Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bangladesh elections: Where we are now

A week has passed since I wrote 'Where does Bangladesh go from here', and it is time to take stock of where the country is now in holding its elections due to take place by 24 January.

Since 22 November, the following things have happened:
(a) the election commission announced '5 January' as the date for the election day polls with 2 December as the last date for candidates to give the election committee their nominations:
(b) the BNP organised a long three day 'operod' (siege) against this decision, cutting off districts from the capital, and limiting traffic throughout the country;
(c) the siege resulted in a death toll of at least 20, including in particular the setting on fire of a bus in Dhaka;
(d) the election commission has said that it is thinking of calling in the army to help out with law and order sooner rather than later;
(e) two diplomatic visits have been announced - one involving India's foreign secretary to Dhaka on 4 December and another involving UN's assistant secretary general on 6 December

(f) quite a number of BNP leaders were arrested in early November (and they still have not got bail) and a new case has been filed naming 16 BNP and 2 Jamaat leaders for responsibility for the burning of a bus which killed two people and a number of other BNP leaders including Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP's joint secretary general has been arrested, in relation to this.
(g) night the EU issued a statement saying that its participation as observers depends on the 'security and political situation in Bangladesh.
(h) and the United Nations has just released a press release reminding politicians that they face the risk of prosecution before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity (see text at end of this)

So what to make of all this.

1. The Election Commission: The EC should now be central stage, and showing off its independence from the government -  but the announcement of the date of the election on 5 January, in effect at least two weeks before an election needed to be held (24 January 2014 is when the new government should be sworn in, so the election has to take place at least a few days before then), appears to suggest that the date was picked by the government rather than the election commission.

By all accounts, the election commission has an awful lot to do in a small amount of time. Politicians and political observers have been suggesting that a minimum of between 42 to 47 days is necessary  between the announcement of a poll date and the actual day of election in order for the commission to finalise the list of candidates, organise the printing of ballot papers, distribute them throughout the country, etc.  The early date therefore does not seem to suit the election commission, and it is difficult to believe that they would have chosen it when a later date would have been preferable to them.

It is assumed by many that the government chose the date to put as much pressure on the BNP as possible. If so, this does not help the government's argument that there is an independent and strong election commission.

It should be noted that international diplomats see the Election Commission as technically a much better commission than the one that existed in 2006/7 - which, amongst its many problems, was then presiding over an electoral roll with 13 million ghost voters. They also point to the fact that apart from the work they did in organising the 2009 election, since 2010 the UN has been involved in supporting the election commission in undertaking constituency delimitation, training of polls workers etc, and that 'we  are in a very different technical situation for elections now compared to the elections that were to take place in 2006/7'.

The increased professionalism of the secretariat is indeed an important element to add into the equation. However for the BNP, more important than that is the EC's political subordination to the political government  - and the fact that that the EC will be working with a partisan administration - that concerns them, rather than the organisation's technical capacity.

2. The army: One way in which the government/election commission (it is unclear who is really making the decisions right now) could deal with the anti-election violence, is to call in the army in the next few days  to help with peaceful organisation of the election. This could appear to be a sensible move by the Election Commssion.

This however is perhaps a risky decision - at least for the government. On 9 January 2006, the army, on behalf of the election commission, started mobilising around the country with between tens of thousands of troops and within 48 hours, the president had received a visit from the army chief and had signed a state of emergency, and appointed a new caretaker advisor. A 'soft coup' had effectively taken place.

It is now more difficult for this to happen in Bangladesh right now. In January 2007 the president had appointed himself as caretaker adviser, and so only one person's signature was required to sign the proclamation of a state of emergency (necessary to make the process 'legal'). Now both Hasina, as prime minister, and the president would have to sign. Moreover, new provisions within the constitution mean that any action by the government outside of this legal path make army officers open to prosecution for sedition, if not then at least sometime in the future.

Moreover, the army has other reasons not to want to get involved. After two years of the state of emergency in 2007-9, the army is very well the damage done to it reputation with allegations of corruption, and there is, by all reports, a disinclination to get involved in anything similar.

Nonetheless, there is a risk for the government to have tens of thousands of troops mobilised around the country, with the election more than a month to go. Whilst it is said that the top brass of the army is loyal to the government - or at least wiling to work as subordinate to civilian politicians - and the government has done much to remove 'radical' elements from it, lower ranked officers will have diverse political backgrounds and it is reported that many remain particularly angry with the government over the BDR mutiny. So who knows quite what may happen.

Also, the relationship between the army and the administration (which many argue is partisan towards the Awami League) could become difficult and work against the government.

So whilst the army may appear to be a clever solution to the violence of opposition pickets, its mobilization presents a risk to the government.

3. The arrests of the opposition: Some terrible acts of violence have taken place, and after the burning of a bus that caused serious burns to 18 people, with two people so far having died, the government has filed a case against 16 BNP leaders and a number of Jamaat-e-Islami Leaders.

Clearly there are people who were responsible for this who should be brought to book - but it is doubtful that there is any actual evidence implicating the BNP leaders whose named are listed in the case. The leaders may well have moral responsibility for what happened, but it is much more uncertain that they have criminal responsibility - and even if they do -  it is unlikely the government has evidence to be able to file legitimate cases against the BNP leaders. In fact, it is quite possible, considering the way Bangladesh politics operates, that such an incident has nothing to do with the BNP pickets at all, and it was committed by others who had an interest in placing the blame on the BNP. In 2004, when during the BNP period in power, a bus was set on fire killing ten people allegedly by AL pickets, Sheikh Hasina (possibly correctly) blamed the government. Bangladesh politics is a murky world.

Whether or not the BNP leaders had any criminal responsibility for the incident, the speed at which the  case was filed and the BNP politicians were arrested clearly suggest that this is a political (rather than a legitimate criminal) case.

Clearly, arrests of these kinds do weaken the BNP, and perhaps sap the moral of their party supporters - but that strategic advantage (as I have mentioned before) would seem to be far outweighed by the fact that for the government it cuts across its key  discourse - that it is organising a free and fair election and that they want the BNP to participate.

Arresting some of the party's top leaders, and trying to arrest others, does not seem to be a good way to show to the international community that it is seeking compromise (though the BNP is also obviously not giving a good impression either!).

4. The UN: the visit of the UN's assistant secretary general has taken on a particular importance, and this could be the last diplomatic hope to get the two parties to find some amicable solution. It appears that conversations are already taking place, not necessarily between the parties yet, but between the UN and leaders of both parties. Outside mediation has never proved successful in Bangladesh, so in the end it will be up to the two parties themselves to negotiate an agreement  but the UN conversations and visit could kick-start this.

One obstacle right now is the 2nd December as the date at which nominations have to be lodged. Unless the election commission postpones that date, or the BNP agrees to at least put in its list of nominees (which can of course be withdrawn later) it makes it that more difficult to postpone the elections themselves which is likely to be very necessary if any agreement between the two parties is possible.

Post script: The UN has just released a new statement increasing the stakes - in particular on the opposition - by raising the prospect that Bangladesh politicians can face prosecution for crimes against humanity for election time violence. The relevant paragraph is:
The High Commissioner pointed out that Bangladesh is a State Party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

In other situations, we have seen cases of political or election related violence where the perpetrators of such acts - including political leadership - have faced prosecution,” she said.
This is an excellent initiative - and could help deter violence during protests. (I will write more about this UN statement in a separate post)

5. Election Observers: The statement made overnight by the European Union - making it clear that it wants an accommodation between the two parties before it will agree to observe the polls - is to some extent a blow to the government since it wants international observers present to give credibility to an election, even if the BNP does not take part. As such it may result in additional pressure being placed on the government to be more willing to come to an accommodation with the opposition. The key para of the statement reads:
"The EU is ready to consider sending election observers as it did in 2008. However, this depends on the political and security situation in Bangladesh. Ending violence and finding a political solution through dialogue are essential to allow a peaceful, inclusive, transparent and credible election to take place. This can only happen if all sides can agree to move ahead, in the interests of the country's future."


  1. An excellent and fair summary of what's happening. Thanks.

  2. I didn't understand as to how did you arrive at the conclusion that Govt. chose the election date and not the EC! The election as it appears, is likely to take place in an unfriendly environment. There is all the likelihood of a sever post election violence. There may have to be re-polling done in many polling centers in different constituencies due to poll time violence. Considering all these eventualities, the EC has been prudent in keeping about two weeks in hand before the date you think election could be held! You have an access to EC, it would be an example of good journalism if you would ask the EC first about its holding the election so many days ahead of 24th January. Jumping to a conclusion about the election date, I don't think was a good idea.