Statement: ANFREL voices profound concern over 2024 Bangladeshi polls, calls for genuine democratic elections

ANFREL voices its profound concern regarding the upcoming 12th Parliamentary Elections in Bangladesh, set to take place on 7 January 2024. It is strongly believed that this election is at risk of lacking genuineness and electoral competitiveness, raising serious questions about its adherence to democratic principles and international election standards that assess the legitimacy of the electoral process. 

ANFREL believes that the risk of lacking genuineness and electoral competitiveness emanates from the observed absence of accountability, fairness, and inclusivity in the electoral processes.  This has given rise to significant electoral challenges such as the suppression of the opposition, constraints on political freedoms, limited access to impartial information, and prevalence of political violence. 

The current electoral environment marred with electoral violence, is predominantly targeting the opposition parties and independent candidates. Reports of electoral camps being set on fire, the hurling of crude bombs, and violent confrontations between supporters of the ruling party Awami League (AL), and independent candidates have surfaced from various parts of the country. These confrontations have resulted in numerous injuries and, tragically, the loss of lives. On top of these, the Election Commission and law enforcement agencies have inadequately addressed the escalating political violence. Statements downplaying the scale of electoral violence and breaches of the Electoral Code of Conduct only exacerbated concerns regarding the impartiality and effectiveness of oversight mechanisms.1

Instances of forcefully obstructing and halting processions against the incumbent government, partisan state institutions, and the elections have been reported.  A peaceful gathering organized by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on 28 October 2023,  faced forceful disruption by the Police and AL leaders and activists. BNP’s central office in Dhaka was also forcibly locked by the Police during this incident, and it remains locked to this day. On December 22, the police prevented Ganatantra Mancha, a six-party political alliance, from conducting a procession as part of their mass-contact program to press the current government to resign from power. Law enforcement agencies have taken a concerning turn by arresting opposition leaders and activists both in Dhaka and across the country. The government's unlawful detention of over 21,000 BNP leaders and activists since October 28, 2023, has raised serious human rights concerns, further exacerbated by the tragic deaths of nine BNP leaders and activists in custody. 

The situation demands urgent attention and a comprehensive response to ensure the protection of democratic values and the rule of law.

Instances of violence against journalists have witnessed an alarming surge. On October 18, police assaulted Ariful Islam, a correspondent for Bangla TV, damaging his camera. Subsequently, on October 28, a distressing incident unfolded as 30 journalists were attacked by both the Police and supporters of AL while covering clashes between BNP activists and the Police post-BNP's grand rally. Another unsettling incident occurred on November 20, where a journalist faced an attack by 20-25 members of Chhatra League (AL’s student wing) and Jubo League (AL's youth wing) while attempting to interview a local Chhatra League leader at a pre-arranged location. Further, on November 30, three journalists experienced assault and equipment damage at the hands of a former Member of Parliament (MP) and AL activists. A total of 183 journalists were injured and 61 journalists were assaulted throughout 2023. 

The Digital Security Act of 2018 later replaced with Cyber Security Act 2023 has been used as a tool to attack and intimidate journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition leaders and activists. This has adversely affected healthy public discussion in online space. A recent study showed that 77.78 percent of the 1,410 cases filed under the Digital Security Act of 2018 were by AL politicians.2 These acts of violence and intimidation contribute to an atmosphere of fear and censorship, stifling critical voices and impeding the free flow of information.

Moreover, voter education programs have been sporadic, mainly conducted in proximity to elections. Persistent issues arise as only a few civil society organizations operate independently on matters concerning civil and political rights, including voter education. This lack of independent initiatives poses a challenge to fostering a well-informed electorate and maintaining a robust democratic process.

Bangladesh operates within a multiparty system, yet the political landscape is largely defined by the dominance of two major parties, the Awami League and BNP, with the Jatiya Party also securing electoral success over the years. Unfortunately, the current government appears to be systematically targeting and suppressing leaders and activists from opposition parties, with a particular focus on the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami. Recent developments have seen multiple candidates and opposition parties and alliances, including BNP, Left Democratic Alliance, and the Ganatantra Mancha, declaring their boycott of the elections. They point to the perceived bias of state institutions, including the Election Commission, the evident one-sidedness of the upcoming election, and the crackdown on opposition figures as reasons for their withdrawal. Numerous candidates have also opted out of the electoral race, echoing similar concerns.

Despite calls for dialogue from both domestic and international stakeholders, the ruling Awami League has steadfastly refused to participate, imposing prejudiced preconditions. This impasse further complicates the electoral landscape and raises serious questions about the fairness and inclusivity of the democratic process

Our Call

With the mentioned challenges, ANFREL underscores the fundamental importance of a free and fair election as a cornerstone of participatory governance. The organization maintains unwavering vigilance in bringing attention to these critical issues, recognizing the imminent threat they pose to the integrity of the electoral process. ANFREL remains steadfast in fulfilling its mandate to safeguard and promote human rights and democracy.

ANFREL earnestly calls upon democratic governments and the wider international community to actively champion a democratic process that authentically mirrors the will of the Bangladeshi people. The organization stands resolute in its advocacy for an electoral process in Bangladesh characterized by accountability, transparency, inclusivity, and genuine competitiveness. 

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  1. https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/national-election-2024/news/no-large-scale-breaches-electoral-code-conduct-cec-3505071 ↩︎
  2. https://en.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/2i4rdro5yg ↩︎
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