Tuesday, January 22, 2019

How safe is the current Awami League government?

Why hold a free and fair election which you risk losing, when you can rig it to ensure certain victory, and get away with it?

This was clearly in the mind of the Awami League in Bangladesh which three weeks ago won 293 of the 300 parliamentary seats in what must be the country’s most rigged national elections as the party won its third consecutive term in power. This weekend, Sheikh Hasina organised a victory rally in Dhaka where she told her supporters, "Please remember, retaining victory is harder than earning it.”

In the fifteen years between 1996 and 2009, Bangladesh’s three national elections, though violent, were relatively fair, resulting each time in a change in government. This had nothing to do with the just disposition of the country’s politicians but because three months before each election a neutral caretaker government took over power and ensured a level playing field.

In 2011, however, through a constitutional amendment, the Awami League government, newly in power, ditched the arrangement (which, ironically back in 1996 it had originally campaigned for), claiming that political governments like its own could now hold free and fair elections. The Awami League’s decision was widely unpopular at the time and the opposition boycotted the 2014 election, fearing voter manipulation - however, as a result the Awami League returned to power uncontested, with the party’s contention that it could hold free and fair elections remaining untested.

However, with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party deciding this time to take part in the December polls as part of a National United Front with a number of smaller parties, we found out the answer.

This was not just ordinary rigging – it was systemic and systematic involving corruption at every level of the state including the election commission, presiding poll officers, the police and the army.

The Awami League had started the rigging weeks before the election with widespread arbitrary arrests of activists from the opposition parties and steps taken to stop their campaigning. The control of the ruling party was so absolute that the capital city of Dhaka looked like it was hosting an Awami League festival as opposition posters, banners and festoons were effectively banned.

In Bangladesh, though, elections are won through the control of polling centres and this is what the Awami League did on the day of the vote using the police, army and ruling party activists. As leaked documents showed, “core Awami League” presiding officers were put in polling centres, and “strict policing” was organised to ensure “slow casting” of votes. This stopped opposition supporters from voting and allowed the wide spread stuffing of ballot boxes (which also reportedly took place the night before the vote).

One might think you can get an indication of the extent of ballot stuffing by comparing the average 80% voting levels found in the 294 constituencies which used paper ballots (where stuffing was possible) with the average 50% voting levels in the six constituencies which used voting machines (where stuffing was not an option.) This suggests that there was on average at least 30 percent of votes which were the result of stuffing (or just made up).

However, one can't in any way depend on the voting machine levels to be accurate - since the Election Commission gave assistant presiding officers an extraordinary power, the ability to use their own finger prints to vote on behalf of 25 percent of voters in their polling station.

The voting levels of opposition candidates in some polling centres were so small - for example in the constituency of Barisal-1 where the opposition candidate received 0 votes in 26 centres, 1 vote in 9 centres and less than 10 votes in 40 centres - that one can only assume that opposition ballots must either have been removed from the boxes, or were simply not counted.

All of this polling booth rigging could only occur because the opposition polling agents were prevented from being present at polling stations during the vote and the count, as is required by electoral law.

In most countries, the government would not get away with this. But the Awami League has been in power now for ten years and in that period has decimated the opposition though arrests, extra-judicial killings and disappearances, put in place partisan Awami Leaguers to run just about every state, law enforcement and judicial institution, and have a hugely restricted the independent media.

As a result, those who would want to protest the rigging do so at great peril. Just about the only independent organization who has risked publishing a report on the election, was immediately threatened with a government investigation.

However, state repression does not fully explain the lack of protests of ordinary people.

Whilst most people in Bangladesh are well aware of the rigging, they have little positive incentive to put themselves in any kind of jeopardy on behalf of the principle opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Whilst the Awami League has a clear political narrative linked to its role in the 1971 war of independence, and the idea of implementing the “spirit of liberation”, the BNP has no winning alternative narrative or policy programme. Moreover, it remains linked to the country’s main islamist political party (the Jamaat-e-Islami), was widely corrupt when it was last in power between 2001 and 2006, and has a history of involvement in violent protests.

Whilst the BNP does of course have its loyal supporters, the main reason why many people vote for the party is due to their dislike of the Awami League – not for anything positive that the BNP could offer. And whilst this might have been enough for it to have won a free and fair election now (though polls, which many disbelieve, suggested otherwise), it is certainly not enough to bring people out on the streets in its support.

The lack of any positive alternative helps explain why the United States and Western countries, which have criticised the elections, are unlikely to take much action against the Awami League government. And with Indian and Chinese support for the new Bangladesh government, Western pressure is far less relevant than it has ever been before.

There is therefore no immediate threat to Sheikh Hasina’s premiership – though the rigged elections does create a certain brittleness to her party’s control in the country.

Hasina’s main claim to legitimacy is a booming economy with between 6 to 7 percent growth, but she will not only have to maintain this in the future but also create millions of jobs for the over two million young people who come onto the job market each year. This will not be easy in an economy with decreasing private investment and an education system where most students finish without employable skills. If the economy does not create tens of thousands of new jobs, it could find itself with serious problems.

The banking sector is also in real jeopardy. Awami League’s business cronies have been allowed to take over private banks and take out huge loans that they will never pay back. Officially over 10 percent of all banking loans in the private and state sector are said to be non-performing, though the actual figure is thought to be closer to 20 percent as corrupt banks allow defaulters to reschedule their loans. It is perhaps a matter of time before one or more of the banks collapses - and this could cause significant public disruption.

So even though it certainly appears that the new Awami League government is unassailable, the government will remain fearful that discontent could trigger wide public protests. That is why we will see the government continuing to take action to dismantle the two main opposition parties the BNP the Jamaat-e-islami and come down heavily on media criticism.

So whilst Bangladesh moves further towards an authoritarianism, which strips away any pretence of independent judicial or state institutions, the Awami League government is under no threat, and the streets are peaceful. However, with anti-Awami League sentiment remaining strong, the lack of any electoral legitimacy does makes it vulnerable in future crises. Yet, the government is likely to remain safe until the opposition to the Awami League can turn itself into a positive alternative which people can believe in and are willing to fight for.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

3 youngsters accused of committing war crimes

Yesterday, Al Jazeera published my story on the recent arrest of a US citizen of Bangladeshi descent for allegedly committing international crimes including murder, rape and arson in the country's independence war even though he was 13 years of age in 1971 (he was born on January 3, 1958) when the offences were said to have been committed. 

You can read the article here

In the prosecutor's application for the arrest of Jubair (and 10 other people) it is stated that he was 62 years of age, suggesting that he would have been 14 - rather than 13 - in 1971. Whilst this was inaccurate - since all other documentation shows that he was born on January 13, 1958 - this may have just been a rounding-up error, since whilst he was 61 at the time of his arrest, he turned 62 two weeks late on January 3, 2019.

However, Jubair is not the only very young person whom the Tribunal allege to have committed offences - including, supposedly, the offence of rape!

In the same application seeking warrants of arrest, the prosecutors name two other men who would also have been (using the information given in the documentation) respectively, 12 and 13 years of age at the time the offences were committed.

The application says:

-  Siddique Rahman is aged 61 - which would have made him 13 in 1971

- Totun Master is aged 60 - which would have made him 12 in 1971

Rahman is now in jail, but Master was not arrested and is in hiding.

The fact that the ICT is now arresting people who were so young is in 1971 is all pretty extraordinary - and yet again raises questions about the integrity of the International Crimes Tribunal. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Egregious rigging in Barisal uncovered

If any more proof were needed of the government's rigging of the election, you can find it if you dig down into the constituency results at a polling station level.

The Daily Star has done this in the district of Barisal - with the most egregious constituency being the constituency of Barisal-1 which had a total of 115 polling centres/stations.

The BNP candidate Jahiruddin Swapan received:

- 0 votes in 26 stations

- 1 vote in 9 station

- less than 10 votes in 40 stations.

The BNP candidate received a total of 1,305 votes

The AL candidate, Abul Hasnat Abdullah, received 211,507 votes. 

In seven polling stations the AL candidate received every single vote - not a single vote from any of the other candidates (there was a third party, the Islami Andolan Bangladesh)

The AL candidate, Hasnat, received 98.7% of the vote.

These two candidates have faced each other before, 17 years earlier.

In the 2001 polls, Swapan (BNP) beat Hasnat (AL) by around 14,000 votes. BNP got 81,791 votes while the AL obtained 67,760 votes.

This must constitute one of the biggest swings from one party to another in the history of 'democratic' elections.

In the 2008 elections, there was also a close contest between the AL and BNP - with different candidates. The AL candidate received 98,245 votes and the BNP secured 70,969 votes.

You will notice how carefully The Daily Star has written this article. 

For example, rather than having a headline which could reasonably read, "Polling station data suggest rigging in Barisal" it reads, "Voting Pattern in Barishal Dist: From well-contested to lopsided". 

This is what is known as media self-censorship

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Government election narrative shredded by US, UK, EU

The UK, EU and USA have all now issued statements concerning the Bangladesh elections which will concern the government as they accept that vote rigging took place and cutt across the government narrative that these were free and fair elections. Each statement calls for the complaints to be examined. 

Opposition politicians and activists may have expected more - some even hoping (highly unrealistically) that the US or the EU would not recognise the new Bangladesh government - but arguably these comments are as critical as these countries could make in relation to a friendly ally, whose assistance they need in the fight against islamic militancy, and support for the Rohingyas. (It is important to appreciate that Governments tend to recognise states, not governments.)

The European Union stated:
The mobilisation of voters and the participation of the opposition in the elections for the first time in 10 years reflect the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to democracy. However, violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the process and have tainted the electoral campaign and the vote.
The relevant national authorities should now ensure a proper examination of allegations of irregularities and commit to full transparency in their resolution.
The European Union expects the country to move forward towards democracy, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. We will continue to support the work in this context, in the interest of the people of Bangladesh. (emphasis added)
The UK government stated:
While I welcome the participation of all opposition parties in these elections, I am aware of credible accounts of obstacles, including arrests, that constrained or prevented campaigning by opposition parties, and of irregularities in the conduct of elections on polling day that prevented some people from voting. I urge a full, credible and transparent resolution of all complaints related to the conduct of the elections.
I deplore the acts of intimidation and unlawful violence that have taken place during the campaign period, and am deeply concerned by the incidents that led to so many deaths on polling day. My thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones.
Free, fair, peaceful, and participatory elections are essential to any functioning democracy. It is vital for the government and all political parties to now work together to address differences and find a way forward in line with the interests of the people of Bangladesh.
We have a broad and important partnership with Bangladesh, and a significant Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK. We will continue to support the people of Bangladesh in their aspirations for a more stable, prosperous, and democratic future. 
(emphasis added)

The US government stated:
The United States commends the tens of millions of Bangladeshis who voted in Bangladesh’s 11th parliamentary election on December 30, 2018, as well as the decision of all major opposition political parties to participate, a positive development after the boycotted election of 2014.
The United States remains deeply invested in the future of Bangladesh and its democratic development. The United States is Bangladesh’s largest foreign investor, largest single-country market for Bangladeshi exports, and home to a large community of Americans of Bangladeshi origin.
In this light, we note with concern credible reports of harassment, intimidation, and violence in the pre-election period that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, and campaign freely. We are also concerned that election-day irregularities prevented some people from voting, which undermined faith in the electoral process.
We strongly encourage all parties to refrain from violence and request the Election Commission work constructively with all sides to address claims of irregularities. Bangladesh’s impressive record of economic development and respect for democracy and human rights are mutually reinforcing, and we look forward to continue working with the ruling government and opposition towards advancing these interrelated goals. 
(emphasis added)
The challenge for the opposition is now to systematically collect detailed evidence to prove that rigging took place on the scale that they allege - constituency by constituency, polling statement by polling station, polling agent by polling agent, at a level of detail and accuracy that will prove its case not only to the Election Commission and the country's judicial authorities (which will no doubt reject it) but more significantly to the international community. 

This is a major piece of work, requiring a lot of man power but something that should be done. The opposition must also ensure that they do not exaggerate their case, and ensure that their allegations are based on clear evidence.

When satire becomes reality in Bangladesh

There is now no satire in Bangladesh. Only reality. Or is that what we thought could only be satire is now reality.

Six months ago, Sheikh Hasina's son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, wrote a couple of outrageous fact-free articles arguing that the police had investigated every single allegation of an enforced disappearances in Bangladesh and found them all not to be genuine! In fact, he argued that all allegations of disappearances were "fictitious attempts by accused criminals to avoid prosecution and accountability." Yes, really. He said that!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Economist and the "Exit Costs" of losing power

The Economist has an uncanny ability of distilling a country's complex politics into 500 words - and yesterday's article on the election is pretty sharp. It states:

"The Awami League, which has has been in power continuously for ten years, flagrantly wielded the full power of state institutions, from police to courts to the Election Commission, to promote its chances. Sheikh Hasina’s party also resorted to virtually every electoral trick in the bag." (For those who cannot access the website, the whole article is set out at the end of this post. )

Election rigging - the international community response?

So far political leaders from China, India and Bhutan have congratulated Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League government for "winning" the election - without any of them mentioning the widespread allegations of election rigging before and after the Sunday poll.

India is Awami League's closest ally, and so its unconditional support for the government after the election is far from suprising. China is not interested in the fairness or otherwise of elections. And Bhutan is too small to matter.

Western liberal democracies have not yet given their views on the Bangladesh election - and what they have to say, in particular the will both be both fascinating and significant.