January 19, 2019

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Bangladeshis Must Choose ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ in Election

Bangladeshis Must Choose ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ in Election
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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladeshi voters will decide in parliamentary elections on Sunday whether to punish the governing party for worsening human rights conditions or reward it for overseeing a booming economy.

During Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s two terms, the economy and social development have improved, according to most measures. But as she has tightened her grip on power, fundamental rights have been eroded.

Now the 71-year-old leader is seeking her third consecutive term on Sunday. In defending her record, Mrs. Hasina questioned the very definition of human rights.

“If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights,” she said this month in an interview with The New York Times. She vowed, if re-elected, to deliver 10 percent annual growth, up from the current 7.8 percent, and eliminate extreme poverty while continuing to strengthen welfare programs.

“What the opposition is saying, or civil society or your N.G.O.’s — I don’t bother with that,” she said of nongovernmental organizations and her critics. “I know my country, and I know how to develop my country. My biggest challenge is that no one is left behind.”

Local activists, political rivals and international rights organizations accuse Mrs. Hasina of co-opting state institutions like the judiciary and the police.

Some Bangladeshis have been punished after speaking against the government, and a new law on digital security gives the police sweeping powers to monitor people’s activity online and arrest critics without warrants. There are fears she will become even more heavy-handed should she win a new term.

Mrs. Hasina and her Awami League are pitted against the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The country has vacillated between the two parties since the advent of democracy in 1991, when military rule ended.

But as the election approached, the government’s critics faced arrest and other forms of repression, a crackdown on dissent that a Human Rights Watch report this month described as “a climate of fear extending from prominent voices in society to ordinary citizens.”

Mrs. Hasina dismissed such criticism from local and international organizations.

“They are trying to please their donors and exaggerating,” she said, to get more funding.

Among the Bangladeshis who have been in officials’ sights is the photographer Shahidul Alam, who was jailed for months after being arrested in August for describing police violence against student protesters in a Facebook post and an interview with Al Jazeera.

“He was doing propaganda against the government and instigating people to violence,” Mrs. Hasina said of Mr. Alam, who has been freed on bail but could still face prison time.

Voters complain this election gives them few real choices. The opposition coalition is dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party but encompasses some two dozen parties bound by little other than their desire to check the prime minister’s hold on power.

It is unclear which candidate the opposition would vote in as prime minister should it clinch a majority of the 300 seats up for grabs in the election.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s own track record is marred. Even its secretary general, Mirza Fakhul Islam Alamgir, acknowledged in an interview this month that human rights violations and corruption flourished under his party in the past, with extrajudicial killings and disappearances used as governance tools.

But Mr. Alamgir and his allies say that violations under the B.N.P. government were limited and that, given another chance, they would govern well.

Some voters who are satisfied with the economic development under Mrs. Hasina’s leadership may still vote for the B.N.P., not because they think the party has a greater affinity for human rights, but because they hope to salvage democracy, they say, by providing a check on the governing party in Parliament.

“We are choosing the lesser of two evils in our politics,” said Iftekharuzzaman, who goes by one name and is the executive director of the Bangladesh arm of Transparency International, a corruption watchdog.

“All government institutions have a stake in the elections now; they have been politicized strongly,” he said, adding that if Mrs. Hasina “wins a third term, she will increase her authoritarianism, her hold over the state.”

In Bangladesh’s short democratic history, Mrs. Hasina is the first prime minister to win two consecutive terms — partly because the opposition boycotted the last election in 2014, hoping to weaken her. But the boycott meant that Mrs. Hasina’s tenure has gone largely unchecked, creating the very political condition the opposition is now protesting.

“The only silver lining one can see out of this mess is a Parliament with a significant opposition to provide some checks and balances,” Mr. Iftekharuzzaman said.

He and Human Rights Watch say that the governing party has undermined an open campaigning process, with the police intimidating opposition candidates and protesters, imprisoning politicians for several days under false charges and tearing down their posters.

The B.N.P. said this month that 10 of its candidates are in prison and 6,000 party loyalists have been arrested.

“If we have a multiparty system, a Parliament that works and a government without absolute power, then this election may be worth the intimidation,” said Kamal Hossain, the head of the opposition coalition. He had previously been allied with Mrs. Hasina.

Independent observers say that antipathy toward incumbents is strong and that it is hard to determine whether Mrs. Hasina will win on Sunday. But the opposition is plagued by bitter infighting, and the manifestoes of the B.N.P. and the Awami League are nearly identical, promising vague paths to continued economic growth and better welfare programs.

Mrs. Hasina said in her interview that the right to criticize the government freely is only a concern of the urbanized elites. She says her government has delivered on what rural Bangladeshis are most concerned with: getting food on the table, medical care and jobs.

Per capita income has increased by nearly 150 percent, while the share of the population living in extreme poverty has shrunk to about 9 percent from 19 percent, according to the World Bank.

Electricity generation has also increased drastically under Mrs. Hasina’s rule, helping to boost factory production and spreading out to homes in rural areas. The rates of maternal mortality and illiteracy have also declined.

Sultana Kamal, a Bangladeshi activist who was once close to Mrs. Hasina but has become increasingly wary of her, said a win by the current government would be seen as an indifference by voters to rights concerns.

“If Awami League returns, they will say, ‘The critics are criticizing us, but we returned to power on the people’s vote. The people don’t care about extrajudicial killings, human rights or corruption,’” she said.

Bangladesh’s telecoms regulator has ordered mobile operators to shut down high-speed mobile internet services until midnight on Sunday, the day of a national election.

Activists are worried that the shut down will prevent election monitors from sharing information about any irregularities at polling stations and alerting the public.

For Rashed Khan, a student who moved to Dhaka from a farming village to attend college, resentment of the crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly is not limited to city-dwellers, as the prime minister says.

“I am from a village,” Mr. Khan said. “Village politics are important; they want to be able to speak their minds.”

Mr. Khan helped lead huge student protests this year that paralyzed the streets of Dhaka, the capital. After criticizing the government in a Facebook post, Mr. Khan was detained for two months, and he says he was beaten severely in custody.

Like other activists, Mr. Khan says democratic ideals cannot be sacrificed for economic growth.

“Why doesn’t the government want our opinion, our input?” asked Mr. Khan. “If we have no rights to criticize the government, this development doesn’t matter.”



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