The recently held July 17, 2023, by-election at Dhaka-17 vacant seat that witnessed a vicious attack on an independent candidate, Mr. Hero Alom, revealed two contrasting trends – a missed opportunity for the government and that old habits die hard.
Indeed, the by-election was an opportunity for the ruling Awami League, which has lately been subjected to harsh criticisms, both at home and abroad, for its long history of blatant vote rigging and intimidation of the opposition candidates in elections, to prove the critics wrong or at least demonstrate that alternatives are possible. But this was not to be.
Ruling party’s poor history in election management
Led by Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister, the ruling party’s track record in holding and delivering free and fair elections, especially since 2014, is so dismal, where by now the rigging and violence against opposition have become more of a norm than the exception and these electoral aberrations have alarmed the international community (except the Modi government, a close ally and patron of the Hasina government) so much that with another General Election looming in early 2024, the US, the European Union, and the UN have made it clear that they would like to see the incoming elections follow “a free, fair and participatory process.”
The US Government has taken their concerns one step further. The US Department of State has introduced a new visa restriction policy which is aimed at supporting a “free and fair” ballot in Bangladesh has warned the Bangladesh government that “we can impose visa restrictions on individuals and their immediate family members if they are responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”
The by-election in the vacant seat of Dhaka-17 in Dhaka city took place in the backdrop of these concerns and with the expectation that the government would be sensitive to these criticisms and do its utmost to hold the July 17 by-election in free and fair conditions and demonstrate to the world that it has changed its ways. This was not to be.
The July 17 by-election and Hero Alom
In the by-election, the ruling party nominated one Mr. Mohammad Ali Arafat, an academic turned politician and an avid and fervent defender of government actions especially government’s wrongdoings, sometime with upside-down logic,
Contesting Mr. Arafat were eleven candidates representing various “friendly” opposition parties which included an independent candidate, Mr. Ashraful Alom, popularly known as Hero Alom, “a man behind the curtains of TikTok, famed for his music videos and his whimsical content, came out of the shadows.”
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, stuck to its earlier position of not participating in elections without a neutral caretaker government and thus did not field any candidate.
While some have considered Hero Alom’s decision to participate in the poll an “entertainment,” others have admired his courage. Yet, there are those who were a bit more philosophical and felt that Hero Alom, who represented no political party but himself and came from a very humble background, may have tried to convey the message that in a true democracy, “… even a man from the grassroots can dare to dream of participating in politics.”
Thus, the July 17 by-election was indeed a perfect occasion to re-invent democracy in Bangladesh at its fullest. Sadly, as events have shown, this was not the case.
Old habits die hard.
Indeed, the poll day turned out to be not a day of celebration of the revival of democracy, rather yet another sad day of doomed democracy in Bangladesh.
On the election day, Hero Alom, the independent candidate who represented no political party but himself, a humble man from the village who did not match Mr. Arafat, his rival, the ruling party candidate, neither in education nor in stature contested the election with no intention of pulling the government down nor had he won, he could, but merely to pursue his democratic rights and ambition never speculated the treatment he would receive from the ruling party goons.
On the election day, the ruling party activists unleashed on Mr. Alom the most horrific attacks that landed him in a hospital, shaken and bruised.
The dreadful scenes of Alom kicked and bashed by the ruling party activists while police looking the other way, were painful to watch. The sordid spectacle also revealed the deplorable state Bangladesh’s political culture has dipped into, lately.
Indeed, if the July 17 by-election had conveyed one clear message, it would be that daring democracy under the current regime is not merely a risky business but life-threatening. Thus, it was no surprise that after getting himself released from the hospital, Mr. Alom announced at a press briefing that, “I shall never again take part in any elections under the ruling party.”
Another interesting aspect of the July 17 poll and Bangladesh’s dead democracy was that the voter turnout was around 11%, the lowest ever, which revealed two disturbing and interconnecting trends – firstly, that the voters did not bother to take the trouble to travel to the booths to cast votes in an election where they already knew that their votes would not influence the outcome, and secondly, and this is related to the first, that people have lost trust in all elections in Bangladesh, especially since 2014.
An unconfirmed report also revealed that Mr. Arafat, the government candidate received less votes than Mr. Hero Alom in the Cantonment area (military garrison), where the voters voted freely without any intimidation and thus had the luxury of exercising their voting rights freely and decisively. Reportedly, government is unhappy with the outcome of polls in the Cantonment area and apparently, has asked for a probe.
The brazen broad daylight attack on Hero Alom also rattled the international community. They have since expressed their concerns and condemned the attack stressing that “Violence has no place in the democratic process” and that “…Everyone involved in the upcoming elections should ensure that they are free, fair, and peaceful.”
Remarkably, world’s largest democracy, India, Bangladesh’s immediate neighbour has been conspicuously absent from making any comment let alone condemn the government inspired thuggery in the by-election. This is so sad.
Finally, the post-election images of, on the one hand, a bruised and brutalized Alom in hospital and on the other, a “victorious” Mr. Arafat with flowers, standing beside the Prime Minister at her office exposed two contrasting political realities of contemporary Bangladesh – at one end, the state of the crippled and helpless democracy and at the other, celebration of cruelty, fraud, and shamelessness of the establishment.
In sum, once again the July 17 by-election has reinforced the long-held belief that elections under the current regime can never be free and fair.
From the above, it is evident that the expectation that international pressure would force the government to change its ways and encourage it to establish credible institutional means to hold free and fair elections in 2024 looks as elusive a goal as ever. Secondly, knowing fully well that violence against the opponents would damage government’s credibility, which is already at its lowest, did not stop ruling party’s activists unleashing the most vicious attacks on an opponent begets the questions – where does the government get the backing to act so recklessly? Is it also possible that the government has lost control over its foot soldiers, the musclemen who they employ to thumb down the opposition? Or is it that the violence may be revealing the Frankenstein syndrome meaning that the musclemen now dictate terms and not the other way round?
Furthermore, given that the July 17 violence has occurred in the presence of, if not in collusion with the police/election officials is it legitimate to say that the opposition’s long held argument that not just a neutral care-taker government but without a complete overhaul of the entire electoral governance and the system which is currently heavily politicized and thuggish, free and fair elections in Bangladesh would be an anathema, an exercise in futility is valid?
Finally, and God forbid this happens: if Bangladesh goes through yet another round of rigged elections in 2024, there is no doubt that dissent will rise and a cycle of violence would ensue where a protracted period of civil conflict, bloodletting, chaos, and lawlessness, and eventually, the fracture of the society not a very unlikely scenario which indeed would have ramifications that would not just affect Bangladesh and its people would also affect the neighbour and the region as a whole.
Therefore, the need of a free and fair elections in 2024 and importance of a reformed political culture that help promoting mutual respect and tolerance and free exercise of democratic rights have never been so crucial and so urgent as now.
Time is ripe for the people of Bangladesh to unite, fight and restore democracy and decency in their country and in this mission, they must also reach out to the democratic world including and especially the neighbouring India, world’s largest democracy, to join them in their mission to re-invent democracy and build a democratic and a just Bangladesh.
The author is an academic and a former senior policy manager of the United Nations