DHAKA: Hundreds of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party supporters protested Sunday to mark International Human Rights Day, as the country gears up for a general election on Jan. 7 that the opposition says should be held under a non-partisan, caretaker government.
The party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, is boycotting the election, leaving voters in the South Asian nation of 166 million with little choice but to re-elect Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League for a fourth consecutive term.
At Sunday’s protest in front of the National Press Club in downtown Dhaka, opposition activists said they do not think a fair and free election can take place under Hasina’s watch. The gathering took place weeks after a massive opposition rally on Oct. 28 turned violent.
The party’s decision to boycott the polls comes amid a monthslong crackdown that has reportedly seen hundreds of opposition politicians jailed and critics silenced, an allegation authorities have denied.
Demonstrators on Sunday carried banners that read “Human chain of family members of the victims of murder and enforced disappearances” and “We want the unconditional release of all prisoners.”
After the Oct. 28 rally, authorities arrested thousands of party leaders and activists including Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. Many others have gone into hiding, and hundreds have been convicted by courts on charges of violence or subversive acts that the opposition says are politically motivated.
New York-based Human Rights Watch in a report last month put the number of arrested opposition activists at 10,000 since Oct. 28 and said that at least 16 people including two police officers died during the period of violence.
Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, joint secretary general of Zia’s party, told a video conference from hiding that the government has arrested or punished political leaders and activists under fictitious charges to ensure a lopsided election result.
He urged the people to boycott “the stage-managed election” that he said would deepen the country’s political crisis and push it toward danger.
“The upcoming one-sided election is not just a renewal of Sheikh Hasina’s power, but a license to destroy Bangladesh,” he said.
While critics have slammed the election as a farce, the government has rejected allegations of a crackdown on the opposition and says the polls will be democratically held and inclusive.
“Our stand is very clear. Those who are involved in acts of sabotage or arson attacks, those who attacked police and killed them, are being dealt with on specific charges. We clearly reject the claim that there has been any crackdown against the opposition party,” Mohammad A. Arafat, a ruling party lawmaker and member of the International Affairs Committee, told The Associated Press.
“It has no relation with the election. It’s a constitutional mandate to hold the election on time. It’s a matter of their choice to join the polls. But they are resorting to violence in the name of protests, rather than joining the race,” he said.
The election will be the country’s 12th after it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971.
In the 2008 election, the main challenger BNP and its allies won more than 40 percent of the vote, but lost to Awami League, which got an absolute majority. Subsequent elections took place in 2014 — which Zia’s party boycotted — and again in 2018 under Hasina’s administration, but the opposition rejected the results, saying the election was rigged. Hasina rejected the allegations.
This time again, while candidates from 29 out of 44 registered political parties have filed nominations, no one from Zia’s party is contesting the polls. After a review, the country’s Election Commission accepted 1,985 nominations and rejected 731 for a total of 300 constituencies.
Media reports say many independent candidates belong to the ruling Awami League party, which has encouraged them to contest the election to make it look competitive.
The events have drawn concern from observers at home and abroad over the health of democracy in Bangladesh, even as it transforms into an economic success story under Hasina.
Hasina’s administration has faced pressure from Western democracies, especially from the United States, while the United Nations and the European Union have also pressed for a free, fair and inclusive election.
“Specifically, we have emphasized that it is important to have free and fair elections that all stakeholders have the ability to participate peacefully. The holding of free and fair elections is the responsibility of everyone — all political parties, voters, the government, the security forces, and the media,” a US State Department spokesperson said in an email to The Associated Press.
Analyst Iftekhar Zaman, the head of the anti-corruption group Transparency International Bangladesh, said the election may be held on time but it will be “non-inclusive” and “morally void.”
During the last election in 2018, Joydeb Sana, a private security guard working at a five-story apartment building in the capital, Dhaka, traveled to his ancestral village in southwestern Bangladesh to cast his vote.
But on election day, he found that someone else had already cast his vote.
“I don’t know who did it. In the end my candidate won the election and Sheikh Hasina became the prime minister. I was happy for that, but I could not vote for my candidate, and that was upsetting,” Sana told the AP.
He hopes he can cast his own vote this time.
“It’s my right to vote for my preferred candidate. Last time I was deprived of that,” he said.