Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) party won a third consecutive five-year term in a December 2018 parliamentary election that observers considered neither free nor fair and that was marred by irregularities including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters. With more than 80 percent of the vote, the AL and its electoral allies won 288 of 300 directly elected seats, while the main opposition BNP and its allies won only seven seats. Parliament conferred the official status of opposition on the Jatiya Party, a component of the AL-led governing coalition, which seated 22 members in parliament. During the campaign leading to the election, there were credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, or campaign freely.
During the 2018 national elections, the government did not grant credentials or issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to most international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections. Only seven of the 22 Election Working Group NGOs were approved by the Ministry of Home Affairs, NGO Affairs Bureau, and the Election Commission to observe the domestic election.
Low voter turnout, intimidation, irregularities, and low-scale violence targeting opposition-nominated candidates during campaigns and voting marked several local government elections during the year. On February 28, the main opposition BNP announced it would boycott municipal elections countrywide on the grounds the Election Commission had “destroyed” the electoral system. The BNP also refrained from nominating candidates for parliamentary by-elections held during the year. The elections drew few voters, and in some constituencies the ruling AL candidates were “uncontested winners.”
In subdistrict (Upazila) elections from June through December, media reported intraparty violence between AL-affiliated candidates and their supporters left more than 50 individuals dead. Human rights organization ASK stated 157 persons died and 10,833 were injured in a total of 932 political clashes during the year. One candidate publicly boasted government officials and security services supported him, and he threatened ballots would not be secret. Media reported the Election Commission took virtually no action to address violations of the electoral code of conduct by ruling party leaders. AL officials downplayed the violence as the byproduct of “overly enthusiastic” candidates.
The government mobilized law enforcement resources to level civil and criminal charges against opposition party leaders. The BNP claimed police implicated thousands of BNP members in criminal charges prior to the 2018 national election and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated.
Opposition activists faced criminal charges. Leaders and members of Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaat), the largest Islamist political party in the country, could not exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly because of harassment by law enforcement. Jamaat was deregistered as a political party by the government, prohibiting candidates from seeking office under the Jamaat name, and the fundamental constitutional rights of speech and assembly of its leaders and members were denied. Media outlets deemed critical of the government and the AL were subjected to government intimidation and cuts in advertising revenue and thus practiced some self-censorship.
AL-affiliated organizations such as its student wing the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups. On August 18, the BCL attacked a BNP organization’s assistance event for COVID-19 pandemic victims in Manohardi, Narsigndi District, leaving 20 persons injured, including two journalists. On August 29, BCL attacks on a BNP student procession at Dhaka University injured 19 students.
In September 2020 a speedy trial tribunal in Dhaka indicted 25 ruling party student activists for the 2019 killing of Abrar Fahad Rabbi, a student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Rabbi was beaten to death due to suspected involvement with the group Shibir, Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, and following several Facebook posts criticizing recent bilateral agreements with India. The trial continued as of September.
The 86 criminal charges filed by the government against BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in previous years remained unresolved; Alamgir remained free on bail. The charges involved attacks on police, burning buses, and bombings.
In some instances the government interfered with the right of opposition parties to organize public functions and restricted broadcasting of opposition political events. Political parties, however, had limited outdoor activities as the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to go virtual or stay indoors.
No laws limited participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. In 2018 parliament amended the constitution to extend by 25 additional years a provision that reserves 50 seats for women. Female parliamentarians are nominated by the 300 directly elected parliamentarians. The seats reserved for women are distributed among parties proportionate to their parliamentary representation. Political parties failed to meet a parliamentary rule that women comprise 33 percent of all committee members by the end of the 2020, leading the Electoral Commission to propose eliminating the rule altogether.