Bangladesh national poll conducted with credibility ends peacefully

Feb 2, 2024
Bangladesh Election Commission

The Bangladeshi elections of 7 January, like most polls, including those in democratic nations of the developed world, have their own shortcomings and should not be lightly dismissed. But what my group of international observers witnessed on election day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was democracy in development. It was a day free of violence and free of irregularities.

On January 7, 2024, Bangladesh’s election results entrenched Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s authority and gave her Awami League political party near total control of national parliament. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party decision to boycott the elections, vacated the field and in effect handed control of all institutions of power to Prime Minister Hasina. An outcome that invoked criticism from the United States and regrets from Australia. The US described the Bangladeshi elections as neither free nor fair, expressed concern at the arrest of Opposition members, while highlighting election day irregularities. Similarly displeased, Australia expressed regret that all stakeholders couldn’t participate meaningfully and substantially in the Jan 7 Poll.

But lamenting such election shortcomings, while they can be argued, may be counterproductive to national unity and to the promotion of democracy and democratic nation building in Bangladesh.

Of course, the Bangladeshi elections, like most polls, including those in democratic nations of the developed world, have their own shortcomings and should not be lightly dismissed. However, this should not be reason enough to lose sight of the fact that Bangladesh is a developing nation with millions of its people continue to live under the poverty line.

Bangladesh is a young and developing democracy with a population of 170 million people, of which 120 million are registered to vote. These figures speak volumes about Bangladesh and the transformative processes of democratisation required for Bangladesh to become a fully-fledged democracy. Putting this and other socio-political and economic challenges in context, Bangladesh has an enormous challenge and potential for democratic development that must be encouraged.

Bangladesh Election Commission
Bangladesh Election Commission. Image: Supplied

I was privileged, as an Australian, to be invited by the Bangladesh Election Commission to be part of a group of 31 of the 150 international elections observers in Bangladesh. A group that included American, British, Japanese, Europeans, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, Iraqi and others who reported nothing but a free and safe election day process and procedures.

Noting the pre-election political machinations and the unfortunate events that lead to the deaths of innocent civilians and the arrest of certain BNP supporters, what my group of international observers witnessed on election day in Dhaka Bangladesh, was democracy in development.

It was a day free of violence and free of irregularities. The heavy presence of police and Election Commission officers at and around polling stations helped keep the process safe and voters free to participate unimpeded. We had access to all areas of the polling stations and freely observed all election material. We observed the sealed Perspex, translucent, ballot boxes, centrally positioned in all polling station booths and in full view to all.

We were free to speak to voters, to polling station officers, police and media and local observers without restriction or obstruction. We did not observe any fraudulent activity or meddling with votes or ballot boxes. We did not see any violence, intimidation or repressive activities or detention of people at or around polling stations. We were able to observe all aspects of the election day except, given time constraints, for the opening of ballot boxes and the subsequent vote count.

Based on our election day observations, we can safely state that what we observed on the 12th national polling day was free, transparent, safe and peaceful.

The voter turnout in Dhaka city was low. It started slow in the morning but as is usually the case everywhere, however, the participation rate picked up as the day went on. Whilst the voter turnout in Dhaka city was low it was high in rural Bangladesh. According to the Election Commission, the total nationwide vote was 41.80%, but almost 60% were in rural areas. Noticeably prominent amongst the voters were elderly and women.

Despite the size of the electorate and the enormous logistical difficulties in running a national election, a demanding administrative task while under national and international pressure, to the credit of the Bangladeshi Election Commission and the people of Bangladesh, the election day was carried out efficiently and most importantly, peacefully.

The participation of the BNP in the elections would without a doubt provide considerable legitimacy to the development of democracy in Bangladesh, but as Sheikh Hassina said in response to questions about the lack of opposition at a meeting with international observers: “tell me what do you want? Do you want me to form the opposition?”

Apart from the BNP boycotting the elections, and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, previously declared ineligible by a Supreme Court decision, almost all of the political parties in the country registered to participate. 120 million registered voters had an opportunity to vote at 42,149 polling stations and to choose their 300 parliamentary representatives from the pool of 1895 candidates including 382 independent candidates.

The election was conducted under the watchful eyes of regional and international powers including more than 20,000 local election observers and a powerful and free Bangladeshi and international media including journalists and correspondents from prominent international media houses including AP, AFP, Al Jazeera, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, Reuters and many others.
In conclusion, while Bangladesh is developing its democratic institutions, it has a herculean task of overcoming many of its socio and economic and political challenges, lift millions out of poverty and move the nation into the ranks of the developed world. It must remain focused on the welfare of its people and, whoever leads it, to keep the people and the institutions of the state in tune with a forward looking, “smart,” sovereign, and united, democratic Bangladesh, free from any meddling by friend or foe.

Bangladesh Election Commission. Image: Supplied


Disclosure statement:

The Bangladesh Election Commission covered the costs of flight and accommodation for my role as international observer.

Shaoquett Moselmane, Former Assistant President of Legislative Council NSW Parliament.

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