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Bangladesh ruling party dominance prompts democracy concerns

December 3, 2022

Bangladesh's ruling Awami League has a firm grip on the country's politics, and experts say electoral reform is needed to break the one-party monopoly.

Men pour out ballots in Bangladesh
Bangladesh's 2018 election was marred by allegations of ballot stuffingImage: Anupam Nath/AP/picture alliance

Bangladesh's next national election is set for 2023, but concerns are already being raised about whether the vote will be free, fair and inclusive.

The South Asian nation's last two general elections proved hugely controversial, with complaints of crackdowns on opposition parties and ballot stuffing in favor of the ruling Awami League party.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won both elections, keeping her at the top of the power since 2009. International observers have expressed concern over the state of the country's electoral system.

However, last month, Ito Naoki, the Japanese ambassador to Bangladesh, said he expected the next election to be more transparent than that of 2018.

Japan has been a close development partner of Bangladesh for decades.

"I heard the Bangladesh police filled the ballot boxes," the ambassador said. "There is no such precedent in any other country. I expect such an incident will not repeat." he told the audience at an event in Dhaka. "The country needs a free and fair election," he added.

The Bangladesh Police Service Association (BPSA) rejected this comment.


Bangladesh — 'We do not accept the farcical election'

Transparency International Bangladesh made the same allegation in 2019.

And Rumeen Farhana, from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), reminded DW of this: "I welcome the ambassador of Japan for recognizing this," she said. "I hope our development partners' position on this issue will help stop a repetition of the same or other forms of election rigging in the future." 

Deep-rooted problem

Ali Riaz, a political science professor at Illinois State University focusing on South Asia, said that the problems were deeply rooted.

"Law enforcement agencies and civil administration siding with the Awami League didn't happen suddenly during the 2018 election," he told DW. "It began after 2011, and the more the ruling party relied on them, the more they became invested in the survival of the regime."

"The line between party, government, and the state has become blurred for more than a decade. Partisan employment solidified it," Riaz said.

Before 2011, Bangladesh had a "caretaker" system intended to prevent ruling parties from rigging and manipulating elections.

Under that system, when an elected government finishes its five-year mandate, a caretaker government — consisting of civil society representatives — takes over the state administration for three months and holds elections.

Non-partisan caretaker administrations conducted general elections in 1996, 2001, and 2008, and the polls were considered free, fair, and inclusive by domestic and international observers.

However, the system came to an end in 2011, and the ruling Awami League remained in power at the time of the general election in 2014. The vote was hugely controversial, with almost all major opposition parties boycotting it. Accusations of massive vote rigging also tainted the subsequent 2018 polls.

Improving Bangladesh's system?

Opposition leader Farhana and expert Riaz both advocate a return to the non-partisan caretaker government system. They say that there is still time for reforms ahead of the next election, which is set for 2023.

"If a non-partisan government is in charge during an election and the election commission acts as per its mandate, the situation is likely to be different. The situation is yet to be irreversible," Riaz said

Farhana said that all the country's parties, except the ruling party, agreed that the caretaker government system was fairer and the situation had disintegrated: "State institutions are in much worse condition, and the mistrust and enmity among the political parties are much higher now," she told DW.

Geoffrey Macdonald, a senior adviser at the US non-profit International Republican Institute (IRI), agreed that reform was needed to restore faith in the electoral system.

"Whether the elections occur under the current election commission, the caretaker system, or another negotiated solution, steps need to be taken to ensure the integrity of and build trust in the electoral process," he told DW.

"Right now, the opposition doesn't believe elections will be fair. All sides need to work together to restore faith in Bangladesh's elections," he added.

Sheikh Hasina holds a hand up in front of her face
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has served three straight terms Image: Anupam Nath/AP/picture alliance

International community can play 'an important role'

Macdonald said that the international community could play an important role in ensuring free, fair, and participatory elections in the Muslim-majority country.

"Diplomats should continue to call for inclusive, transparent, and nonviolent elections and stand in solidarity with domestic organizations that are working to ensure the integrity of the electoral process," he said

"Our USAID mission is working very closely with the civil society actors across Bangladesh to support their efforts to provide free and fair elections in Bangladesh," US Deputy Assistant Secretary Afreen Akhter told journalists at a press conference in Dhaka last month.

Ashikur Rahman, a senior economist at the Policy Research Institute, a Bangladeshi think tank, said that diplomats should broaden their engagement with different stakeholders.

"There is nothing wrong if the US or any other country engages civil society leaders on critical matters such as democracy, human rights, and other social and political issues. Civil society remains an important stakeholder, and they should have every freedom to speak on key socio-political issues," Rahman told DW.

"Diplomats must try to engage with all civil society actors and not restrict their engagement to a few core groups. In the best case, widespread engagement with different stakeholders will help them understand political nuances and our political contexts, which should help them understand what is pragmatic and feasible," he added.

Ruling party resists change

However, many of Sheikh Hasina's Awami League party leaders do not welcome diplomats talking about Bangladesh's elections. They have asked them to not get involved in the process.

"Under national and international law, it is not permissible for the diplomats to be involved in how the election works in Bangladesh. We have sufficient legal, regulatory, administrative, and policy frameworks through which elections are conducted," Salim Mahmud, the central information and research secretary for the Awami League, told DW.

"The caretaker government issue is a 'past and closed chapter' in view of the constitutional provisions of Bangladesh," he added.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul