Why fair elections are beyond the Awami League’s control

Western capitals should not take Hasina’s promises of fair elections at face value because she will not and, more importantly, cannot deliver on them.

Why fair elections are beyond the Awami League’s control

Since US President Joe Biden’s administration registered a very public commitment to correcting Bangladesh’s democratic erosion, including by imposing never-before-seen sanctions against security czars and announcing a visa ban policy for potential election manipulators, a lot has happened in the country that suggests its authoritarian government could not care less.

The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, urged her supporters to carry on, assuring them that there are other friendships than the US’ that she can pursue. “There is no point in deliberating on who will deny us visas or sanction us,” she told a rally of supporters in early June. “It does not matter not being able to travel to America while sitting on the flight for 20 hours.”

If her words were not clear enough, her government and her party followed suit with actions, making it no secret that their supreme leader was being serious when she brushed off any potential repercussions from the US.

In recent days, at least one activist of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been stabbed to death by activists of the ruling party. In two recent elections, the ruling party candidates’ closest independent or third-party rivals suffered brutal physical assault at the hands of Awami League activists.

For its part, the government has begun promoting and appointing loyal bureaucrats and police officers to key portfolios responsible for executing the electoral process on the ground. In collaboration with the secretary of the home ministry and trial court judges, the police headquarters have already set in motion clandestine plans, revealed through leaked documents, to keep opposition politicians behind bars on old trumped-up charges, thereby disqualifying them from participating in elections.

So the BNP would not be remiss to point out the government has made no changes in its behaviour since 2018 that would justify its participation again in the upcoming election scheduled for later this year or early next year.

Not just the BNP, no one in their right mind believes the Awami League government — or any partisan government, for that matter — will deliver a reasonably free and fair election.

Even Sheikh Hasina does not believe that.

If she thought only the Election Commission, irrespective of the government of the day, could freely conduct elections, she would have happily agreed to vacate her premiership long ago and allowed an election to occur under anyone else. That is not because she necessarily wants a free election, but because she does not trust her own loyal commissioners to pull off a result of her choice. That is why she would never give up power even to someone else within her own party, let alone a non-partisan entity like a caretaker government or a neutral election time government.

If she cannot fathom trusting her own party colleagues, why should the BNP be expected to trust its arch-rival who has overseen a tenure of nightmarish terror over its activists? Even more so, when the BNP already trusted her once in 2018 by agreeing to participate in the election under her watch only to witness — and expose — the vulgar shamelessness with which the Awami League rigged it.  

Yet, the United States and allied countries are not pushing back against claims made by the government’s well-publicised narrative machines that they have no qualms about elections under Sheikh Hasina as long as they are fair and free.

For the sake of argument, let us enter a fantasy world in which Hasina genuinely wants to conduct a fair election assuming that she fears the consequences of not holding one.

But the fact of the matter is that the Awami League not only lacks the political will to hold free and fair elections but also lacks the competence to organise one, even if the party’s leadership were seriously inclined to do so, which — let us not kid ourselves, here — it is not. And for that, one need not  look further than the two recent elections: the Barishal city corporation election and Dhaka-17 by-election.

In the most recent one, the Awami League’s candidate, Mohammad A Arafat, emerged victorious by a wide margin in an election where about one in ten voters had shown up. However, even in such an inconsequential poll, the ruling party had to engineer a degree of manipulation in favour of its candidate. They just did not go overboard and push the situation into the realm of absurdity.

Officially, they claim an 11.5% turnout rate — an embarrassing figure, sure, but not entirely outside the bounds of plausibility. After all, if the voters did not turn up, what could the government do? Or so the Awami League is probably telling Dhaka-based diplomats right now.

In reality, though, the situation was even more dismal.

An analysis by Prothom Alo, an independent newspaper, revealed how the voter turnout surreptitiously increased in crucial polling stations after mid-day. For example, one polling station in Gulshan saw only 83 votes cast by noon. But by 3 p.m., the number miraculously rose to 278, with a correspondent witnessing the casting of fake ballots by polling agents affiliated with the ruling party. When asked, the Awami League’s coordinator for the polling booth did not deny it. Instead, he only grumbled about his inability to do his “job properly” due to the newly installed surveillance cameras.

Media reports also discovered instances of “hired voters,” including one woman interviewed by BanglaVision TV station who said she rejected a request to cast 50 fraudulent votes.

However, a polling centre inside the heavily guarded Dhaka Cantonment area, beyond the influence of ruling party activists, offered a more unfiltered perspective on voter turnout. In that centre, out of 2,017 eligible voters, only 60 cast their votes, resulting in a turnout rate of a mere 2.97%. Similarly, in another section of the same polling centre, only 24 out of 2,429 registered voters showed up to exercise their democratic duties, accounting for a rate of less than one per cent.

That data accurately represents the state of interest among voters in elections held under a partisan government.

But even then, ruling party activists did not quite stuff ballot boxes at a rate seen in previous elections. In many polling stations during the 2014 and 2018 elections, more than 90% of the electorates were reported to have cast their votes. Barring the assault of Hero Alom, the independent rival candidate, this is an ideal scenario for the ruling party: excesses avoided but victory ensured.

If the Dhaka-17 represented somewhat of an ideal victory for the government in a controlled environment like Dhaka’s upscale Gulshan-Banani neighbourhood, the Barishal mayoral election had already shown why it was impossible to replicate on a mass scale.

Barishal is home to the ameer of Islami Andolon Bangladesh (IAB), an Islamist party that consistently participated in elections when all major opposition parties boycotted. There were credible speculations that the government sought to replace the opposition with smaller parties such as IAB by giving them some space to air anti-government sentiments and capture the opposition’s vote bank in the process.

So when the party’s chief, Syed Rezaul Karim, himself stood to contest for the Barishal mayoral elections boycotted by the opposition, there was a strong belief that he would be allowed to triumph over the ruling party’s candidate. A similar phenomenon had already played out successfully in Brahmanbaria, where the ruling party did not nominate any candidate to allow a BNP defector to secure an uninterrupted victory, which he did.

But Barishal is a different ballgame: a divisional metropolitan city where the outgoing mayor was the prime minister’s powerful nephew. So even if Hasina would have liked to deliver an easy victory for Rezaul Karim in order to demonstrate her professed neutrality, she could not simply avoid nominating any candidate in such a high-profile city.

So she opted for the next best option: nominating a political newcomer, her cousin, who she might have presumed would be easily defeated. After all, the past mayor, her vengeful nephew, had firm control over the local wing of the party and would not let his uncle win.

But Barishal’s local Awami League activists did not strike any compromise that their party leadership would have appreciated. They impeded Rezaul Karim’s campaign and even physically assaulted him. Abul Khair Abdullah, the ruling party candidate, ended up bagging more than 60% of the votes cast with an astonishing turnout rate of 50% by the time polls closed. Rezaul Karim, a religious cleric with a countrywide cult following, felt so humiliated and betrayed that he publicly shed tears and vowed never to contest elections under any partisan government again.

If that is not convincing enough that an election under Hasina would invariably be unfree even if she wished otherwise, let us revisit how the 2018 election saga unfolded.

In the last national election, in which the BNP participated, the ruling party managed to “win” over 95% of the seats with massive margins, a rate only comparable to Syria or North Korea.

As much as any political party might desire such a result, it was not the outcome the Awami League hoped for. This overwhelming victory only served to confirm that the election had turned into a complete mockery.

It was such a laughing stock that intelligence agencies pressured the seven winning BNP candidates not to resign as an act of protest to prevent further embarrassment. In contrast, if the BNP had secured around 80-90 seats, it would have provided the perfect legitimacy for the Awami League’s victory.

So, why did this happen then, especially when it clearly was not in the ruling party’s best interest? The answer is that no government can control everything, everywhere, all at once.

Let us unpack that argument.

The ruling party wished the BNP would win several dozen seats in 2018 instead of just seven. There were several constituencies that the Awami League would not have minded to lose. The constituency of Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir, the BNP secretary general, was one of them. Fakhrul could not even campaign much because he was busy in Dhaka, but he miraculously “won,” whereas 293 of his party colleagues “lost” by massive margins.

Ultimately, the ruling party could only manage a few seats to be artificially handed over to the opposition because its own candidates pulled a silent rebellion against their party. When these candidates realised that they were deemed “dispensable” by their own party, they mounted a stealth campaign against it. From bribing party superiors and police officials and unleashing grassroots cadres to hound local opposition party candidates and their supporters to intimidating general voters, they used every trick in the book to reverse their fate sealed by the gods in the Awami League’s headquarters.

Many of them were still not confident. Overly cautious of a voter onslaught, they managed low-tier officials such as Upazilla Nirbahi Officers (UNO) and police officials to stuff 30-60% ballot boxes the night before the polls opened.

And the result was an embarrassing victory for Sheikh Hasina — so ridiculous that it exceeded any measure of decency.


The Awami League wants to avoid a repeat of the 2018 elections debacle. To achieve this, the party is assiduously strategising which seats to manipulate and which ones to sacrifice, aiming to evade embarrassment and allegations of illegitimacy.

The party knows very well that there exists a chasm between what the Western governments would like to see under ideal circumstances in Bangladesh and how much political capital and energy they are willing and capable to expend to achieve that goal.

Given the enormous leverage it wields, the Awami League reasons that Western governments would still prefer a return of the Hasina government but with the stamp of legitimacy, which she sorely lacks, via a somewhat decent election. If a modest amount of manipulation minus the violence ensures the Awami League’s victory, the West will look the other way — or so goes the theory the Awami League is relying upon.

If the Western capitals want to disprove that theory, they should act and act fast.

The US sanctions against security czars credibly accused of committing gross human rights abuses were a brilliant start. It immediately brought down the instances of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. The threat to refuse visas to potential election abusers and their immediate family members was a masterstroke, striking fear among a political elite class whose sole purpose of existence is a well-funded retirement plan in the West. While these impactful measures unsettled the ruling elites, they alone are insufficient to guarantee that the Awami League behaves.

To ensure it does, words must be backed with actions — that is, by flagging individual security officials and ruling party politicians who obstructed the opposition rallies and possessions.

With the Russian government ending the Black Sea grain deal and threatening to torpedo ships carrying Ukrainian goods, Bangladesh will likely be on the brink of an economic collapse, and more ordinary citizens would want to participate in protests and defiance. But if the BNP cannot move ahead, there is little reason to believe that ordinary people can.

Foreign observers often try to figure out “big pictures” and overlook the significance of mid and low-tier bureaucrats and police officials, such as officers-in-charge of a police station. They hold junior-level field positions in the police hierarchy but are the ruthless executioners of the government’s wishes. And as such, these field officers in key constituencies are chosen through a meticulous vetting process.

For instance, in the Dhaka-17 by-election, the police inspector responsible for ensuring security at the polling station where the independent candidate Hero Alom was assaulted is the son of an Awami League member of parliament. His brother, a retired army general, will likely succeed his father. And in Bangladesh, even on local levels, loyalty to the party is best proven by blood ties.

In recent months, the government has appointed dozens of such loyalists, including some previously serving as private secretaries to cabinet ministers, in key bureaucratic positions in most districts. Known as deputy commissioners, these officials are responsible for organising elections affairs on the ground since the Election Commission, which itself is deeply compromised, lacks the manpower to handle the polling itself.

There is a reason why non-partisan interim governments, known as caretaker governments, were successful in conducting relatively fair elections before the Awami League unilaterally abolished the system in 2011. Their key to success was a simple yet powerful idea: immediately reshuffling the local administration upon assuming power, replacing party loyalists with new officials in field positions.

Therefore, any meaningful effort to ensure acceptable elections in Bangladesh cannot afford to ignore these seemingly trivial matters.

But US officials and, to a lesser extent, Canadians should not bear the brunt of it alone. European, Japanese, and Australian governments, whose clueless ambassadors are quietly pursuing business deals, should shore up the Biden administration’s principled stance by taking corresponding corrective measures.

The stakes are too high for liberal democracies and the people of Bangladesh to play it safe. The time for action is now.●