Will 2023 be another one-party soap opera, or will the innocent masses finally break free?
By Anime Abdullah
From the riveting theaters of Ukraine to the enthralling stage of Jordan, from the star-spangled circus of the U.S. to the lively spectacle in Bangladesh, everywhere politics offers a delightful blend of comedy, tragedy, and farce that puts most reality TV shows to shame. The twists and turns of Bangladesh’s gripping political drama reach their peak, particularly during the election season, unknown to many, has successfully summited the rollercoaster of election aerobics. Rarely can such a perfect balance of unparalleled skills — disregarding the country’s interests, disseminating misinformation, and shamelessly reversing political promises solely to secure power — be found.
For an entire decade, the ruling party has entertained the 180 million innocent citizens twice by its breathtaking ballet with democracy. While the world may be distracted by the Israel-Palestine conflict, the country’s understated yet robust 2024 election carnival is quietly unfolding. Puppet masters are clandestinely choreographing the next big political soap opera’s plot, hoping to score a hat-trick. Political luminaries are draping democracy in an acrobatic mask to parade through the streets with yet another set of unique and strategic maneuvers.
The talent of showing election tricks came into the limelight in 2014, when the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) party secured a whopping 153 seats uncontested. However, the absence of actual competition bored the talent, and so they thickened the plot in 2018 by ensuring all parties’ participation without changing the outcome — the ballot was stuffed the night before the election (Staff Correspondent, Jan. 16, 2019, https://www.thedailystar.net/). The widespread irregularities in the political tapestry’s deep fiber made it a true masterpiece.
Despite the global calls for a credible election, Dhaka remains unmoved and unashamed, claiming victory with a barefaced victory grin. Hats off to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the carnival’s mastermind, for showcasing her unparalleled diplomatic skills: severe crackdowns on the opposition, free press and any pesky dissent that dares to raise his/her head. Equal kudos to the supporting cast, turning a blind eye to yet another discredited election for the final blow to their credibility.
At the outset of this new election extravaganza, one can only marvel at the political clowns wielding power, torn tightropes of trust, mummified sense of shame, and the disappearing act of responsibility being the grand finale. There are too many angels in this show, but space constraints permit us to appreciate only the teaser of the top four acts.
Act I: Weathering the West’s Diplomatic Influence
Fond of playing invisible in the political circus, the U.S. ambassador envoy embarked on a series of secret voyages to New Delhi to coax India into supporting a free and fair election in Bangladesh back in 2014 (Mubashar Hasan, Sept. 18, 2023, https://thediplomat.com). Much to the ambassador’s chagrin, this diplomatic endeavor was thwarted the same year and dismissed during the 2018 elections. Undeterred, the U.S. swiftly declared Bangladesh a “key partner in the Indo-Pacific” and a “centerpiece of our work in the region.” This political meddling has overstayed its welcome.
During December 2021, Washington sanctioned Bangladesh’s elite security force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), for extrajudicial killings and human rights violations. The Biden administration then snubbed Bangladesh’s invitation to its 2021 and 2023 global democracy galas (Geoffrey Macdonald, June 15, 2023, https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/06/). In 2023 Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu stole the show by gracing Bangladesh from January 14 to 15, adding both flair and grandiosity to the simmering tensions over the impending elections. During May 2023, the U.S. placed a visa refusal drama for any Bangladeshi tied to “undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.”
Finally, on Nov. 16, 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted at trade sanctions to address tensions in Bangladesh’s RMG (ready-made garment) sector. Yet BAL, the top leaders and their loyal entourage, acted impervious to all of these, swatted them away and instead focused a verbal and social media onslaught on Ambassador, Peter Haas. Despite being the single largest export destination — $9.4 billion worth of apparel in FY 2022 — American diplomacy was overshadowed by the diplomatic acrobatics in Bangladesh.
Act II: Tackling the Twin Asian Tug-of-war
The 2014 general election’s legitimacy was questioned worldwide when the biggest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB), the Jatiya Party (JP) and others refused to participate under the BAL government. However, as an overbearing parent, India sent its foreign secretary Sujata Singh, a pro-puppet master, to charm the JP and strengthen the BAL government. Such blind support during farcical elections isolated India both in the political realm and in public perception (Mubashar Hasan, June 28, 2023, https://thediplomat.com).
But wait, maybe that was the ruling affairs’ not-so-hidden desire. The maestro prime minister deftly seized this opportunity to expand Chinese influence. They were the first to high-five the one-sided 2014 elections and host a lavish congratulatory party for the controversial 2018 elections. China has helped Bangladesh with over $38 billion in investments since 2016 with “no strings attached” policy and delivered over 70% of the country’s weapons procurement between 2015 and 2022. As a little bonus, it even threw in the shiny new $1.2 billion BNS Sheikh Hasina submarine base just in case someone felt like taking a dip in Cox’s Bazar. Pocket-change to tackle the tug-of-war with two giants stumbling over each other.
Act III: Intermission — Commending the circus of activism
Meanwhile, the activists, who storm the stage with protests, strikes or even hunger strikes to draw attention to the overly protective parent (aka the government), encounter responses akin to throwing around arrests, censorship and shutdowns like confetti at a carnival. And the benevolent guardian responds by arresting 10,000+ BNP activists and leaders. The charges? Well, they’re about as authentic as a unicorn sighting. A random example could be BNP joint secretary general Habibun Nabi Khan Sohel amassing cases like a collector of rare stamps – 450+ and counting — all thanks to the Oct. 28, 2023, protest.
In a November 18-19 spectacle, around 139 senior opposition party officials and activists were convicted with a smorgasbord of charges and promptly jailed, turning the courtroom into a revolving door (“Bangladesh Convicts 139 Opposition Officials, Activists, Say Lawyers,” Nov. 20, 2023, https://www.courthousenews.com/).
Who bothers with the joint statement from multiple Western countries when one has already dared to ignore the EU, UN, U.S. and U.K. ‘s calls for an investigation into election fraud allegations? Rather, Dhaka’s avant-garde performance involves subtly shutting the door on any potential dialogue by masterfully labeling all opposition members “criminals.” BAL eagerly anticipates a chat with the BNP if, and only if, President Biden and Donald Trump, the de facto Republican Party leader, decide to engage in a tête-à-tête. Now that’s a dialogue worth waiting for!
Act IV: The eye-wash of the election commission
Despite the allegations of bias and electoral manipulation hanging in the air like the acrid smell of popcorn in a circus tent, the ruling party has already formed the Election Commission (EC). Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal has graced the innocent citizens with an election timetable, crafted carefully without any consensus among the major political parties on the interim government during election — as if having an election, no matter how dubious, is a triumphant “win” for the EC and ruling party.
Audiences involuntarily embrace the stay-in-a-fool’s paradise and accept that the polls will be “free and fair, impartial, participatory… credible and praised at home and abroad,” as the CEC claims. But we have to give credit where it’s due; without fail, every election year the BAL has appointed the ECs as the puppet masters, exhibiting utter subtlety and resilience, along with a touch of magic, to upholding democratic principles while avoiding stepping on the political elite’s well-manicured toes.
A ruling party troupe has also perfected the art of making voters believe they’re in full control, conveniently eliminating major opposition parties like the BNP, JIB, JP and others. Even world-famous sportsmen (i.e., Mashrafi bin Mortuza, former international cricketer, or Shakib Al Hasan, captain of the national cricket team) or the country’s renowned showbiz performers are distracted with the illusion of choice, for they sought nomination from the ruling party in the belief that they’re part of a vibrant democracy.
Major opposition parties are boycotting the 2024 elections, which they suspect to be as fair as a rigged game of cards. However, the ruling party is as likely to concede to their demand for holding the elections under a non-partisan caretaker government as a cat is to bark. Hence, the finale of democracy dangles like a trapeze artist suspended in mid-air. The show must go on, but whether it continues as a farcical comedy or evolves into a genuine democratic saga depends on the people’s collective will. As the election circus tent folds and the performers from a single party take their bows, the spotlight shifts to the citizens, waiting to reclaim the center stage of their democracy in order to break free from the illusionists and acrobats who have held it captive for too long.
Anime Abdullah is a freelance writer