The last consecutive general elections in 2014 and 2018 have sparked vehement criticism. Some of the opposition parties for example Bangladesh Nationalist Party raised this question in local and international context that Bangladesh Awami League (AL) – the oldest political party in Bangladesh, has paralyzed the country’s election system. This article sketches on what role the oldest party has played in ensuring democracy through holding free and fair election. The various sections here illustrate how the AL has endeavored towards first pioneering the system which ensures a smooth, free, and fair election in Bangladesh.
First fair election after independence
The founder father of the country and one of the key leaders of this political party – Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, kept faith in the four fundamental principles namely, nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism. Accordingly, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib held the general election after three years of independence. It is extremely difficult to hold elections in a war-ravaged country, but Bangabandhu took all necessary measures for holding the election in 1973. This marked the first important step by the Awami League towards ensuring a culture of hosting free and fair elections and upholding an inclusive political environment.
Dead democracy and election system
The country lost its democratic momentum through the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975. After his death, the military of the country used Islam as a countermeasure to Awami League's secular, ambiguously socialist policies and Bengali nationalism, which led to the military regime toppling the first Awami League regime that was in power from 1971-75 (Khan, 2017). The military government headed by General Zia and General Ershad illegally captured political power for fifteen years from 1975-1990 that essentially buried the democracy and staged farce elections. The death of Ziaur Rahman on May 30 of 1981 led to the consolidation of power at the hands of Ershad, wherein he was in opposition to various parties then active in Bangladesh.
Revive of democracy and election system
In order to end the military rule an alliance of eight secular political parties led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, along with a seven-party alliance led by Khaleda Zia and a five-party alliance, led to a successful series of strikes (i.e., 'Hartals'). The death of 38 people by government officials led Sheikh Hasina to withdraw from the movement, stating that her party "did not want any more bloodshed and would capture power only through the ballot box". This indicates the strong stance of the Awami League in favoring the wellbeing of the general people and support towards a free and fair election, as opposed to military intervention in enforcing law and order through coercive force. The 2008 general elections held on 29 December marked the shift in favor of the AL with a resounding four-fifths supermajority in the parliament after the caretaker administration oversaw the elections. With a radical decrease in popularity of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Begum Khaleda Zia from 193 seats in 2001 to just 30 in 2008, the shift in popularity in favor of the Awami League was very evident. The daughter of Sheikh Mujib, current prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina fought against the military government for ensuring democracy and establishing the right of the general population to vote in free and fair elections.
Founding the Bangladesh Election Commission
The most commanding success of AL is its work in forming an independent election commission named the Bangladesh Election Commission. Founded in 1972 by the founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, the Bangladesh Election Commission is equipped with numerous provisions to facilitate public elections while preventing any anti-democratic practices such as election rigging and voter output manipulation to take place. This crucial element to ensuring the fruitful exercise of democracy serves as a testament to the AL's commitment towards the democratic system of governance. The current government headed by Sheikh Hasina has passed the election commission formation bill 2022 which is a key success of the government for holding a free, fair, and inclusive election in Bangladesh. According to the EC law bill 2022, a six-member search committee headed by a judge of the Supreme Court Appellate Division will select some names and send a list of EC candidates to the president. From the list, the honorable president will elect the election commission. This law will prescribe the formation of the election commission and the qualification and disqualification of the members of the commission. This law will provide a sole ground o the election commission for the smooth and fairly functioning of the elections at all levels.
Formation of a credible voter list
Another success of the Al is the formation of a credible voter list which is the first-ever in the South Asian countries. With the help of the United Nations and other donor organizations, the AL government accomplished a computerized voter list. One of the major loopholes of the election system in Bangladesh suffered a lot was the faulty and incomplete voter list. The AL government first completed this task of the computerized voter list and give confidence among the voters for their free and fair participation in the election. Bangladesh Election Commission, with support from the Bangladesh Army and financial assistance from UNDP, Denmark, the European Commission, Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom formalized this voter list system which is a great success of the government. The election commission under the current government has also formed an electoral roll in order to include the new voters into the list. This system has ensured that the process is more viable and up-to-date for holding a credible election at all levels. The election commission has set up server stations at the Upazila/Thana level across the country for decentralizing the voter registration process. This has ensured the inclusiveness and fair process for accessing the eligible people to become voters and use their democratic rights.
Building trust among the voters at the grassroots level
The support by the AL towards a healthy political environment has led to benefits for the general people of Bangladesh in other areas such as development and the growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). During the military regimes, general people lost their faith in the election process as there was no environment of holding lection. The system was improper and based on a rudimentary system of a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ voting system. The AL as a political party is in power for the last fourteen years and founded a system where all political parties participated in all forms of elections including the national election. In 2014 all parties except the BNP came into the election process which is a major success in the political process. In 2018, AL as the ruling party created a congenial atmosphere where all political parties including the BNP participated in the election. This ensured the inclusive political process in Bangladesh. Another major success of AL is to create an environment where all parties at the local level took part enthusiastically. This is a major success of the AL to ensure a fair and inclusive system at the local elections. In the local level elections in 2022, the AL nominated candidates have been defeated by the opposition candidates, which proves that AL residing in power has not influenced the election.
(To be continued)
Md Rafiqul Islam, PhD teaches at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Dhaka