Supporters of the main opposition party the Bangladesh Nationalist Party at a Dhaka protest march, calling for the resignation of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in order to hold free and fair elections under a caretaker government. Photo: IMAGO/Zuma Wire
Supporters of the main opposition party the Bangladesh Nationalist Party at a Dhaka protest march, calling for the resignation of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in order to hold free and fair elections under a caretaker government. Photo: IMAGO/Zuma Wire

Interview: Bangladesh’s one-sided parliamentary elections and the crackdown on political opposition

Anupam Debashis Roy discusses the upcoming election where the Awami League is expected to dominate, despite the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's large rallies calling for a caretaker government for fair elections

Bangladesh's parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on 7 January. In the run up to the elections, there have been escalating protests led by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party calling for Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, to resign and transfer power to a non-partisan caretaker government to ensure a free and fair election. Historically, Bangladesh's elections have been marred by violence and crackdowns on political opposition. This election has already seen a number of BNP party members and supporters being arrested by the Awami League government, and there are now calls from political opposition to boycott the election altogether.

In this edition of Himal Interviews, Assistant Editor Nayantara Narayanan interviews Himal Southasian contributor Anupam Debashis Roy on Bangladesh's elections, the crackdown on political opposition and the impact of US-imposed visa restrictions.

What is the atmosphere in Bangladesh like in the run-up to parliamentary elections?

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This is a machine-generated, minimally copy-edited transcript of a podcast interview and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording. 

Nayantara Narayanan: Bangladesh's parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on January 7. In the run-up to the election, there have been escalating protests led by the opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, calling for the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign and transfer power to a non-partisan, caretaker government to ensure a free and fair election. Historically, Bangladesh's elections have been marred by violence and crackdowns on the political opposition. This election has already seen a number of BNP party members and supporters being arrested. And there are now growing calls to boycott the election altogether.

Here to talk to us about this is Anupam Debashish Roy. Anupam is a graduate student at the London School of Economics. He has previously worked for the Dhaka Tribune and the Daily Star in Bangladesh and is a frequent contributor to Himal Southasian on Bangladesh. 

Anupam, welcome to the podcast.

Anupam Debashis Roy: Thank you, Nayantara, for inviting me to this podcast.

NN: So the international media is already calling this a one-sided election as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has said that it's going to boycott the election due to concerns around fairness. Has there been any change on this front in recent days?

AR: So it's very clear that what the international media is calling this election is very much fair because this is going to be a one-sided election, although the government is showing statistics saying that 30 parties are going to contest these elections. But all of these 30 parties are either propped up by the government or supported by the government or controlled by the government. So no true opposition parties are taking part in this election. So for example, the only major party that's taking part in this election outside of the ruling Awami League is the Jatiya Party, JP. And even in that party, that party is very much dependent on the ruling party to call the shots. For example, when there was a leadership crisis in that party, it actually went to the prime minister to solve their internal leadership crisis. So that shows how much dependent that party is on the ruling party.

So you can say that even that party, even though it's technically not the Awami League, it's very much dependent on the Awami League again. And outside of that party, there are other smaller parties that were given registration by the Election Commission, specifically because they wanted to break up the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which we call the King's parties. I've talked about that in my latest article for Himal. And those parties are going to participate in the election, but that's not going to make it an inclusive election that would be contested, because everybody knows who's going to win. If you have the boat as your symbol, then you're going to win. And then if you don't have that, you're not going to win because the ruling party has said that there's going to be dummy candidates in many of those seats.

But only the party, only the candidates that the Awami League is deciding would win would actually win those elections. So the election is completely going to be one sided, not only one sided, but also dependent on the decision of one member, one person of that party. So the Prime Minister is basically going to pick who is going to win in each seat. So many people in the world have heard of lipstick economy, when you know, an economy is dressed up to make it look like a well-performing economy. This election is going to be a lipstick election. So they're going to dress it up, even though it's not inclusive, not participatory, not a contesting election, they're going to dress it up so that it looks as such.

NN: There have been frequent reports about the crackdown on BNP activists and party members. Can you tell us what the latest is on that front?

AR: The ruling party have been arresting a lot of activists from the BNP throughout the year. The latest attack on the BNP came after 28th of October, when the BNP held a massive rally in front of their office in Nayapaltan in Dhaka. During that rally, there were reports of the police attacking the activists, and the activists retaliated. And in the clashes, two major things happened. One was that the residence of the Chief Justice was attacked with like stones and stuff like that. And also a police member was killed. So after that incident, thousands of activists and leaders of the BNP have been arrested, including the top leadership of the BNP who are already in jail. Other leaders and activists who are not yet in jail are on the run. They're not being able to organise and not being able to hold any sort of rallies, but they're still trying their best. For example, on the International Day for Human Rights, there was this pretty big human chain in front of the National Press Club where hundreds of BNP activists gathered. But BNP is trying to fight back. But it's been hard for them since thousands of their leaders and activists have been arrested.

NN: You spoke about the Awami League openly talking about popping up dummy candidates. Can you tell us a little more about what these dummy candidates actually mean? And has there been any space for independent candidates in this election campaign?

AR: What the dummy candidates mean is basically that in the 2014 election, which was set in pretty similar circumstances where the BNP decided not to participate in the election, and the Awami League basically fielded candidates in all 300 seats and 153 candidates in that election were elected uncontested because there were no candidates against the candidates fielded by the Awami League. 

So what happened is that the Awami League won the election even before the election took place because 153 is greater than 50 percent of all the seats in the parliament. So the Awami League is trying to prevent that scenario again in this year. So that's why the Prime Minister herself, Sheikh Hasina herself, has said that the party should field dummy candidates. What the dummy candidates mean is still a little unclear. The leaders of the Awami League are saying various different things about what these dummy candidates mean. What this means in general is that the Awami League would field more than one candidate. It's not that anyone can now field their candidacy with the election commission. It's that the Awami League is going to decide who is going to be the number two candidate for that seat. And they're not there to win the election. They're just going to be there to show that there is some sort of contest in that election. So both of those candidates, if there is one dummy candidate, both the nominated candidate and the dummy candidate is going to be from the Awami League. They're going to be chosen from the Awami League. And one candidate would be chosen basically to lose the election on purpose. This is just to show that there was contest in the election. 

So technically, there is a space for independent candidates. But if the independent candidates come from the Awami League and they are what is called rebellious candidates who rebel against the party decision to field their candidacy, they would face repercussions from the party –  like, get expelled from the party and stuff like that. But if there are people who want to contest the election, there are many people who can join and contest elections. But we know that the Awami League has too much at stake to let these candidates win. The only way this election is going to go is that Awami League candidates are going to win. The people Awami League has nominated are going to win. And there are going to be dummy candidates just to make the election seem inclusive and contested.

NN: You know, you mentioned the last story that you had done for us and one of the most interesting aspects of that story was about this internet star Hero Alom trying to get his foot into politics. Tell us about the Awami League's response to his candidacy and what that reveals about how they treat political opponents.

AR: Right. So you know, Alom's candidacy in the Dhaka-17 by elections was really interesting because he was the only candidate that was sort of challenging the candidacy of the Awami League candidate. And he actually stood second in that election. The BNP did not take part in that election. So he was the only real challenger. And he was beaten up by Awami League goons right outside of a polling centre. And a number of foreign embassies reacted to that. But the Awami League just didn't care. And there was no sort of trial and then there were some arrests made. But we have not yet received any sort of news of their punishment yet. So this event shows that Awami League is going to squash any sort of dissent. And if you read my article, you'd see that Hero Alom has by now joined a pro Awami League group just to keep himself safe, sort of. So anyone who is in the Awami League camp is safe, more or less, from repercussions and attacks. But anyone who is slightly outside of the Awami League camp, anyone who actually presents a challenge to the Awami League will be attacked, will be taken to the jails and will have cases filed against them. One thing I didn't mention before is that thousands of cases, I think the numbers are around 70,000, have been filed against BNP men. And they are just trapped in this cycle of going to the courts every day and attending their trials every day. So they're not being able to have a livelihood or even organise and have a right to assembly at all. So the attack on Hero Alom shows that there is no space for dissent in Bangladesh. Even if you want to dissent, you will have to eventually give up and join the Awami League's camp because otherwise, the attack on you will be relentless. But the BNP has not been backing down, they have been leading massive rallies in Bangladesh.  They have been taking advantage of the public discontent because of the economic climate there.

NN: Are these rallies continuing even now? And what is the BNP strategy given that they have said they plan to boycott the election? 

AR: So, the BNP strategy is to continue their struggle. Even if the election takes place, they're going to continue their movement against the ruling government and they're going to continue to push back continuously. And I'm not sure how prudent their plans are because, for example, in the last major incident, the 28th of October incident happened, and then there was massive arrests going on. And BNP declared strikes one after the other and blockades one after the other.

So what this did, actually, is it made it impossible for the BNP activists to come to Dhaka and continue their protests because the transportation was blocked. So there was no transportation to Dhaka. So it was difficult for them, even if they want to come to Dhaka, they're facing police harassment, the police are checking their phones to figure out who is the BNP supporter and they're being jailed on the basis of that. So it has been impossible for the BNP to hold massive rallies anymore, especially after the 28th of October in light of all the cases that have been filed or the arrests that have been made. So the number of protests, massive rallies have actually waned a little bit after the 28th of October. But the BNP is still carrying out, for example, I said this a little while ago, the human chain event happened on the International Human Rights Day. So these kinds of events here and there are taking place. There are like flash processions they're taking out in support of their strikes. But their strategy seems a little bit dubious because I think they're doing things a little bit haphazardly. One of the reasons for that, I would say, is because of their leadership. They had a very good and prudent leadership under Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who is the secretary general of the party. He was a very good leader of the party.

But now that he's jailed, the party is holding haphazard processions and rallies here and there. But it's not been able to crystallise those movements to one specific thing. So these rallies are not that massive. In light of the repression and the arrests and all of those things, these rallies and processions are not on the same scale as they were before. 

NN: There was a recent news story about AI-generated news anchors being used to spread disinformation. Have you seen any of these, any examples of this and other kinds of disinformation now that we are getting closer to the election? 

AR: So Bangladeshi news media is, you have to understand the nature of the Bangladeshi news media first, before diving into this story about AI generated news anchors. The Bangladeshi news culture is very much controlled by the ruling party. They only give permissions to news channels if they are pro-government. There are very little number of independent and objective journalistic practices in the Bangladeshi news media. So they are using AI as they would use any human. So I don't see the difference of using AI or using a human person. The AI is, I think, just a gimmick to attract people to the channels. But the media landscape in Bangladesh is such that any sort of disinformation and stories against the opposition is going to be aired no matter what. They are making the landscape, media landscape, so much flattened and so much one party-centric that there are only a few news media out there who will, and they are also not on the TV channels there. The print media, which are like somewhat, I could name around three or four news media out there who are somewhat objective and somewhat report both sides. But other than that, the TV media is very much one sided. So I don't think AI generated news anchors is changing that a lot. It's just feeding into that machine of disinformation that the TV media is carrying out.  

NN: There has been a growing interest in the Jamaat-e-Islami growing presence in Bangladesh. Why do you think that they have been allowed to hold rallies, given that the Awami League played a role in prosecuting the party for alleged war crimes committed during the 1971 war?

AR: So the Jamaat-e-Islami have to understand that politics of Jamaat-e-Islami and the role of Jamaat-e-Islami with BNP and with the Awami League. So one of the reasons why the Jamaat-e-Islami was given the opportunity to hold rallies and processions was because I think the government was trying to coax them into joining the elections, even if BNP did not join.

That way, Jamaat-e-Islami could be shown as the opposition. And as Jamaat-e-Islami is already established more or less in the Bangladeshi culture as the party of the war criminals, they would be easy, easier to villainise. So whenever the ruling party makes a mention of BNP, they don't say BNP only. They say BNP-Jamaat because when you say Jamaat, you kind of tap into a national memory of pain, of suffering, of war crimes. And these sort of ideas give you a very negative connotation about the opposition. So the only way for the ruling party to clearly delegitimise the movement of the opposition is to give some space to Jamaat-e-Islami and show that the Jamaat-e-Islami represents the whole of the opposition. If they do that, then the opposition is delegitimised and their movement is delegitimised. Even though their movement is for democracy, it becomes as though they want to make Jamaat-e-Islami come back again. And that's this big spectre of the war criminals coming back to power. So I think they're using that sentiment.

NN: How has the US-imposed visa restrictions impacted Bangladesh's political leadership, if it has made any impact at all?

AR: Well, the US-imposed visa restrictions actually had some impact in the beginning. So because of the US-imposed visa restrictions, the number of crossfires, which are basically extrajudicial killings of opposition members and stuff like that, that has gone down a bit. But the US-imposed visa restrictions also are supposed to apply to those who impede free and fair elections in Bangladesh. But if you want to use that sort of wide definition to who is actually impeding election in Bangladesh, the ruling party actually comes up because they are not creating the space for an inclusive election. So that should have deterred the ruling party from doing what they're doing currently. 

But they seem unaffected by it currently, because they are carrying out indiscriminate repression on the opposition and they're getting ready for a one-sided election. So even though the US visa restrictions had some sort of effect in the beginning, I don't see it affecting the current political activities very much because I think the ruling party is thinking that they might strike a deal with the US by somehow protecting their interests in the geopolitical arena once they are re-elected, which they will be under this one-party election, and they will be unaffected by the visa restrictions. I think that's what they want. That way, they will also project that the opposition, which will try to prevent this election as the ones who are preventing, which the U.S. has called those impeding free and fair elections in Bangladesh.

So the BNP will then be entrapped into that framework. So I don't see that the Bangladeshi political leadership is doing much to meet the requirements of the US-imposed visa restrictions. They are just doing, they're just following their own plan and they're trying to strike a deal with the US.

NN: Finally, could you tell us a book you read or a podcast you've listened to or something you watched recently that could help our readers learn more about Bangladesh's political landscape right now?

AR: I think the best thing to do is follow some writers who are writing on international media about Bangladesh's political landscape rather than reading a book. It's easier to read some articles. There are some great articles online. 

For example, Ali Riaz, who is a professor at the United States University, has been writing about Bangladeshi elections for quite some time. He has an article out on The Diplomat. The listeners can take a look at that to understand the political dynamics that are going on in Bangladesh right now. There are some other writers. You can take a look at the Daily Star's opinion section. Their coverage of Bangladeshi politics, especially the columns, will provide good coverage of what is going on. Also, I think if you want to learn more about Bangladeshi politics, you can take a look at the books written by Ali Riaz, which are very much enlightening, especially the culture of fear, the idea of Ali Riaz. I think that is very powerful to show what the Awami League has accomplished during its reign and what is driving Bangladeshi politics today.

NN: Thank you so much for being with us today, Anupam.

AR: Thank you so much again for inviting me to this podcast.

Himal Southasian