Exiled opposition leader dismisses Bangladesh elections as sham

Published January 5, 2024
Acting chairman of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Tarique Rahman, poses for a portrait in a hotel in south-west London on Dec 30, 2023.  — AFP
Acting chairman of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Tarique Rahman, poses for a portrait in a hotel in south-west London on Dec 30, 2023. — AFP

LONDON: Bangladesh’s ele­c­­tion on Sunday will be a “sham” designed to cement Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s rule, exiled opposition leader Tarique Rahman has said in an exclusive interview defending his party’s boycott.

Rahman is heir to one of the country’s two main political dynasties — the other led by Hasina — and has helmed its largest opposition party since the 2018 jailing of his mother, two-time premier Khaleda Zia.

Six years ago he was convicted in absentia of masterminding a deadly grenade attack on a campaign rally for Hasina — a charge he insists is fabricated — and sentenced to life imprisonment.

His party staged a months-long protest campaign last year demanding the prime minister’s resignation that saw at least 11 people killed and thousands of its supporters arrested.

In his first interview with a major international media outlet for several years, Rahman, 56, said it would be inappropriate to have his party participate in a vote with a “predetermined” outcome.

 Acting chairman of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Tarique Rahman, poses for a portrait in a park in south-west London on Dec 30, 2023.  — AFP
Acting chairman of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Tarique Rahman, poses for a portrait in a park in south-west London on Dec 30, 2023. — AFP

“Bangladesh is approaching another sham election,” he told this news agency from London, where he has lived since 2008.

“Participating in an election under Hasina, against the aspirations of the Bangladeshi people, would undermine the sacrifices of those who fought, shed blood and gave their lives for democracy.”

Rahman said the odds against his Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and dozens of other parties which joined the boycott had been overwhelmingly stacked against them by the ruling Awami League.

He accused it of fielding “dummy” opposition candidates aligned with the ruling party to give the election a patina of legitimacy. This would create “an impression of competition even though all results are predetermined”, he said.

He also claimed the party was attempting to drive up turnout by threatening to withhold government benefits from those who did not vote for Awami League candidates.

The United States, which sanctioned Bangladeshi security forces in 2021 over allegations of rights abuses, and other countries have also voiced their concerns about the conduct of this week’s vote.

Gono Odhikar Parishad party activists form a human chain during a protest demanding a free and fair election under a caretaker govt in Dhaka on Jan 4, ahead of Bangladesh’s upcoming general election on Jan 7. — AFP
Gono Odhikar Parishad party activists form a human chain during a protest demanding a free and fair election under a caretaker govt in Dhaka on Jan 4, ahead of Bangladesh’s upcoming general election on Jan 7. — AFP

Hasina, in power since 2009, has repeatedly vowed that the election would be credible, after observers said previous polls won by her party in 2014 and 2018 were marred by irregularities.

“Go to the polling stations and cast votes in the morning to show the world that we know how to hold the election in a free and fair manner,” she told a Saturday campaign rally.

Twin dynasties

Rahman and Hasina’s families have between them ruled the world’s eighth-most populous nation for all but 12 years since 1971. Rahman’s father, a former army chief, took the reins of the country after the assassination of Hasina’s father, serving as president until his own assassination in 1981.

His mother Zia once teamed up with Hasina to restore democracy after a period of military rule, before the two became bitter adversaries as they competed for political power from the 1990s onward.

Rahman has kept a low profile in London since leaving his country shortly before Hasina took power. He is rarely seen in public outside of weddings for prominent members of the Bangladeshi diaspora or events marking national holidays.

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2024

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