Though many observers expected the December 30 election to be credible, the “playing field” remains far from being level, says a report of the UK House of Commons.
Harassment of political opponents remains intense while the ruling Awami League enjoys the advantages of incumbency, said the report released on Thursday.
According to the latest briefing of the House on Bangladesh, the degree of trust over the “rules of the game” remains low.
“There are fears that this could foment violence and instability, whether during the election campaign or once the results have been announced,” said report known as “Research Briefing”.
There are long-standing concerns about the independence of the Election Commission, said the lower chamber of the British parliament. Besides, electronic voting machines are being used for the first time in national elections. The BNP is opposing it, the report said.
At the end of October, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia's original five-year prison sentence was doubled following a court appeal by the Anti-Corruption Commission. A few days earlier, she had been convicted in another corruption case and given a seven-year sentence, it added.
After Khaleda was allowed out of prison in October to receive hospital treatment in observance of a court order, the House of Commons said, there were hopes that that might be a prelude to her release. But those hopes were dashed when she was returned to prison last month.
“All hope seems finally to have been extinguished by a 28 November Supreme Court ruling upholding the verdict of a lower court that nobody sentenced to more than two years in jail or awaiting appeal can run for election,” said the report. Dozens of other criminal charges hang over her and other BNP leaders.
The BNP claims that many hundreds more of its activists have been arrested during November and the AL has accused BNP supporters of attacking the police during recent protests.
Always high, the political temperature in Bangladesh rose further ahead of election, the report said, adding, critics have continued to be concerned about abuse of human rights, including the misuse of criminal charges, unlawful killings and “disappearance”. While lower that it has been in recent years, the militant jihadist threat is far from extinguished.
It has also been argued that the EU's decision not to send a full-blown observer mission illustrates international scepticism about the elections. The EU is sending a two-person “expert mission”. The Commonwealth has not yet said whether it will be sending an observer mission, the report said.
On election prospects, the House of Commons said the BNP has sought to burnish its secular credentials by forming the Jatiya Oikyafront, headed by Dr Kamal Hossain. Its closest political ally in the past, Jamaat-e-Islami, has been “banned” and cannot participate in the elections, although the AL claims that it is doing so surreptitiously by backing other Islamist and independent candidates.
The AL heads a 14-party alliance. In something of a role-reversal, this strongly secular party has established ties with some conservative Islamist groups in recent years -- most notably, Hefajat-e-Islam, the report added.
In the report, UK-based academic Mushtaq Khan has warned that, given the political climate since 2008, another AL victory could mean the entrenchment of single-party rule and a further slide towards political authoritarianism.
He argued this could undermine the economic and social achievements of recent decades, which have been made possible by a political settlement in Bangladesh.