The Necessity of the 5 January Elections

 

The 10th Parliamentary Elections in Bangladesh were held on 5 January, 2014, which saw Awami League return to power sailing on their message of national development and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina becoming the country’s head of government for altogether the third term.

However, the path to this election was fraught with difficulties and obstacles as one of the main opposition parties, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and its allies decided not only to boycott the election (which they are entitled to), but also to do everything in their powers to physically obstruct the votes from going ahead. Consequently, many lives were lost and properties damaged. Yet, the people of Bangladesh bravely faced the odds and went to voting centers in large numbers to exercise their democratic right to franchise.

This article looks at the necessity of the 5 January elections, and how Awami League tried its best to accommodate BNP and its allies to participate, failing which there was no other option but to go ahead with the elections according to the constitutional obligation.

Background

This election was the first one to be held after the abolition of the caretaker government system in Bangladesh. On 10 May, 2011, Bangladesh’s highest court, the Supreme Court declared illegal the constitutional provision that mandated an elected government to transfer power to an unelected non-partisan caretaker administration to oversee a new parliamentary election on completion of its term. A seven-member Supreme Court panel, headed by Chief Justice ABM Khairul Haque, reached the verdict on majority vote.

Accordingly, on 30 June 2011, the Bangladesh Parliament passed the Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Bill 2011 by a vote of 291-1. Among others, this constitutional amendment scrapped the provision which asked for holding elections under a non-party caretaker government system. It provided that from henceforth, all elections will be held under the elected incumbent government as it is done in all countries of the world.

While Bangladesh did enjoy relatively free and fair elections under the caretaker government system in 1991, 1996 and 2001 (although doubts remain about the the last one), the loopholes and dangers of the system were exposed in 2007, when in January the then caretaker government led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, and backed by the military, deviated from their sole responsibility to conduct free and fair elections, and usurped state power, and carried out widespread civil rights and human rights violation for almost two years. In the name of the drive against corruption, they undertook a depoliticisation campaign, in cohorts with certain segments of the so-called ‘civil society’. The victim of the system was not only Awami League, but also BNP, which it unfortunately forgot. Khaleda Zia was herself put behind bars and her two sons tortured by security forces before being sent into exile.

Another loophole of the system, which initially caused Awami League to suspect the intentions of the then BNP government, was that the immediate former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh by virtue of his office took charge as the head of the caretaker government. However, in order to place a candidate of their choice, the then BNP government raised the retirement age of justice of the highest court, without showing any valid reason. Mistrust from Awami League also stemmed from the fact that the Election Commission, which was formed unilaterally by the President, without any consultations or help from outside, came up with a voter list, which was full of discrepancies and anomalies. By all estimates, there were around 13 million fake voters in that list, including names of people who were deceased.

Despite Parliament simply following the highest court’s directions in scrapping the caretaker government system, BNP and its allies kept on pressing for reinstatement of the system, but enforcing blockades and strikes. In the spirit of making the electoral process more acceptable and inclusive, on 18 October 2013, in a 22 minutes televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proposed the formation of an all-party interim government to oversee Bangladesh’s 10th general election. In her proposal, she asked the BNP to nominate names of 5 of their MPs to be inducted into the polls time Cabinet. It needs to be noted that as per the Constitution, the Prime Minister was not required to take any such steps, yet she took this extraordinary initiative to make the elections as inclusive as possible.

While BNP and its allies kept on its violent agitation, holding the people hostage, on 26 October 2013, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called over telephone the then Leader of the Opposition and BNP Chair Khaleda Zia and invited her for a dialogue at Ganabhaban on the evening of 28 October, 2013 to discuss about the elections. Khaleda Zia refused the offer saying her party had called a ‘hartal’ on that day which she could not withdraw. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina requested her to withdraw hartal for the sake of the country and its people. The request was flatly denied. The transcript of the interview, which was made public, showed the spirit of conciliation in the Prime Minister’s voice, which was unfortunately not reciprocated by the then Leader of the Opposition Khaleda Zia.

Between 26 October and 13 November, BNP led Alliance calls strikes for three distinct phases which sees the death of 26 people. More than 1,500 were injured. 80 people were burnt as BNP and its allies mounted petrol bomb and molotov cocktails attack on passengers, drivers and helpers of buses and trucks. 490 vehicles were destroyed and/or burnt during this phase.

On 25 November 2013, the Election Commission of Bangladesh announced the schedule of the 10th Parliamentary Elections fixing 5th January, 2014 as polls day. BNP-Jamaat violence in the name of movement peaked from here onward. On the same day, the Prime Minister again urged BNP to join the all-party interim government to oversee the 10th Parliamentary Elections offering BNP to choose any 5 ministries, with no conditions. This was not heeded by BNP. As a last effort to bring BNP to the election, Awami League held three rounds of dialogues with BNP in December 2013, which failed to produce any settlement.

Elections

Despite the violence and intimidation of BNP and its allies, voting took place across the country on 5 January, 2014. This was a constitutional and legal necessity, since as per the Constitution of Bangladesh, the elections to Parliament must be held within ninety days to be precise prior to the expiry of the tenure of the incumbent government. It should be noted that, this is an mandatory provision of the Constitution, which accommodates no situations under which it can be qualified or delayed. Article 123(3)(a) of the Constitution of Bangladesh provides that “a general election of the members of Parliament shall be held, in the case of a dissolution by reason of the expiration of its term, within the period of ninety days preceding such dissolution”.

The Awami League won 232 of the 300 seats and were returned to power to continue on their quest for fulfilling such targets as ‘Vision 2021’ and ‘Digital Bangladesh’. The Awami League’s message of continuing national development resonated more with the people than the message of violence and cries by BNP and its allies. While the voter turnout was 40%, it can only be assumed that given the violence by BNP and its allies, the number would have been much higher had there been no such violence.

147 seats were contested out of the 300, as the rest were elected unopposed. Although, BNP and its allies wanted to cast doubt on the process of electing unopposed MPs, the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh has clearly ruled that under the current legal framework (the Representation of the People’s Order), there is no scope to question the validity of the MPs who have been elected unopposed in the 10th parliamentary elections. These elections are valid, legal and constitutional (June 2014).

While BNP and its allies would like to make people believe that they had a good chance of winning the elections had they participated, there is absolutely no valid reason to think they are right in saying so. According to the opinion polls conducted by Democracy International (DI) a week after the 10th parliamentary elections, respondents stated that if the elections were held today, 42.7% would vote for Awami League, while 35.1% would prefer the BNP. Since then however, all the opinion polls carried out by such independent international organizations as DI and International Republican Institute (IRI) have shown consistent support for Awami League and declining support for the BNP. In the last such polls by DI (October 2016), it was shown that Awami League continues to enjoy 38% voter approval compared to BNP’s measly 5%.

Violence

Nearly two months of violent hartals (blockades/strikes) were enforced by BNP-Jamaat in the name of movement for demanding reinstating caretaker government system and demanding cancellation of 5 January 2014 elections. In the run up to the elections of January 2014 and in its immediate aftermath, hundreds of innocent people in Bangladesh became victims to the terrorism of BNP and its allies in the name of movement. In total, 46 people were killed in the nearly two months long violence.

Thousands of vehicles were vandalized and/or burnt during this time. Thousands of trees were fell to barricade roads and highways. 20 members of law enforcement agencies such as policy, BGB, Ansar and Army were killed mercilessly as they tried to safeguard the people of Bangladesh from BNP-Jamaat's wanton violence. Government offices, power stations, business enterprises, roadside vending stalls, and even innocent animals were not spared. Mosques, temples and pagodas were not spared.

Even thousands of copies of the Holy Quran were burnt in front of the National Mosque at Baitul Muqarram, Dhaka. Fishplates were removed from rail tracks, which derailed and destroyed hundreds of railway carriages and engines. 582 schools were burnt on the day of the election. 26 people were killed including Election Presiding Officers. Following the elections, houses of Awami League supporters and Hindus were burnt, destroyed and looted.
To mark their spree of violence, from 4th January 2015 onward, BNP and its allies unleashed another reign of terror. They killed 231 people (mostly through arson and petrol bomb attacks) and injured (mostly through burning) 1,180 others. Arson attacks were conducted to burn 2,903 cars, 18 rail carriages and 8 passenger water vessels. Through targeted attacks, 70 government offices were vandalized and or destroyed and 6 land offices were burnt. The economy suffered billions of dollars in losses as a result of the blockades, strikes and violence.
One of the particular groups of people who were targeted specifically for being perceived supporters of Awami League were the Hindus of Bangladesh. According to police reports submitted to the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, around 160 incidents of attacks and atrocities on Hindus took place in 21 districts after the January 5 parliamentary polls by BNP-Jamaat. Property worth around TK 4 million was damaged in 70 of those attacks and local BNP-Jamaat activists were responsible for most of the occurrences. The atrocities include injuring Hindu people, damaging their houses, temples and business establishments and setting them on fire, and looting valuables.

Conclusion

The 5 January elections were a legal and political necessity, borne out of constitutional obligations and ground level realpolitik. Bangladesh has had its fair share of illegitimate and extra-constitutional regimes. There was a substantial possibility that, any power vacuum that could have been left had the 5 January elections were not held accordingly within the constitutionally stipulated timeline, could have been filled by yet another anti-democratic regime. It was unfortunate that BNP and its allies did not participate in the polls. However, the blame for that can only lie on their own shoulders, as the contemporary events themselves are witness that Awami League and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina tried their utmost to bring them into the electoral fold for the sake of making the elections as inclusive and participatory as possible. It is a mistake which has since cost BNP and its allies dearly, as without parliamentary representation, their credibility, relevance and importance as a political force has dwindled.

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