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On the US Senate hearing on Bangladesh

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Post Editorial

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam


Recently, The Dhaka Forum held a seminar at the premise of The Daily Star on the post-January 5th   political situation in Bangladesh. It was a well-attended event that was chaired by Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed, former Governor of Bangladesh and in which the keynote paper was presented by the writer of this article. There were a number of former Advisers of the Government, former Cabinet Secretaries, academics and retired Ambassadors/­bureaucrats who attended this seminar. The consensus that emerged out of it was the elections held on January the 5th created serious problems for the country and its politics.

These problems were, firstly, the elections disenfranchised over 50% of the voters of the country. Secondly, the elections resulted in 154 of the 300 members of parliament being sent to their jobs without a single vote being cast in their favour. Thirdly, it also brought into reality a parliament where the Speaker also cannot claim she has been sent to her office with the approval of even one voter in the country. Fourthly, it has established a Cabinet of Ministers where 23 out of its 30 members also likewise unfortunately cannot say they have together even one single vote in their favour. Finally, the elections of January 5th have established a sovereign parliament that has been voted by 5% of the people of Bangladesh.

The seminar reached a number of conclusions based on the above-mentioned realities in Bangladesh at the moment. First, the country now has a government that is very short on the issue of legitimacy. Second, the country has a government that cannot claim to be democratic because it reflects only the will of 5% of the people. Finally, because the government cannot claim to be democratic and also because the overwhelming majority of the voters were unable to vote, the present political reality in the country is in direct conflict with the spirit of 1971 as explained by the fact that our glorious war of liberation was fought to establish democracy through people’s unfettered right to vote in free, fair and transparent elections, for the political party they would like to form the government.

The TDF Seminar felt that the current situation if allowed to be unresolved would lead to conflict between the ruling party and the opposition led by the BNP that could push Bangladesh towards great political turmoil where terrorism as witnessed or being witnessed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan could also be seen in Bangladesh. The seminar further felt that the resolution of the problems created by January 5th elections should be seen not as a problem of the opposition but of the country. The seminar recommended that to put Bangladesh in the right path, there should be new elections quicker than later so that the dangers of not following the political and democratic options are avoided.

Soon after The Dhaka Forum held its Seminar, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Senate echoed almost all the views articulated by it in its seminar and reached the same conclusion for Bangladesh to find the correct path. The hearing was held under the title “Prospects for democratic reconciliation and workers’ rights in Bangladesh” and Nisha Desai Biswal, the Assistant Secretary for South Asia and Central Asian Affairs in the US State Department gave the testimony before the Committee at the hearing.  She was unequivocal in her conclusion that the January 5th elections “were deeply flawed” because it did not credibly express the will of the people. She touched upon the fact that 154 candidates at the elections became members of parliament uncontested and the poor turn out in the remaining 147 seats. She also expressed concern over the violence that was seen in the period leading up to the elections. The Assistant Secretary also expressed concern over extra judicial killings following the elections and urged upon the Government of Bangladesh to ensure necessary measures to stop such killings.

Assistant Secretary Biswal also stated that Bangladesh “ is at a critical juncture” and the “ hearing is particularly timely and sends a powerful message that the US Congress is concerned about where Bangladesh is headed.” She further stated that these developments, if unresolved, “could have serious ramifications for stability in Bangladesh and the region.” Therefore she underlined the urgent need in Bangladesh for a dialogue between the ruling party and the BNP for new general elections to restore credibility to the government and set Bangladesh on the right and democratic path so that it does not lose the gains that it has made it economic growth and development in recent times. She expressed concerns among investors over the turmoil in Bangladesh concerning the January 5th elections and subsequent developments.

Unfortunately, the hearing at the US Senate was not well received in Dhaka. Immediately after it was clear that the US Congress had urged upon the need to hold new elections, the General Secretary of the ruling party stated in a party meeting that there would be no question of new elections in Bangladesh before the present government completes its term of five years. In fact, the concerns of the US Government and the Congress notwithstanding, the ruling party that had stated before the January 5th elections that these were being held for constitutional necessity thereby hinting that new elections were in the offing, is now on a completely different road where it is not just forgetting its earlier commitment but now teasing and taunting the opposition and with that the western powers, including the United States, that they better keep the concerns to themselves and that the Bangladesh Government would not be pressured to hold new elections anytime soon.

A section of the country’s so-called intelligentsia have joined hands with the government and gone into “ostrich” mentality and do not see anything unusual with what happened on January 5th. A senior journalist working for a leading Dhaka daily therefore had no qualms in joining the game of teasing and taunting those who saw the elections as “deeply flawed.” He wrote a piece in the space reserved for him in his own daily not just demonstrating  “ostrich” mentality but in twisting commonly and widely held perceptions about democracy and democratic values. 

Irked by the views articulated at the TDF Seminar, he thought democracy did not depend on numbers and the facts that 5% people voted in the elections or that 154 members of parliament were returned to their positions without a single vote had no relation to democracy and democratic values. While taunting and teasing like the politicians in the ruling party, he forgot that by believing 5% people could elect a democratic parliament, he just reiterated the arguments of the apologists of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Even in those systems that history has dumped into its garbage, their political institutions like their parliaments and their governments were more representative in terms of numbers.

The writer is a retired Ambassador and a member of The Dhaka Forum. The views expressed here are entirely his own



The election of 5th January 2014 in the eyes of constitution, democracy and international law


Barrister Nazir Ahmed



The tenth parliamentary election in Bangladesh was held on 5th January 2014 - but, what kind of election was it?  Over half - 153 out of 300 – the MPs were elected unopposed!  That means more than half of the voters of the country were deprived of their basic, fundamental and constitutional rights - and their rights under international law.  This is unprecedented in the history of world’s democracy.  In the rest of 147 seats, the actual turnout of voters on the Election Day was so low that it would not match the average percentage seen in a genuine election.  What is the point of discussing the percentage of votes when a State Minister’s son alone cast nearly 500 votes himself?  In more than 40 voting centres not a single vote was casted!  In numerous centres, there were no queues of voters (which are usual in participatory election in Bangladesh) to be seen: Poling Officers and Presiding Officers were seen sleeping or sitting idle.  In other centres, the Polling and Presiding Officers took responsibility for casting votes themselves, by their own hands (table casting)!  To make 147 MPs, more than 180 people were killed between the day the election schedule was announced and the Election Day!  Bangladesh had bitter experience of “voter less election” in the 1980s during the era of military dictatorship.  The new phenomenon of “candidate less election” alongside ‘‘voter less election” was added to the history of Bangladesh on 5th January 2014 by the current government.     


In this article, I shall try to analyse the parliamentary election held on 5th January 2014 in the eyes of Bangladeshi constitution, democracy and international law.  From the objective and legal analysis, I shall try to draw some conclusions towards the end.     


5th January election in the eyes of constitution

Effective participation by the people in electing their representatives is the main essence of democracy.  In order to ensure effective participation and proper election of representatives, voters must have a choice of alternative candidates and voters must be able to express their mandate freely.  In a parliamentary system, the government is selected from, and is accountable to, Parliament.  Whichever party has a majority of seats in the parliamentary election, its leader becomes Prime Minister.  Was the parliamentary election held on 5th January a proper election in real sense?  Was there effective participation by the people?  Article 11 of the constitution of Bangladesh, inter alia, says “The Republic shall be a which effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured.”  Parliament and the Cabinet drawn from it are, no doubt, the highest level of administration.  The election held on 5th January 2014 was not an effective participation by the people as envisaged by Article 11 of the constitution.


Furthermore, the constitution of Bangladesh itself clearly states how parliamentary elections are to be held in each and every constituency of Bangladesh.  There is no scope for allocating seats or sharing them among the parties - depriving the voters, the real source of power which gives the government its legitimacy, of a choice.  Article 62(2) of the constitution says “Parliament shall consist of three hundred members to be elected in accordance with law from single territorial constituencies by direct election....”  The election of 5th January 2014 was not an election where every member elected from single territorial constituencies by direct election as envisaged by Article 65(2) of the constitution.  The Prime Minister’s assertion that “if the BNP [Bangladesh Nationalist Party] came to the election we would have shared/divided/allocated seats with them as we did with Jatiya Party and other parties of the alliance” is not only undemocratic and against the principle of parliamentary democracy, it is also against the constitution of Bangladesh. 


The various opinion polls and surveys conducted before the last election (by neutral newspapers, and even by those leaning towards supporting the government) clearly showed that around 90% people of Bangladesh were against the parliamentary election being held under a party government.  The current government has been violating the constitution at almost each and every step of their movement.  Dozens of concrete examples of gross violation of the constitution by the current government can be given.  Parliament was not dissolved: yet newly elected MPs took their oath, in violation of the constitution.  This effectively made nearly 600 MPs in Bangladesh for two weeks in place of the 300!  Yet the Prime Minister and her colleagues have often shamelessly said that elections were to be held because there was a constitutional obligation to do so.  The country’s leading constitutional experts (for example, Dr Kamal Hossin, Barrister Rafiq-Ul-Huq and Dr Shahdeen Malik, etc) said that if the Parliament was dissolved before 24th January 2014, the election could have been held within 90 days of such dissolution under Article 123 of the constitution.   


5th January election in the eyes of Democracy

5th January 2014 is a black day in the history of democracy in Bangladesh.  Many political scientists and philosophers throughout history have attempted to define the term ‘democracy.’  Among them, Abraham Lincoln’s definition has been widely accepted.  Democracy - as defined by Abraham Lincoln as “a government, of the people, for the people and by the people” - was dead in Bangladesh.  In a democracy, people’s wishes, desires and expectations matter most.  The current government of Bangladesh is not “of the people” of Bangladesh because the people could not freely participate in all constituencies on the mandate giving day.  Similarly, the government cannot be “by the people” because the people were deprived of their fundamental constitutional rights of voting.   If the government cannot be of the people and by the people, certainly it would not be “for the people.”   


Free and fair elections are the most important ingredient of democracy.  Without the former, the latter cannot be thought of.  The relationship between democracy and free and fair elections was best summed up in an Indian case [(2002) 8 SCC 237]: "Free, fair ... elections are part of the basic structure of the Constitution...Democracy and free and fair elections are inseparable twins. There is almost an inseverable umbilical cord joining them. The little man's ballot and not the bullet is the heart beat of democracy."


5th January election in the eyes of International law

Bangladesh is a member of the United Nations (UN).  As a member of the UN and as an independent country, Bangladesh is a signatory to many international accords, agreements and laws.  Among those, the most important two documents are: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  Article 21(3) of the UDHR says “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” On the other hand, Article 25(b) of the ICCPR says, inter alia, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”  As a signatory, Bangladesh has an obligation to fulfil the requirements of and comply with the Articles of the above two important international documents.  The election held on 5th January 2014 was in clear violation of Article 21(3) of the UDHR and Article 25(b) of the ICCPR, for it was not a genuine election and the electorates could not express their free will.  Thus, the will of the people was not the basis of the authority of the current government, for more than 50% voters were deprived from their voting rights. 



The election held on 5th January’s election was not a proper and genuine election in the eyes of constitution, democracy and international law.  The current government has no legitimate right to run the country.  How can a government be legitimate when the overwhelming majority of the people were either deprived of their voting rights or were not given free choice over their vote?  The basic principle of democracy, norms, decency and conscious is that the government will command the support of and draw its mandate from the majority people of the country.  Has the government obtained its mandate properly?  The election was completely flawed and the people could not express their will.  Nisha Desai, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said in the US Senate Committee hearing on 11 February 2014 “On January 5, the government held a deeply flawed election in which one of the two major political parties did not participate.  As a result, over half of the 300 members of Parliament were elected unopposed, and most of the rest faced only token opposition.  The election did not credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people.  This could have serious ramifications for stability in Bangladesh and the region.” 


The US government issued a statement immediately after the election which, inter alia, said “the election was not a credible reflection of the will of the people and called for immediate dialogue to agree on new election as soon as possible.”  History tells us that when a government knows that they are not elected by the people, they can do anything to remain in office.  To such a government, the use of force, arrogance, empty rhetoric, violating human rights and curtailing people’s democratic rights become normal tools for running the country.  These symptoms are already present in Bangladesh.  Unless there is a credible and genuine election held to produce a proper democratic and accountable government, the current ongoing trends are bound to be worse.  The government will gradually turn into a ruthless dictator and ferocious oppressor.  The sooner the people of Bangladesh, its civil society and the international community realise this, the better for the country and its people.     



Barrister Nazir Ahmed: Legal expert, analyst, writer and columnist.  He can be contacted via e-mail:         
























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