Beyond Words: Unravelling the Debate on ‘Free and Fair Elections’

Following the recent elections in Bangladesh, when the Awami League emerged as the winner, the country is currently engaged in a discussion focused on "free and fair elections."

Following the recent elections in Bangladesh, when the Awami League emerged as the winner, the country is currently engaged in a discussion focused on “free and fair elections.” This discussion, marked by intricate and unexpected developments, has influenced the political discourse and garnered substantial interest from global actors.

The frequent focus on terms like “free and fair election” and “participatory election” indicates a worldwide anticipation for preserving democratic principles. Nevertheless, under the specific circumstances of Bangladesh, these principles have been obscured by the dispute, leading to a toxic political atmosphere and promoting suspicion among political factions. Foreign governments have actively supported the idea of a “free and fair election,” which has added complexity to Bangladesh’s political environment.

A group of people has cast their doubts over the authenticity of the election due to the low number of voters participating in the January 7 election. However, the voter participation of 41.8% was considered to meet the modest level set by international standards, confirming the government’s legitimacy. By contrast, the turnout rate in this election surpassed the numbers from the 2013 election, in which just 39.48% of voters participated. Both national and foreign observers have voiced their great satisfaction with the election, commending the Election Commission for their brave efforts in ensuring the election’s credibility.

Nevertheless, the electoral process was tainted by violent activities sponsored by the BNP, which effectively impeded voters from exercising their fundamental voting rights. This miserable circumstance not only increased the level of difficulty in the electoral scene but also highlighted the difficulties encountered in guaranteeing a just and unimpeded democratic process.

The involvement of foreign powers in the form of external interference, advocating for a “free and fair election,” has further complicated the issue, resulting in a diplomatic entanglement that has significant consequences for Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. The opposition’s efforts to undermine the electoral process through negative campaigning and violence not only deprived the people of their voting rights but also invited increased foreign observation and meddling, intensifying the political tension on a global level.

Foreign nations and international organizations expressed their opinions on the perceived flaws of the voting process, causing the complexities of Bangladesh’s domestic politics to get entangled with global diplomatic dynamics. The international demands for a “free and fair election” not only expressed a concern for democratic values but also offered an outsider perspective that further complicated the already heated discussion within the country.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), as the major opposition, aimed to question the validity of the electoral procedure. To exert influence on the electoral environment, they employed scary methods such as an arson assault and the organization of disruptive activities like hartal and blockade. The intentional utilization of force, shown by setting fire to a location to induce fear and cause disruption to the election process, demonstrates a coordinated endeavor to obstruct democratic operations. Moreover, the implementation of hartal and blockade and the party’s choice to abstain from participating in the election showcased a deliberate strategy to impede the established democratic processes. These actions not only subverted the norms of open and equitable elections but also intensified a feeling of uncertainty and disorder in the week leading up to the day of voting.

The BNP employed methods reminiscent of terrorism, employing indiscriminate violence to induce fear, discourage ballot participation, and eventually reduce vote tallies. The opposition’s inability to garner widespread public support resulted in questionable alliances and lobbying efforts, further eroding the election’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international world.

Bangladesh faces economic difficulties amid the Ukraine conflict and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the new government must now deal with the consequences of a deliberate campaign of the opposition. The concurrent crises have resulted in a disorder in the country’s macroeconomic condition, requiring concentrated endeavors to rejuvenate the economy.

Within politics, the new government is confronted with additional difficulties due to unfavorable depictions and intentional evaluations of the election by Western media. The election’s credibility has been questioned due to foreign pressure, which exacerbated dubious claims. The United States, after previously refraining from commenting, aligned itself with the United Kingdom’s assertion that the election was not “free and fair,” exacerbating tensions between the two countries.

The geopolitical significance of Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific region underscores the necessity for cooperation and a renewed beginning in diplomatic ties. To promote stability and growth, it is crucial for the country to have a comprehensive grasp of the actual situation on the ground and to move away from biased perspectives, including both internal and foreign issues.

The discussion over “free and fair elections” in Bangladesh highlights a complex interaction between internal and external variables. The government’s status and position would be strengthened by the recognition of the election by influential regional powers such as China, India, Russia, and Japan, among other states. Ensuring the stability and growth of the nation is crucial for the new government as it navigates the post-election phase. This involves skillfully addressing economic issues and effectively adjusting foreign relations. To successfully navigate the consequences of a disputed election, it is crucial to carefully manage both internal issues and foreign factors to create a solid and prosperous future.

Dr. Pranab Kumar Panday
Dr. Pranab Kumar Panday
The writer is a Professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi.