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Bangladesh under crisis: A government without popular mandate

By Faruk Ahmed: –

Bangladesh has witnessed an unprecedented election on 5 January 2014 in which the ruling regime led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won the election before even holding of the election as they secured 153 seats without contest due to election-boycott by the main opposition (20 Party Alliance) led by Khaleda Zia.

The reason for the boycott by the opposition was- rejection of their demand of holding the election under a non-partisan and neutral body, as it was the practice since 1991, for ensuring a free and fair election.

Thus, before the conduct of the election on ground, the result was known to all as to which party would form the next government. Though, holding of the election in remaining 147 seats was not essential for victory but it was held symbolically in order to distribute the seats among the candidates of the same alliance.

Out of country’s 90 million voters, over 80 million did not and could not exercise their voting rights. So, clearly this government is not formed by direct votes of the majority population and it has no popular mandate to govern the country.

The opposition party is denied of their democratic rights of holding any meeting or bring out any procession, most of the senior leaders have been arrested as the opposition has not recognised this unelected government and demanding a fresh election under a neutral body.

Government’s suppression on the opposition by using law enforcement agencies and party cadres have so far caused over hundred lives. The country is in a state of turmoil as the opposition has called for immediate resignation of this regime. Government’s heavy handed approach to suppress the agitation has resulted a serious instability and gross human rights violation.

Root cause of the conflict: The ongoing political turmoil in Bangladesh has devastating impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods. The centre of the instability is the assumption of power by a regime without receiving people’s due mandate. Cancellation of the non-partisan and neutral Caretaker system: Sheikh Hasina led Awami League was in power before the recent election that was

scheduled on 5 January 2014. It was the responsibility of any incumbent regime to create a plain ground for the conduct of the election so that it is free and fair and the opposition party also feels confident about the neutrality of the conduct of the election. It is to be noted here that conduct of the parliamentary election by a non-partisan and neutral body (Caretaker Government) was adopted as a constitutional provision and since 1991, all elections were conducted by a Caretaker Government and outcome of those elections were recognised by all parties and also by the international community. But Sheikh Hasina has cancelled that constitutional provision of the Caretaker Government whimsically with the intention of holding the next election (January 2014) under her government. What prompted her to take such decision was the realisation of her government’s massive fall in popularity indicated by the shameful defeat of her party candidates in all the major City Corporation’s Mayoral elections.

The cancellation of the Caretaker Government provision was opposed by the main opposition party BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) and 20 Party Alliance leader ex Premiere Khaleda Zia. Her demand was restoration of the Caretaker system in order to hold a free and fair election. The opposition could not trust the Awami League Government in holding a fair election because of the anticipated election engineering by the politicised administration, judiciary and the Election Commission. UN’s effort for an inclusive election failed: Sheikh Hasina did not pay heed to the demand of the opposition alliance and even did not agree to hold dialogue with the opposition leader in spite of mediation by UN Secretary General’s envoy – Mr Taranco. Result already known before the election: So, the scheduled date of the election was declared by rejecting the major demand of the opposition. Sheikh Hasina went on with the determination of holding the scheduled election on 5th January showing excuse of maintaining the constitutional continuity but she totally ignored the constitutional obligation of creating a plain field for the election. As a result, the 20 Party Alliance has boycotted the election. This has given Sheikh Hasina a unique chance to stick to power without holding a genuine election. People were deprived from exercising their voting rights:

153 seats of the 300 seat’s parliament were declared elected without any contest. Rest 147 seats had symbolic election within the same alliance. Holding of this election was meaningless as the result of the election was known to all few weeks prior to the election date. Thus, Sheikh Hasina has ensured required number of seats to form the current government prior to the election without any contest. This election was rejected by the international community as none of the countries including the UN and EU has sent their observers to monitor that unilateral election because the result was already known. Out of country’s 90 million voters, less than 10 million have turned up and over 80 million voters did not cast their votes in this election. The government formed based on that voterless election does not truly represent majority people’s mandate to govern the country.

This government is not a result of people’s direct votes as the constitution demands. So, under no definition of democracy, this unelected government can be accepted or treated as a legitimate government of the ‘People’s Republic of Bangladesh’. Hence, people of Bangladesh have no obligation to obey this illegitimate regime as their true representative. Ongoing Movement for Democracy: This government has restricted all political spaces for the opposition by resorting to guns to disperse any peaceful demonstration. Even The opposition leader Khaleda Zia was prevented from attending a book inauguration ceremony in a hotel. The opposition leader Khaleda Zia has called for a cease and strike programme demanding resignation of the present parliament in order to pave the way for holding a free and fair election so that people can elect their chosen representatives.

She is now under virtual house arrest at her office, her mobile, telephone and Internet connections have been cut. Even, food is not allowed to be brought in into her office complex. She is threatened to be arrested and her office is going to be searched by Police in order to humiliate her. Previously, she was also forcibly evicted from her house where she lived for more than 40 years. Most of the senior opposition leaders have been detained with politically motivated charges. Others are in hiding to avoid arrest and torture. Opposition party’s central office was raided by police, even central leaders were arrested by breaking into that office. Country’s economy is hard hit and import and export is suffering due to transport strikes. Attack and counter attack by both the activists of the ruling party and the

opposition -has so far caused over hundred lives. Everyday people are being killed by petrol bomb, sharp objects, cross fire by law enforcement agencies or attacks by the opponents. The government wants to mislead the international community by terming people’s agitation as extremism and thus adopted a very heavy handed approach. ‘Shoot at sight’ is the order of the day. Government’s deliberate plan to stick to power despite having majority people’s mandate- is the main problem. The ongoing crisis needs to be seen as a political issue because of that undemocratic election and not a mere law and order problem. Conclusion: A democracy-loving nation cannot be suppressed by any undemocratic regime for long which does not possess their mandate to govern them.

Current government has denied people’s right to vote and ensured its ascension to power even before the election date through a conspiracy. Sheikh Hasina’s continual denial of the current political crisis that erupted due to her holding of unilateral election and sticking to power without people’s mandate- is a serious obstacle to peace as she rejected the UN’s proposal for talks with the opposition in order to resolve the crisis. The international community has a responsibility to address the root cause of the present unrest and ensure a democratically elected legitimate government in power to be their right partner. Immediately holding of a free and fair participatory election under the supervision of the international community- is a crying need to prevent further losses of lives and property as the country is heading to a full scale civil war.

Writer is Chairman, Bangladesh Democracy Forum (BDF)

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