BNP’s fulminations about wholesale rigging of the recent elections would make a horse laugh
Time was when horse-drawn carriages were an important part of Dhaka’s transportation system. Those driving them, addressed as ‘Chaudhuris,’ were a law unto themselves. Their favourite retort to requests for fare reduction was, “Ki koitachhen Karta! Shuinle ghodaye hashba! (What are you saying Sir! The horse will laugh on hearing it!).” I was reminded of this by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) fervid allegation that wholesale rigging had rendered the recent parliamentary elections into a farce.
How did it conduct elections when it was in power? On July 1, 2004, a by-election was held at the Dhaka-10 parliamentary constituency. The contestants were Major (Retd) MA Mannan of Bikalpadhara Bangladesh, and Mosaddek Ali Falu of BNP, a close confidante of Begum Khaleda Zia. The Daily Star reported on July 2, 2004: “The ruling [BNP-Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami] alliance’s intimidation of voters and polling agents, false balloting and absence of the army at every centre in violation of a High Court (HC) order marred the much-talked-about Dhaka-10 by-polls yesterday.” The report then gave chilling details of how the voting was turned into a farce and the Election Commission refused to act.
The BNP was all set to rig the 2006 parliamentary elections. The Daily Star of September 21, 2005, reported that out of the 328 upazila (sub-district) election officers ahead of the next parliamentary elections, 150 were from a list of Chhatra Dal (BNP’s students’ wing) leaders from colleges and universities. The report further cited a source saying that there could be many more persons loyal to the Government among the controversial appointees.
Effort to rig the elections had begun even before these appointments with an attempt to ensure a friendly caretaker Government which, under the practice then, was to supervise the holding of the elections. The increase of the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 65 to 67 years, provided for by the 14th Constitution Amendment Act, passed on May 16, 2005, was widely perceived to ensure the appointment of KM Hasan as the chief adviser and head of the caretaker Government. Hasan, a pro-BNP person, did not accept the position in the face of massive wave of protest over it. Following a stalemate over the appointment of a chief adviser, the then President Iajuddin Ahmed, who had been elected to office by the BNP, appointed himself to the position. There was tumult and violence. The military intervened on January 11, 2007 and Iajuddin Ahmed resigned on January 12. Fakhruddin Ahmed of the World Bank was appointed chief adviser to head the caretaker Government. The parliamentary elections held under its auspices on December 29, 2008, were swept by the Awami League and its allies.
The BNP’s allegations now have to be seen in the context of the fact that the charge of rigging has been levelled by the losing side in every election since 1991. The Awami League proclaimed the 1991 parliamentary elections, which the BNP won, as rigged. The BNP said the same about the 1996 elections, which the Awami League won. It was the Awami League’s turn to cry foul when the BNP swept to power in 2001. The BNP did the same after the Awami League’s landslide victory in 2008. The BNP’s indignant condemnation of the 2018 elections is, thus, a part of a well-established post-poll ritual. It would have been surprising had it been otherwise.
Further, it has been said that the Awami League’s massive sweep of parliamentary seats — 288 out of the 298 — could not have been possible without largescale rigging. What this overlooks is that the Awami League and its allies had swept the parliamentary elections in 2008, universally considered to have been free and fair, winning in 263 of the 300 seats. Of the 263, the Awami League had won 230.
The Awami League’s higher tally of seats this time could have been due to a significantly higher turnout of Hindu voters. In all elections prior to 2018 — except perhaps so some extent in 2008 — BNP-Jamaat storm troopers had generally terrorised Hindus into not voting. For a long time before the 2018 elections, leaders of the Forum for Secular Bangladesh and Trial of War Criminals as well as the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee for the Eradication of the Killers of ‘seventy one — Shahriar Kabir, Professor Muntassir Mamoon and Kazi Mukul — had sustained a powerful campaign for creating conditions under which the minorities could vote freely and fearlessly. The momentum thus generated as well as the iron-clad security arrangements made for the elections had clearly emboldened Hindus many Hindus to vote.
Besides, the surge of Islamist terrorist violence in Bangladesh, underlined by the savage attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in the upscale area of Gulshan in Dhaka, on July 1, 2016, had created a climate of fear. A large section of people seems to have voted for Sheikh Hasina who has taken firm steps to curb terrorism, veering away from the BNP, as the surge in fundamentalist violence began during its coalition Government with the Jamaat (2001-06) when it did little to counter the menace.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)