SREENAGAR, Bangladesh (AP) – Bangladesh’s ruling party is set to win a series of local elections to choose village-level representatives amid boycott of the country’s largest opposition party after widespread allegations of misconduct in the last national vote.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League party is almost certain to win Thursday’s elections for 848 rural councils. A total of 4,571 local councils, known as union parishes and responsible for community development and village-level public welfare services, are challenged in stages.
In the first round of the 204 council elections in June, 148 ruling party candidates won and the rest went to independents.
Analysts say it is an opportunity for the ruling party to consolidate its position ahead of the next general elections scheduled for 2023. It follows the trend in the last two general elections in 2014 and 2018, which Hasina’s party won. overwhelmingly despite allegations of electoral fraud and manipulation.
“The way the political and institutional structure has been designed and rendered, I think it’s hard to imagine that truly free and fair elections will take place in Bangladesh in the next round,” said Iftekharuzzaman, who heads the Bangladesh section of the Berlin- based on Transparency International.
He blamed the Electoral Commission for the incompetence and loyalty of senior officials to the ruling party.
“We have decided to stay away from these local government elections,” said Rumeen Farhana, a deputy from Bangladesh’s main nationalist opposition party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, archrival of Hasina. “My party has made clear its position. That without a non-partisan and neutral government we will not contest the next general elections”.
“Since 2014 the electoral process has been destroyed, from the grassroots to the national level and is going from bad to worse. There is no more choice for voters to choose their candidates, “he said.
Obaidul Qauder, general secretary of the Awami League, said people from Zia’s party are running in the elections as independent candidates.
“If you dare, take part in the polls visibly with your party symbol,” he told reporters.
The opposition often claims that a distorted political atmosphere prevents them from participating fairly in national elections.
Farhana says their activists across the country are facing politically motivated accusations, a common tactic in Bangladesh to keep the opposition engaged with legal protection. Authorities routinely deny such allegations, stating that court cases come from specific charges.
Since 1991, when Bangladesh returned to a democratic system, Hasina and Zia had alternately ruled the country before Hasina came to power with a landslide victory in the 2008 election which was accepted as free and fair.
But that has changed. Election monitoring groups say more than half of the constituencies in the 300-seat parliament were elected unopposed by the ruling party in 2014, while ballot was common practice in 2018 amid allegations of intimidation.
Iftekharuzzaman said politics in Bangladesh under the two largest parties had become a zero-sum game, and they used the Electoral Commission and the public administration for their partisan benefits.
“The key problem lies in the establishment of the Electoral Commission, which has been rendered dysfunctional … as well as in the corruption allegations against them,” he said.
The electoral commission has denied the allegations and said they are carrying out their constitutional duties correctly.
Iftekharuzzaman said the main victim is democracy, as the country’s leaders can no longer claim the full legitimacy of the elections.
“They don’t have the true mandate of the people and they don’t have the confidence to truly claim themselves as public representatives,” he said.
Many voters feel they have little choice.
“I want an election that includes all parties, which was once held in Bangladesh and is now lost,” said Mohammed Mojibor, a businessman. “These elections are unilateral. I don’t know about others, but personally I think this is unacceptable.”