Monday, December 30, 2013

Countdown to Bangladesh upcoming 'elections', 3

This page contains a rolling blog containing news, commentary, and analysis as Bangladesh's 'election' day, due to take place on 5 January 2014, approaches.

This page relates to Monday 30 December 2013 to 4 January 2014
To see page dealing with the later period of 5 to 7 January, go here To see page dealing with the earlier period of 23-29 December, go here
To see page dealing with the earlier period of 18-22 December, go here.


7.25 pm: Human Rights Watch statement
Human Rights Watch has issued a statement on the current political situation in Bangladesh. It does not get into the rights and wrongs of the current election, but assesses the human rights situation.

When there are so many different kinds of human rights violations taking place on the part of state bodies and political opponents, it is difficult for human rights oragnisation (and indeed journalists!) to get the balance right. HRW does its best to do so, however:
“For an election to be free and fair, voters need to be able to vote in an atmosphere of free expression and free association,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director. “The actions of Bangladeshi political leaders – whether the government crackdown on the opposition or the opposition complicity in poll violence – deprive the country’s voters of any true choice.”

and continues
“There is little doubt that some opposition supporters have been involved in serious acts of violence, but these mass arrests appear to be simply an attempt to stifle dissent,” Adams said. “The Bangladesh police should prosecute cases where there is compelling evidence, not arbitrarily arrest anyone suspected to be an opposition supporter.”
It goes onto set out some allegations of disappearance
There are also allegations that two leaders of the BNP in Comilla district, in eastern Bangladesh, have disappeared after being arrested by the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Relatives of former BNP parliamentarian, Saiful Islam Hiru, told Human Rights Watch that he was picked up along with two other men on November 27. One of them was later handed over to the police, and has since told Hiru’s family that he witnessed RAB forces detain Hiru and Humayun Kabir, the chairman of a local BNP committee. RAB denies the arrest. 
Leaders of other opposition parties, including the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islaami party, have also reportedly been arrested arbitrarily.“Prosecuting opposition leaders or holding them incommunicado days before a poll are an affront to the idea of fair elections,” said Adams. “Authorities should conduct any criminal cases against opposition figures in a transparent manner, ensuring that defendants’ due process rights are upheld.” 
5.45 pm: Free and fair elections?
The prime minister's son has made a big pitch about these elections being 'free and fair' - even if they may not be 'credible'.

In a face-book posting, where he criticises the EU for not sending election observers, accusing it of taking sides, he said:
Notice that they have not said elections will not be free and fair. They cannot say that because all 6000 elections held under Sheikh Hasina’s Government have been free and fair. They cannot say that as there are not 14 million false names on the voters list, as there were under Khaleda Zia’s Government.
And a few days later in an article he said:
Yes, these elections are not ideal but that is a topic in itself. The people will still get a free and fair election. -
And in today in another article he stated:
'... no unbiased observer has been able to claim these elections will not be free and fair ...'
So is he right? Well Sajeeb seems to get his cue from the EU failing to mentions that the elections would not be free and fair and only staring that they were not be 'transparent, inclusive or credible. 

What the EU said this year when it decided this year not to observe the elections is below:
"The High Representative regrets that the main political forces in Bangladesh have been unable to create the necessary conditions for transparent, inclusive and credible elections, despite many efforts, including most recently under UN auspices.
So yes he right. No mention of the elections not being free and fair

However the EU in 2007 also did not mention the elections not being free and fair when it also did not take place in the election. Moreover, it did not even mention them not being 'credible'.
Major efforts have been undertaken by the EU and other international partners calling on all parties and stakeholders to work urgently and co-operatively towards an election process which meets the rights and expectations of the people of Bangladesh and which satisfies international democratic standards. Unfortunately these have not been successful to date. In view of this and also because of the decision of major parties to withdraw from participating in the 22 January elections, and after extensive discussions with EU partners and with the Chief Observer, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, MEP, it has become clear we cannot pursue the EOM as we had hoped. Agreement on the conditions for the elections by the election stakeholders is a prerequisite for credible and meaningful elections and these do not currently exist.
So Sajeeb cant really use the EU's failure to mention that the election in 2013 were not going to 'free and fair' to argue that these ones are - since in 2007, the EU also did not mention that the elections were not going to be 'free and fair'.

However, does he have a wider point that in 2007, there was more of an argument that the elections were not going to be free and fair, compared to 2013. It is certainly true that there was in 2007 a great deal of concern about millions of 'ghost voters', and there was a need for a new electoral voter list. However, whilst there was obvious suspicion that the BNP could manipulate these ghost voters to their advantage, there was no evidence that it was going to do so, and as far as I understand - and please correct me if I am wrong - the ghost voters were the result of internal migration, rather than any known deliberate manipulations on the part of BNP. The lack of willingness on the part of the election commission to deal with the problematic voter list, however, did increase suspicions.

Now, if we come to 2013, the argument that these elections were not going to be free and fair involved concerns about the government's control of the administration and the election commission. The government's argument was the the Election Commission was strong and independent and would not bow down to the government's wishes.  I have written earlier about how in fact this arguments has rather fallen apart - it has not made transfers within the administration, and has been involved in decisions and conduct, which clearly were done at the behest of the government.

So, I don't really seem much difference between the two years 2007 and 2013.  

Now in 2013, there will be some kind of elections that will take place (in 2007, the elections were cancelled). These only relate to 147 constituencies, and in most cases the elections are non-competitive. Is is possible for Sajeeb to talk about 'free and fair' elections when half the country has no right to vote?

In any case, if we are looking at the issue of 'fairness' the need by the governing party to manipulate the results is now much reduced. 

The interesting issue though will be voter turnout (see immediately below for additional discussion of this). The government here does have an interest in giving an impression of a high turnout - and there has of course been some evidence that some MPs are telling supporters what tricks should be played to allow the government to make that assertion. There will be very few observers monitoring the election this year - only three so far have registered with the EC (compared to over 500 in 2008). And the US have stopped the parallel voting tabulation monitoring system that Democracy International was going to operate in thousands of polling stations - that would have helped in assessing the real voter turnout. So the government, if it so wished, has some opportunity to manipulate the turnout figures. Whether it does so, we will have to see of course.

However, whatever one's view of what the government has done and may or many not do, it does look like the elections are not going to be free and fair for another reason - though not to do with the government's conduct. The violence of the BNP will certainly mean that the elections will not be free in some parts of the country since people who would like to vote tomorrow will be intimidated into not doing so.

2.30 pm: What to think about voter turn-out
In a previous entry, a few days ago I argued that after the EU and the USA had made its decision not to send election monitors, the importance of voter turnout will be limited. Well, maybe I need to formulate that observation - looking at today's media, and with the opposition now desperate to minimise the turnout and the government to increase it.

The kernel of what I stated earlier though remains true. Had election monitors attended the election, one of the key issues that they would have considered in determining the election's credibility would have been the turnout. Now, however, the lack of credibility of the election is not in doubt - so the significance of voter turnout has certainly reduced. Nonetheless, turnout does continue to have some significance, at least in terms of post election narrative. In 1996, another of these one sided elections, the turnout was 26 percent for the whole country. The BNP would like it to be less than that, the AL would like it to be more.

However, the issue of turnout seems to me now to be a pretty irrelevant factor - though for rather different reasons than the ones you might expect me to say.

Our view of turnout now needs to take into account opposition violence and intimidation. This will not be an election in which many voters can choose whether or not to vote; many voters will not vote simply because their polling station has been burnt down or for fear of violence and intimidation. I have not heard any opposition leader decry this violence in the last 24 hours.

In Dhaka Tribune's poll yesterday, there was a suggestion that as many as 40 percent of people would be willing to vote even in this election - half of the percentage that voted in the 2008 elections. Assuming that their is a correct figure, many of this '40 percent' will not vote simply because of opposition violence.

The BNP has done the government a huge favor. Without violence, there would anyway have been a low turnout in the election in the 147 constituencies where an election is actually taking place. However, now the AL can argue that any low turnout is simply to do with violence on the part of the opposition - and in part they will be absolutely right. And what exactly will be the opposition's response to that?

1.10 pm: Indian media begin to question its government position on Bangladesh
This must be difficult times for Indian government foreign policy officials trying to carve out a coherent Bangladesh foreign policy. Its support for the Awami League government strategy in holding the current elections looks like it is coming unstuck - and the Indian media is starting to reflect this.

The Hindustan times states 'An election marred by a boycott undoes much of what has been gained as far as Bangladesh’s political maturity is concerned and is no gain for India’s long-term strategic interests.'

And the Hindu states Post-election, Bangladesh appears headed for more volatility, and New Delhi’s relations with a government that comes to power through a problematic process will only get more complicated.

See New Age's good summary of recent articles in the Indian media

12.50 pm: A call for aggressive US diplomacy
The Bangladesh government should really be concerned about the perception of the country in the foreign media. It is almost wholly very negative - particularly in the most influential of media. Hot on the heals of Bangladesh being designated by Foreign Policy magazine as amongst its top ‘conflicts to watch’ in 2014 (joining Syria, Iraq, Libya and Sudan) it has just published an excruciating critical analysis by two people linked to the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies - which ends with a call for aggressive US diplomacy

Its title says it all: 'Return of the Basket Case' with a subtitle 'On the eve of a fundamentally flawed election, Bangladesh teeters on the edge of the precipice.' Its worth reading in full, but it's summary is here:
This is a slow-motion train wreck that everyone can see coming. The democratic process is about to take a major hit in one of the world's largest Muslim-majority countries, where poverty remains endemic and radical Islamists lurk in the wings to exploit any opportunities that may arise. A fuse has been lit -- and if it's allowed to go off it will almost certainly result in an explosion of ever-worsening protests, violence, and instability.
It goes onto call for agressive US diplomacy:
Time is running dangerously short. But aggressive diplomacy, led by Washington, still stands a chance of avoiding the worst-case outcome and helping Bangladesh's citizens salvage the legitimacy of a democratic process that they've struggled hard to achieve. Though success is by no means guaranteed, the alternative to trying appears grim, indeed. If ever there was a time to exhaust the capacity for preventive diplomacy, this is it. With so much of the rest of the Islamic world descending into turmoil, now is not the time to stand on the sidelines as one of the world's largest Muslim countries slips inexorably into chaos. -
Its a call is likely to fall on deaf ears - not because the US government officials necessarily disagree with much of the analysis set out in the article, but Bangladesh is an example of the limits of diplomacy. There is simply not that much that the US government can do that will result in the Bangladesh government changing its course. Observers in Bangladesh will in fact have noticed in the last six months super active diplomacy on the part not just of the US, but also the European Union, with seemingly negligible impact. Bangladesh is now strong enough - particularly with the Indian government's support - to stand up to the worlds super-powers and super-blocs. For good or for bad.

12.15 pm: The elections and war crimes trials
One of the government's principal justifications for seeking support for its maintenance in power is the war crimes tribunals. And this argument has its cheer leaders. Of course there is prime minister's son himself, who stated recently Had Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stepped down as BNP demanded, Quader Molla would not have been hanged.’ The opposition, Sajeeb says, is not concerned about ensuring a free and fair elections but only ‘about saving the war criminals.’

Then the Daily Star, and other papers have well, have in recent days published a whole series of articles, praising the tribunal.  Professor Rafiqul Islam, a professor of law at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia has argued that those convicted by the tribunal was ‘overwhelming’. Convener of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh has stated in an article in the same newspaper that the tribunal ‘uphold all possible rights of the accused’. And the founder and executive director of the South Asia Democratic Forum, in another article in the Daily Star has argued that the tribunal, ‘compares favourably with other tribunals being conducted around the world’.

And on Friday, a new poll was published suggesting that around three quarters of the adult population of Bangladesh were 'satisfied' with the tribunal - which if true suggests a big turn around from polls of only a few months ago which gave an impression that people were concerned about the proceedings.

So many of the people who write about the tribunal in Bangladesh know almost nothing about it - or if they do seriously misrepresent the nature of proceedings. They write about a set of proceedings which they might imagine, or indeed hope, is taking place. They are ideological pieces, rather than opinion based on fact. For all the good intentions and high principle of holding trials relating to 1971 (which I support), Bangladesh should not be proud of the judicial processes that resulted in Molla's execution.

For a dose of reality, here is an analysis I have just written on the appellate division judgment - the judgement was published a month ago - that resulted ten days later in his hanging. I end the article by stating:
So, we have a situation where Molla was put to death on the basis of a witness who claimed in court that the accused was present, but who had in the last 42 years, as far as we know, never made such an earlier claim, and who had also previously given two statements both of which did not mention that Molla was present at the crime scene and one of which stated that she was not even present at the time of the incident – and the appellate division not allowing these statements to be taken into account by a court. 
And then we have a tribunal which precluded Molla from calling witnesses to present his defence and an appellate division apparently accepting this restriction, along with the reasons given for the restriction which cuts across the basic principle of defence lawyering. 
Supporters of the tribunal point to the legal rights given to the accused including that of having a lawyer to defend themselves, with all the rights of cross examination of prosecution witnesses. 
However, these rights mean nothing in practice if the accused is not allowed to bring witnesses to the court defend himself, he has no right to cross examine a witness on previous statements which go to the heart of a witnesses’s credibility, and, of course, if the court has no right to take previous contradictory statements of witnesses into account in its assessment of the evidence.
I encourage people to read this article. And there will be more analysis coming in future weeks of the appellate division's decision


11.25 pm: BNP's weakness, AL's opportunity
Booming editorials are certainly satisfying to read and write, but the future of Bangladesh is not going to turn on them. The government may have lost the sympathy of the country's intelligentsia, but the prime minster knows that this means very little. The law enforcement agencies are behind her, and seem willing to do just about anything, or when necessary, nothing, in the interests of the Awami League. And the party's control of the civil service - the lack of which was so crucial to the fall of BNP in 1996 - remains intact; and the army appear unmoved.

Moreover, everything that was said about the inherent weakness of the opposition party has turned out to be true. The BNP doesn't have the capacity to organise a popular movement against the government, able and willing to face the violence of the law enforcement agencies.

In the last months, the party has depended on brute force, and often sporadic violence aimed directly on members of the public, to bring the country to a halt. The failed 29 December BNP 'rally for democracy' was due to a number of factors - including no doubt the hundreds of arrests of party activists, and the government's blockade of Dhaka. However the failure of a single protestor to rally outside the party offices in Dhaka was the message that the government wanted people to see. The BNP was not going to be the vehicle for the downfall of the government. They were losers.

And with that message clear to all, in subsequent days in Dhaka at least, the BNP's ability to maintain some sort of 'seige' of the city, limiting the traffic movement, fell apart when traffic returned back to normal, the first time in weeks.

This does not mean that there are not very many, and perhaps even a clear majority of people who would support the BNP if there were free and fair election - though if the recent opinion poll in the Dhaka tribune is to be believed, the party would no longer be the overwhelming favorites. But what it does mean is that in a fight against an increasingly autocratic government, the BNP's supporters will do little more for the party than put a cross on a ballot paper when that time comes. They will certainly not be manning the barricades.

This is all good news for the government. If, after the 5 January 'elections', the government can bring the country back to normal, easing business concerns, it is difficult to see how the government can be forced from whatever path it may wish to tread. The government says now that it accepts a need for another election, but it is difficult to see how the government will actually hold another poll, and - in any case - on what basis a compromise can be made between the two parties.

The only other part of the jigsaw is the international community. It is perfectly clear that this government is willing to face international moral pressure down; whether there is a different kind of pressure that the outside world can, and is willing to, exert on it remains to be seen. Perhaps the biggest lever available is in the hands of the European Union, with the possibility of removal of the GSP privileges for the RMG sector - however whether there will be sufficient unanimity amongst the EU countries to allow this to happen when the immediate harm will be on workers, is far from clear

Right now, the situation in Bangladesh at present looks like it will be the new normal for quite some time to come. A government with limited legitimacy, exerting more of its power through force, with a significant restriction on civil liberties in particular towards the opposition parties and a pretty passive population unwilling to take it on. And, of course, all justified as part of its reassertion of 1971 liberation war values.

8.15 pm: Today's key articles
There is some great English language articles in today's papers. I have to give today's prize to a tongue and cheek oped in the New Age involving a letter written to a Budding Autocrat, a wonderful must read.
AS OUR country is burning and we seem to be gradually heading towards a one-sided election, I write this letter to you to draw your kind attention. Don’t listen to all those liberal democratic elements (both national and foreign) exasperated at the possibility of an election without the main opposition. As history suggests, we, the people of Bangladesh, prefer to be ruled with an iron fist. The notion of democracy is merely an impediment to harnessing our creative core and overall development. Your idea of democracy is what suits us best because the suspension of the common man’s right can eventually lead to him being a true patriot and a believer in nationalism. 
Your strategy to introduce the 15th amendment and then going on to make the best use of it was a touch of pure genius. It shows that you have the acumen and conviction to lead us with efficiency and utter disregard to what we think. This is what we crave as citizens and long for. The main opposition does not deserve to be on the streets simply because it might accidentally lead to continuation of democracy and provide the people with a viable choice, which is the last thing we need at this juncture of our political growth. Hence, I vehemently support your strategy to marginalise the opposition grassroots and lock up their leaders before they actually get to know what really hit them. They deserve to be locked up even if they are seen in public and harassed till the point they realise politics is meant for a single party in this country, that very party, which is the sole agent of the spirit of 1971, while the rest are all non-believers. Your party is our only ray of hope. 
And here is my favorite para - as it conceals an interesting truth about how in Bangladesh violence by islamists seems to be treated differently from violence by 'secular' forces
While Jamaat and Shibir are unleashing a series of terror attacks on general citizens, it must be made clear that the people of this country prefer to be terrorised by the Chhatra League rather than some misguided Islamists who have lost their right to be in politics. .... 
It then ends with
I would like to end my letter by saying how much we expect from you our exalted leader. We expect you to continue ignoring us, excluding us and finally rule us with absolute power. Feel free to exert force on us when required and lastly free us from this curse of voting. In short, rule us and free us as the country only belongs to you.
Daily Star's editor again does not dissapoint with his oped on Khaleda Zia's confinement - which starts with a great opening para:
OF the three principal political figures in the country--Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia and H.M. Ershad -- one is fully involved in election campaigning while the two others are in forced and -- in the absence of any lawful reason given by the government -- illegal confinement. This is happening with elections just two days away.
He then criticizes Khaleda Zia in stark terms about her failure to articulate a proper vision of Bangladesh ...  but then goes on:
However, having said all the above, as a journalist, I must admit that she is one of the two principal political leaders of the country, head of the second biggest political party of Bangladesh, has huge public following, is a former prime minister and, since the 9th Parliament has not yet been dissolved, is at present is the “Leader of the Opposition” with the rank and status of a minister. 
So why is she confined? Why hundreds of police are guarding her house? Why several trucks filled with sand -- trucks that have appeared mysteriously and are being replaced in regular intervals and the drivers being fed -- have been put up to obstruct her movement? Why some BNP leaders who have gone to see her were either arrested or picked up, detained in police custody and later released? Why was she prevented from attending a family function? Why is she denied free access to her party leaders? Why can't anybody go and meet her without fearing arrest, interrogation or intimidation. 
The more despicable thing is that while the government has detained her it does not have the moral courage to admit it. Ministers, in Goebellian style, are repeating the claim that she is free to go anywhere she wants hoping that their repetition we will somehow make us forget what we repeatedly see on the local TV. One minister even said she can go out for peaceful reasons but 'we cannot be allow her to go out to create chaos”. How does the minister know what purpose Khaleda Zia is going out for? And who has given him, or his government, the right to keep a citizen confined? Under the law the government can arrest her but in that case she must be allowed all her rights including the benefit of a lawyer and of bail. Only a government bent upon abusing the law can confine a free citizen without giving any reason, and then denying that she is even confined. 
So far a total of 4 standing committee members, 2 vice chairmen, 2 advisors to the party chief, 2 joint secretaries-general, 3 members of parliament and 22 executive committee members of the BNP have been put behind bars. Many of them have been taken on remand, some charged with murder, some with arson and others with all sorts of other crimes. 
Take the case of H.M. Ershad and his Jatiya Party. Again I have no reason to be upholding his cause but for the underlying issues involved much of which deals with the legality of government actions. His party was part of the government for the last five years. As long as he was agreeable to participating in the elections everything proceeded smoothly. There were also talks of seat sharing, with JP demanding a 100 and the ruling AL agreeing first to 70 and settling at 60. Later when Sheikh Hasina formed her so-called all party poll time government she gave 6 ministerial and one advisor's post to Ershad. Such was the closeness of the relationship.
However the moment he declared his intention not to participate, and withstood pressure including from a number of his own party leaders to reverse his decision, he was forcibly taken to the Combined Military Hospital by intelligence officials and prevented from running his party. While keeping him confined at the CMH, the ruling party applied all sorts of dirty tricks to create dissenting within his party which ultimately resulted in faction of JP contesting the elections.
Again one needs to turn to Dhaka Tribune's editor for a concise take on Bangladesh's political parties, appropriately called, Pick your Poison
The sad truth is that the actions of the AL and the BNP, not just this past month, but for as long as I have been following politics, betray a deep contempt for the voting public. The parties consistently insult the intelligence of the people and take them for fools, because, at the only level the parties understand and respect, that of power, that is what we are. 
Thus, the AL tells us that if we don’t vote for them, the terrorists win. It doesn’t matter how poorly we rate their performance, if we want the war crimes trials to continue, we must vote for them. To do otherwise is to give the enemies of liberation free rein to run riot and wreak vengeance on us all. 
The BNP tells us that if we don’t vote for them, the fascists win. It doesn’t matter how poorly they performed last time in office or their crimes in opposition, we have no choice but to vote for them. To do otherwise would be to end up in a one-party state where no kind of independent thinking or dissent or deviation from party orthodoxy will be tolerated. 
Both parties figure that we have nowhere else to go. They don’t need to offer much in the way of performance or policy other than the claim that the other side is worse, and so they don’t even try. It is this knowledge that the voters have nowhere else to turn that underpins the arrogance and contempt of the parties toward the public and public opinion
Then then is today's Banyan blog in the Economist, with its sly take on Bangladesh which provides a good factual summary of the situation and relevant analysis. Again a key passage focusing on the helper skelter of the Bangladesh parties:
A few months back the BNP had the moral high ground. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) had overreached in claiming for itself the privilege of overseeing the polls. In 2011 the AL had junked a constitutional mechanism that was intended to rescue the country’s frail democracy from its viciously confrontational two-party politics: an unelected caretaker administration to oversee elections. The caretaker-arrangement had been in place since 1996, after the BNP won 300 of 300 seats, in an election that the AL boycotted. Circumventing the caretaker system for the 2014 vote looks plainly self-serving on the part of the AL. A recent opinion poll shows nearly four out of five Bangladeshis think it a bad idea. 
But now the BNP is in disarray and has no better option than to wait out Sheikh Hasina and the AL, hoping that they bring about their own downfall. In the past few months the BNP stepped up its series of crippling strikes, making one-day work weeks the norm. Its thugs, along with hooligans from the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s biggest Islamic party, started killing civilians. This helped the nominally secular AL government make the argument that only it can save Bangladesh. A new manifesto, read out by the prime minister to an assembly of party loyalists and diplomats from Russia, Sri Lanka and Singapore on December 28th, charges that the BNP turned the country into a “valley of death” when it ruled in coalition with the Jamaat between 2001 and 2006. It suggests that since then the BNP has “taken up the role of the Jamaat”—the party that opposed Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and whose current leadership looks to be headed for the gallows by the time a trial for war crimes is concluded. Reverberations from that trial are mainly to blame for the 500 Bangladeshis who were killed in political violence in 2013, the worst annual toll since independence.
6.40 pm: Bangladesh foreign minister seeks to meet EU leaders just three days after election
New Age has an exclusive in today's paper about the foreign minister's proposed tour of Europe - including a proposed meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on the 8th January, just three days after the election, and then subsequent meetings in London and Berlin.

No-one is entirely clear what will be the response of the EU, the United States and other countries to the election of the new Awami League government - how tough they will be in words and actions (probably not very tough; Bangladesh is no Burma - though it would though be surprising if the EU agreed to meetings with the foreign minister.)And of course whether or not the action has any affect at all (again, probably not that much). To work out what will happen in Bangladesh, one must look within the country, and not outside it.

5.45 pm: What to make of Dhaka Tribune's opinion poll
The Dhaka Tribune has today published the results of an opinion poll that it undertook in the third week of December 2013 - so pretty recently. It was a mobile phone poll - never done before as far I know in Bangladesh. To read my thoughts about the methodology risks in such a poll in Bangladesh, go to the bottom of this particular post. However, let me first summarise the key results from the DT poll and see how they compare with other recent polls:

Party support
The DT poll found support practically the same for both main parties at around 36 percent each.

This compares with the July 2013 poll by Nielsen/Democracy International which found  BNP on 43 percent and AL on 32 percent, and the Prothom Alo poll which found the BNP support on 50 percent and AL on 37 percent, and the poll done for the Awami League which found the BNP on 38 percent and the AL on 35 percent  (I am not looking at the Daily Star survey as this was not a conventional opinion poll). This is set out in the table

(July 2013)
Prothom Alo
(Sept 2013)
Awami League
(Oct 2013)
Dhaka Tribune
(Dec 2013)

It is interesting to note that AL's vote has remained pretty consistent throughout all of these polls, ranging from 33 to 37 percent.

It is the BNP's vote that has moved around a lot from 36 percent to 50 percent.

There are two competing thoughts about how recent political events may have affected political support for the two parties. First is the idea that BNP's support has declined due to its responsibility for the political violence and the blockade; on the other side there are those that argue  that most people blame the government for the political crisis, and of course for the 'mockery' of the 5 January elections.

Anecdotally, from talking to people in Dhaka, it appeared to me that it was AL's rather than BNP's support that has weakened - which is not what this poll suggests. So I am rather surprised.

However the DT poll did find that when people were asked which party would win in their area, BNP did much better with BNP on 44 percent to AL on 38 percent. Sometimes questions like this can be more accurate ways of testing a voters opinion - so that there are voters who would not want to say directly that they support the BNP, but project it when asked a more indirect question.

Is election without BNP acceptable?
The DT poll found that 19 percent thought that it was acceptable whilst 77 percent thought that it was not acceptable. Though there is no analysis done on how this divides between party preference, it is likely that the 77 percent contains a proportion of AL voters.

Whilst this figure is high, it is lower than the figures in the September 2013 Prothom Alo poll, where when people were asked if the election would be acceptable without the participation of the BNP, 90% replied negatively.

Elections under an interim government
When asked whether the current government was 'sufficient for holding a free, fair election' [nb - it is not entirely clear from DT's coverage what the exact question was asked], 47 percent thought that it was sufficient and 37 percent that it was not. No question was asked about the preference between an election under a caretaker and a political government, because DT said 'it is widely accepted that there is clear majority for the caretaker form of government.'

If we take views on the election commission as a barometer of how people view the fairness of an election under a political government, these results are not that dissimilar to those found in the other polls.

In the Prothom Alo poll nearly half the country thought that the current election commission had the ability to hold a fair election. 48% responded affirmatively whilst 51% negatively. And this finding was not dissimilar to the Nielsen/DI July 2013 poll which showed that 52 per cent had faith in the capacity of the Election Commission in ‘holding free and fair elections under the current government.’ Only 32 per cent felt that the Election Commission was ‘not capable,’

However, the DT results are not that consistent with poll done for the Awami League which found that only 22 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement that that ‘in every city corporation election, BNP-supported candidates have won – this proves that under the Awami League government free and fair election is possible’, and where 71 per cent agreed with the proposition that a ‘neutral election is not possible until or unless it will happen under a caretaker government’.

Willingness to vote in election without BNP.
The DT poll showed that 41 percent of people said that they would vote in the elections even if the BNP did not participate, with 53 percent saying that they would not vote. 6 percent refused to say.

The last election in Bangladesh had over 80 percent turnout, so 40 percent turnout does not seem very much - a little over the percentage of support that the AL had in the poll. However, in the 1996 election, the official turnout was around 25 percent (many believe that the real figure was much lower), so if this percentage of voters did vote that would be quite a high figure.

The DT mentions that the poll was done at a time when it was not clear that so many seats would be unopposed - which may well have affected people's decisions about whether to take part in the elections.

Right/wrong direction
When asked whether the country was heading in a right or wrong direction, 71 percent said that it was not, and 23 percent said that it was.

This is the highest figure that any of the polls in recent months have come up with - and is an obvious reflection on the crisis ridden situation of the country. It is amazing that 23 percent thought that Bangladesh was going in the right direction!

In the September Prothom Alo poll, 60% of people thought that the country was going in the wrong direction and in the July 2013 Nielsen/DI polls  58% of people thought that country was going in the wrong direction, with 37% saying it was going in the right direction.

6. Satisfaction with the ICT trials
A large proportion of people, 74 percent though were satisfied with the war crimes tribunals - with 36 percent highly satisfied and 38 percent satisfied. Only 16 percent were dissatisfied.

These are an interesting set of results which contradict other polls that were done.

In the Prothom Alo September 2013, polls whilst 80% of respondents agreed that those who had committed war crimes should be tried and punished, only 40% agreed that the process was 'appropriate', with 59% thinking that it was not.

As I said at the time one problem with this particular result is the question - you could believe that a trial was not appropriate because it was too fair or it was not fair enough! So the question does not tell you very much about how people really viewed the process.

The Prothom Alo results did however reflect those in the Nielsen/DI poll which found that 86 per cent of these voters who knew about the trials stating that they personally wanted the trials to proceed with 63 per cent (of those that knew about the trials) thinking that the trials were unfair or very unfair. However the question of fairness or not can also be read in different ways.

DT's question - 'are you satisfied with the trials' - is in fact a better one than the other two, and perhaps reflects a greater level of support for the tribunals in their current form (and indeed in the execution which had just happened) than previously thought going by the previous polls.

Bar on Jamaat participation in the election
53 percent of people thought that the Jamaat should be allowed take part in the elections with only 33 percent disagreeing.

This reflects the views shown in other polls, when respondents were asked, if the political party, Jamaat-e-Islami should be banned. In the Prothom Ali poll, 70% responded negatively, with 29% in favor of such a ban. In the DI/Nielsen April 2013 poll, 65% were found to be against the ban and 25% in favour.

Issue of methodology
The poll was undertaken through interviews on mobile phones - presumably to save money. 2012 data shows that two thirds of the country have access to a mobile phone, though DT claims that it is 73 percent.

The accuracy of a poll depends to a great extent on the randomness of the people whom one questions; in order for a poll to be able to accurately reflect the views of the whole population of a country, everyone needs to have an equal chance to be questioned. In this poll, one third/one quarter of the country had no chance to be questioned - and so there will inevitably be questions (all other things being equal) about how accurately this polls reflects the population of the country. DT refers to this issue and states:
'Mobile phones are used by people of all socio economic conditions and there is no evidence that the voting patterns of mobile users (73% of adults) is statistically different from that of mobile non-users (27 percent of adults) so the exclusion of none-users of mobiles should not lead to any bias in using randomly generated mobile numbers to represent the voting age population.'
However the problem with this is that whilst the views of non-mobile phone users in Bangladesh may well be the same as mobile phone users, it is not clear that this is the case as no research has been done.

This is quite a similar argument to the one in Western countries. Phone polling has happened in Western countries for some time, but this initially only involved calls to landlines. As mobile phone usage increased, there came a realisation that 33 percent of people in the US did not have access to a land line, but only to a mobile phone - and so were not being polled. Increasingly polling companies now include calls to mobile phones.

Nate Silver wrote about this and showed that polls that only called land-lines had three percent less support for Obama than polls that called both land lines and mobile phones.

There is of course no knowing what is the situation in Bangladesh, whether the population of non-mobile phone users are similiar or different to those that do use them - they could be the same, more pro-BNP or more pro-AL

However, there is certainly a risk that, because of this, the DT poll could be off-cue.

(One other unusual aspect of the way that DT published the poll is that it did not (as far as I can see, but do correct me if I am wrong!) state the name of the company that undertook the poll. I don't think they were hiding it, and when asked I was told straightaway it was IRC which I assume is this company. I don't know anything about the ownership of this company, if anyone does, please do tell me.)


2.50 pm: The 'Biggest, the Most-est, Best-est of Bangladesh's pre-election politics', continues
So onto the next one in the list: 2.Who is most responsible for ensuring international observers did not monitor the elections? To see the first one)

Khaleda Zia no doubt thinks that she should win this particular prize. One of the BNP's biggest political objectives over the last few months was to persuade the United States and the European Union that, as it was not participating in the election, they should not send observers to monitor the election - as the simple process of willingness to 'observe' an election gives it credibility. And that was the decision that the EU, US and Commonwealth took. So does she not deserve the award?

No it doesn't. For all the political pressure the BNP has exerted over the last few months, it was not its lack of participation that did it for the observers, but the fact that shortly after 13 December, the election commission announced there were 154 seats that were uncontested, that around half of the population was effectively being dis-enfranchised. Prior to that, a number of countries were reluctant to boycott the observation, taking a legalistic point of view that the election was taking place according to law and the constitution, and they should not be held hostage to the BNP's lack of participation. However, the huge number of uncontested seats was the game changer.

So who was the person most responsible for that. Please stand up General Ershad, leader of the Jatiya party, and once the country's military dictator.

Lets just recap, In late November, Ershad agreed to take part in the elections and to become a member of the government's so called 'all party government' and in return they received five cabinet seats, and no doubt other benefits.

Getting Ershad's involvement was a coup for the Awami League - it meant that it could say that two out of four largest political parties in Bangladesh were taking part in the election, and it also meant that the election looked very different from the very discredited February 1996 election in which the BNP was alone contesting the election with just some small parties as opposition.

However on 3 December 2013, Ershad announced that he would no longer take part in the election (or in the government) and asked his candidates to remove their nominations from the ballot. At that time, the Jatiya Party like the Awami League had candidates for nearly all 300 constituencies and so had the Jatiya party remained, there would have been the appearance of a contested election. However, between 3 and 13 December, most of the Jatiya party candidates did remove their nominations (though some did have difficulties in doing so), leaving a situation where there were many uncontested seats.

The Awami League did then, it appears, create more uncontested seats (seeking perhaps to have an effective 'elected' majority before polling day started and also creating uncontested seats as prizes for the Jatiya party candidates who had not removed their nomination), but none of this situation would have happened had Ershad not announced his non-participation in the elections.

Who quite knows why Ershad changed his mind? Bobby Hajaj, his spokesperson argues that Ershad had always said that he would not contest unless there was an agreement between the parties, and so when this was clearly not going to happen, he made his final decision. Others however argue, without any substantive evidence, that he simply must have been given a greater financial incentive to leave the Awami League than he had earlier been given to take part!

However, whatever maybe the truth of that, the reason why people are now talking about this election as 'farcical' or as 'joke' is down to Ershad. And of course he has paid a price - being taken by law enforcement agents to a military hospital for his own good.

1.30 pm: The Biggest, the Most-est, and the Best-est of Bangladesh's pre-election politics 
My new year blog-free break is over, and now we are two days before the 5 January elections. Much to say and much to catch up on. I thought I shall begin today with the start of my list of the most-est, biggest and the best-est of this period in Bangladesh politics, from my rather Dhaka-centric viewpoint. No doubt if I lived in Gopalganj or Satkhira, things would look rather different.

So to begin: 1. Who is the person most responsible for Bangladesh's current political mess?

There are many people who were bit players in this but obviously, it is a toss up between the prime minister Sheikh Hasina, with her decision to remove the election time caretaker government provisions from the constitution and the opposition leader Khaleda Zia’s with her decision to boycott elections under a (non-caretaker) political government.

There is lot of negative things that can be said about Khaleda’s decision-making over the last months (and don’t worry, we will come to some of that later in the list), but Hasina takes this particular accolade.

Her decision to remove the election time caretaker government provisions from the constitution must surely be one of the most reckless and thoughtless in the country’s recent history.

To appreciate how reckless  we need to first remind ourselves how hard she and others fought to get the caretaker government in the first place. For over a year, between 1994 to 1996, Hasina led a long and at times violent campaign, assisted by the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jatiya Party, to get the BNP to introduce the caretaker government provisions. It succeeded and in March 1996, parliament changed the constitution introducing the election time caretaker government provisions. Since then her party had come to power twice through it (June 1996, and 2008), whilst the BNP had come to power once (2001).

We then need to remind ourselves how it was so thoughtlessly removed by Sheikh Hasina without any buy-in of any kind from the public, civil society, or any political actor within Bangladesh

It is very instructive to read Badiul Majumdar’s note on the proceedings of a 15 member special parliamentary committee set up by the prime minister  which met over 11 months, and held 27 sessions and consulted experts, political parties (including the ruling party), journalists and the civil society representatives.
“According to the prepared proceedings, the Committee, in its 14th meeting held on March 29, 2011, after extensive discussions, “unanimously decided to keep the existing CTG system intact.” However, the Committee decided to identify the limitations of the system and discuss those in its future meetings.

The statements of some of the Committee members in the same meeting are worth quoting. For example, Mr. Tofail Ahmed, a senior Awami League leader, stated: “My personal view is that we should not touch any major aspect of the CTG. We should not create another issue … We should not unsettle a settled matter.” He opposed the idea of imposing a term limit on the CTG and warned that with such a limit the present ruling party may have to fight for the CTG again. He also opposed the idea of disassociating the judiciary from the CTG.

Mr. Amir Hossain Amu stated: “A lot of complications would arise if we want to change the CTG and we would get entangled into difficulties. It is better that the CTG is kept as it is.”

Mr. Abdul Matin Khashru stated: “We agreed in our first meeting that we would not go into anything that would entangle us into controversies. We would not touch anything controversial. This proposal was given by the Hon’ble Member Mr. Tofail Ahmed five meetings ago from today. We all agreed with him. I want to humbly say that we should keep the system of CTG as it is. It would not be appropriate for us to touch it. This would only add to complications. We will give the opposition the opportunity to protest and wound us.”

Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury stated: “I also agree that there is no need to make any change in the CTG at this time. If there is question of putting a time limit, we can perhaps make decision about it.”

The other members of the Committee present at that meeting, including Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, Mr. Suranjit Sengupta, Mr. Rashed Khan Menon, Mr. Hasanul Haq Inu, Barrister Anisul Islam Mahmud, Advocate Rahmat Ali and Advocate Fazle Rabbi Mia, also concurred with their colleagues, making the decision to keep the CTG system unanimous.

On April 27, 2011, a group of Awami League leaders, led by Prime Minister Hasina, appeared before the special Committee. The PM observed that the people do not want unelected and undemocratic government anymore, yet we had such governments in the past because of the loopholes in the Constitution. She asked the Committee to impose ‘a time frame by amending Article 58 so that similar opportunities do not exist’ in the future. Note that the PM recommended the amendment of the CTG, not its abolition. The finance minister also stated that we would keep the CTG.

On May 10, 2011, the Appellate Division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court declared the CTG unconstitutional. The 4-3 split decision also observed that the Parliament could, for the safety of the state and the people, keep the CTG for two more terms. It further recommended the abolition of the Parliament 42 days before the election.

After the pronouncement of short order by the Apex Court, the Committee decided in its 24th meeting, held on May 16, 2011, to reopen the issue of CTG after ‘receiving the final judgment of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.’ Absent the final judgment, the Committee, however, prepared its revised recommendations on May 29, 2011, in which it decided to keep the CTG with two rather minor changes. The first change called for imposing a time limit of 90 days for the CTG. The second change imposed restrictions on signing foreign treaties by the CTG and the ratification of any treaty, if signed, by the next Parliament.

The Committee met with the PM on May 30, 2011, the day after it prepared its recommendations. The rest is part of history. The Committee, in its final report prepared in June, recommended the abolition of the CTG.”
It is clear that the removal of the caretaker government was the decision of one person, Sheikh Hasina, without any initial support of any member of the committee, without any popular mandate.

One can certainly argue that the caretaker government system has not been wholly successful in the past; in 2006 of course there were arguments about who was to be the chief caretaker advisor, and in the end the system collapsed bringing in a two year army controlled government. Changes certainly needed to be made to it to ensure a better and smoother system of choosing a chief caretaker advisor – but the principle behind the caretaker government system was widely accepted, and continues to be very widely accepted, by the wider population and all other political parties.

Bangladesh has already paid a heavy price for this removal, and is likely to continue to pay an even higher one in months to come.


11.31 am: Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury released in early hours of the morning
According to reports, the BNP leader who was arrested just after a meeting with Khaleda Zia and the British High Commissioner, was released at about 1 am

00.45 am: Daily Star: "Are we in a democracy?"
I must say, I was very pleased to read this piece. Syed Badrul Ahsan, I find, often appears to bend over backwards to accommodate Awami League, but here he is willing to say it is as it is. The original article is here
The sight of a woman lawyer, with loyalties to the BNP, being pounced upon by stick-wielding youths, clearly with allegiances to the Awami League, on the premises of the Supreme Court on Sunday is more than an unedifying sight. It shames us before the world outside our frontiers. If the sanctity of the highest tier of the nation's judiciary can be trampled upon, nothing remains sacrosanct any more in our collective national life.
The spectacle of pro-BNP lawyers and journalists screaming obscenities against the prime minister and hurling brickbats at the police, both on the Supreme Court and the Jatiya Press Club premises, embarrasses us to no end. 
Equally embarrassing is the scene of the lawyers being forced to stay behind the gates of the SC compound by the police, who felt not at all disturbed at spraying coloured, hot water on them. The police would not let the lawyers step out of the SC compound and yet thought it was all right to open the gates for stick-wielding young men to rush in and beat up the lawyers. 
That woman on the ground promises to be a defining picture of this country for a very long time. 
In this free republic, it is not proper that citizens be forced to alight from buses and trains on their way to the capital and be told that they cannot go further. Yet that was the outrage committed on Sunday. Citizens have been ill-treated at checkpoints, the BNP has been prevented from emerging on the streets. 
In contrast, activists of the ruling Awami League had a free reign. They made sure the capital stayed in their grip, stayed confined to the state of siege they had brought to pass. A number of opposition figures are in prison on charges of causing disturbances on the streets. Not a single ruling party man was carted off to jail for causing similar disturbances on the streets on Sunday. 
The definition of a criminal offence thus depends on which side of the fence you belong …………… A pity. 
In a sovereign country, the opposition does not choose street agitation over parliamentary deliberations. Politicians who aspire to go to power through democratic means do not decree a blockade of the country and bring life to a screeching halt. Citizens have died in arson; vehicles have been burned to cinders -- in the interest of democracy. How does one explain such criminality? 
In a democracy, you may not agree with your opponent. But you certainly do not circumscribe his or her movements. On Sunday and on Monday, the leader of the opposition was stopped from moving out of her residence by hundreds of law enforcers and security personnel. 
And yet the general secretary of the ruling party would have the nation know that Khaleda Zia on her own did not wish to leave home for her projected rally. Fine, but why then were all those policemen and Rab personnel gathered at the gate of her residence? 
And why were those men of the ruling party carrying lathis, or sticks, as they marched through the city? The Dhaka Metropolitan Police commissioner has a simple explanation: those were not sticks the men were carrying, but flags. And why were those trucks brimming with sand stationed before the opposition leader's home? No comment.
None of this is enlightening. All of this pushes us deeper into a hole we the people did not dig. 
In this cold winter, warmth in the heart and soul has gone missing.
00.40 am: New Age: "Despotism, duplicity may not ultimately save day for AL"
I thought New Age wrote an excellent editorial on the day of the rally that was not to be which is set out below. The original piece is here

THE measures—legal and extralegal—that the government of prime minister Sheikh Hasina has taken so far, to foil the Bangladesh National Party-led opposition alliance’s ‘march for democracy’ to Dhaka, scheduled for today, may be similar in style or substance to the ones taken to counter a similar opposition programme on March 12, 2012, but certainly not in intensity or ferocity. According to media reports, Dhaka stands virtually delinked from the rest of the country with the incumbents having forced suspension of road and waterways transports between the capital and outlying districts since Friday. Train services have not been spared, either. The police are reported to have intercepted three trains and sent them back; they also arrested more than 100 opposition activists from these trains. Meanwhile, the raids by the joint forces comprising the police, the Rapid Action Battalion and the Border Guard Bangladesh have continued in the capital and elsewhere in the capital; more than 1,000 people have been arrested so far. Moreover, there was at least one instance where the law enforcers ransacked the house of an opposition leader in his absence and detained his wife and daughter. Besides, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police denied the opposition alliance permission to hold a rally in front of the BNP central office at Naya Paltan where the march is scheduled to end. Then, of course, the incumbents have substantially restricted the movement of the leader of the opposition and BNP chairperson. 
Such actions reflect not only the anti-democratic, if not autocratic, mindset of the incumbents but also their double standards. It is worth noting that key functionaries have often taunted the opposition for its supposed failure to build up a strong political movement. Yet, whenever the opposition sought to organise any political programme, including even innocuous human chains, the incumbents have employed law enforcers and ruling party musclemen to foil it. It is also worth noting that when the opposition called and observed a series of countrywide blockades of road, rail and waterways recently, the incumbents have cried hoarse about its indifference and insensitivity to the inconveniences caused to the ordinary people. Now, as the opposition has opted for what it promises will be a peaceful march, the incumbents have employed whatever tools they have to foil it and, in the process, enforcing their own blockade of road, rail and waterways and causing immense suffering to people at large. 
Such duplicity or double standards seem to have come to define the ruling party attitude and action in recent years. It is pertinent to recall that the Awami League forced insertion of the provision for an election-time non-party caretaker government in the constitution through prolonged and violent street agitations, on the plea of securing the people’s right to vote. Then, it used a similar plea to scrap the provision through the 15th amendment to the constitution. That securing the people’s right to vote has hardly been its agenda, and that perpetuating control over state power is its ultimate goal, seems to have been proved beyond doubt by the essentially farcical election it appears so adamant to hold on January 5, 2014, that too with more than half of candidates having already won their seats uncontested. 
The incumbents need to realise that such despotic and duplicitous actions may prolong their hold on state power for some time but not for long — that is the lesson from history they seem unwilling to take. They need to also realise that their intransigence has pushed the country to the brink of prolonged political uncertainty and social disorder and that if they do not mend their ways the situation could only turn worse. Hence, they need to change their course, engage positively with the opposition and peacefully resolve the ongoing impasse.


8.40 pm: What Shamsher Mubin told Daily Telegraph just few hours before he was detained
This is the article Bangladesh's former prime-minister Khaleda Zia under house arrest

This is what he said in full:
Khaleda Zia is most certainly interned in her hosue. They don’t allow people to come into or out of the house. She is interned.

Fact is that though not officially calling it house arrest but for all practical purposes she is under house arrest

Many senior BNP leaders have been detained since mid November and then whole lot of people facing trumped up charges, from the Secretary General down including lots of members of the standing committee. They are in a safe place but would be arrested if they came out.

At the grass roots level, in districts over 1000 leaders and supporters have been arrested.

As soon as we see government behaving in a civilized manner where people can travel, then the ‘march for democracy’ can take place

Anyone who goes near the BNP office right now gets arrested

Different AL groups with poles and sticks are going round the city

The court scenario yesterday was shameful as the police allowed armed thugs to go into the supreme court and create mayhem. They were all carrying rods and sticks and bamboos sticks. All the BNP there just had mobile phones on them.

This is the degree of government repression and persecution

You saw how the government at the highest levels, including the prime minister, came down so crudely on the civil society exercise. It was shameful. In 1/11 (in 2007), she was AL leader who was first to support the military imposed government and was present at the swearing in ceremony

I think the government is doing everything it can to push elections down the people’s throat and ignoring the very severe negative consequences for the country in terms of legitimacy and acceptability inside and outside the country.

Everyone is extremely concerned with the Government’s effort to go ahead with one sided election

‘I have never before seen such a blanket and abusive use of law enforcement in the history of our country.
7.55pm BREAKING NEWS: Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury detained after meeting British High Commissioner

Shahidah Yasmin, the wife of Shamseher Mubin Chowdhury, senior vice-chairman of the opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, just told me that he had been detained after his meeting with Khaleda Zia and the British High Commissioner which took place at Zia's house. His wife told me:
'Just after the British High Commisioner left Khaleda Zia's house, three of the BNP leaders came out and Shamsher got into his car and this was chased and then the car stopped and he was taken. Only he has been detained. He just called me from the car on his phone and said that the detective branch had taken him. I have informed the British High Commission, the US embassy, and the Indian High Commission, I just received the call 15 to 20 minutes ago'

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