate in these elections. There are 1,970 candidates for 300 seats in parliament. They will be participatory elections,” Nasim added.

How will the world react?

Dhaka-based political analyst Zahed Ur Rahman told Al Jazeera that the Awami League’s main goal in this election is to show the world that even without the main political opposition in Bangladesh’s essentially “two-party politics,” turnout could be tall

“This would help them establish the narrative that Bangladesh’s democracy has evolved into a multi-party democracy where the BNP is no longer relevant while the Awami League is,” Rahman said. “But I’m not sure who is buying that. Surely neither the common people nor the entire world. Probably the Awami League itself is not convinced about it,” Rahman added.

Rahman described the elections as an “orchestrated mockery of democracy.” More than the outcome or process of the vote, he said he was concerned about its consequences.

“Yes, the BNP is not participating, but elections do not mean the day of the elections, but the entire period since the declaration of the electoral calendar. We have seen how the Awami League has suppressed the opposition with brute force and through court cases,” Rahman said.

Over the past six weeks, the ruling Awami League has launched what US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called a “violent autocratic crackdown” on the BNP and arrested thousands of its top leaders and activists. More than a dozen also died in police violence.

The United States and European nations should take these recent developments into account to decide whether they want to give legitimacy to a post-election Hasina government, Rahman said, if they “are true to their words of promoting democracy.”

However, Sreeradha Datta, a professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonepat, India, told Al Jazeera that she does not expect any “dramatic reaction” from the United States or other Western countries to a Hasina victory.

India, Bangladesh’s neighbor and South Asia’s biggest power, will almost certainly go to “congratulate Hasina and the Awami League” and their bilateral relationship will return to “normal,” Datta said.

“The United States will point out anomalies in the process, but when all the other important neighbors like China, India and Russia accept the election verdict, there will be very little the United States can do other than the sanctions they have already threatened,” he said.

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