By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh’s main opposition alliance declared Monday that its victorious candidates would not take the oath as new MPs to protest alleged vote-tampering in Sunday’s national polls, while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said her ruling coalition had won a “credible and transparent” election through a landslide.
The National Unity Front (NUF) opposition bloc won a mere seven parliamentary seats compared with the Grand Alliance coalition, which took 288 seats out of 299 that were up for grabs in the polls, according to the nation’s Election Commission.
“We have rejected the results of the election, so we will not go to parliament. Our MPs will not take the oath,” Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the leading parties in the opposition alliance, told reporters in Dhaka.
As many as 83.2 million people, or 80 percent of eligible Bangladeshi voters, cast ballots in the 11th general election – the first national polls contested in a decade – the commission reported on Monday. It turned down calls from the opposition that the votes be thrown out and polls be held again because of allegations of massive ballot rigging.
“The Awami League has snatched the people’s rights to franchise in a premeditated way. We completely reject this election,” said Alamgir, who was elected to parliament from the Bogra constituency, adding that the NUF demanded that new elections be held under a neutral caretaker government.
“Our MPs cannot take the oath and sit in the assembly,” Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a key leader of the recently formed NUF coalition, told BenarNews. “If our MPs go to parliament, we will contradict ourselves.”
PM: ‘They overwhelmingly voted for us’
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hasina, 71, spoke to reporters for the first time after securing a record fourth and third consecutive one.
The people had once again picked her Awami League party, which heads the Grand Alliance, because it had brought the country positive economic change, including reducing the poverty rate change and raising the Gross Domestic Product, the state-run BSS news agency quoted her as saying.
“They (the people) wanted continuity of the government, [and] development for which
they overwhelmingly voted for us,” said Hasina, who received congratulatory messages on Monday from Bangladesh’s giant neighbors to the west and east, India and China.
The Asian rivals both maintain bilateral relations with Dhaka and have sizeable economic investments in the country of 160 million people.
Awami’s victory was “credible and transparent,” but the opposition NUF lost because “people did not know who the opposition leader was,” Hasina added.
Kamal Hossain, 84, a former Awami stalwart who had worked under Hasina’s father – the founding leader of Bangladesh who was assassinated in a coup in 1975 – spearheaded the NUF during the election campaign but was not running for any parliamentary seats.
The NUF had forged an alliance with the BNP, Awami’s traditional rival party whose leader, Khaleda Zia, was disqualified from participating in the election because she was convicted and jailed over corruption charges – which, her supporters said, were politically motivated.
While Hasina basked in the glow of her party’s victory by saying it would prolong the country’s economic stability, Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political science professor at Chittagong University, suggested that Awami’s landslide victory would create “further political instability.”
“People will definitely question the result. They will not accept the outcome,” he told BenarNews. “When a ruling party candidate gets 250,000 votes while a BNP gets 10,000, [this] is unacceptable to the voters.”
“All political parties contested the election. We had an opportunity to bring long-term political stability. But this chance is lost,” Ahmed added.
‘This is not a vote’
According to a statement from Bangladesh’s government, the Election Commission had declared that Awami won a “substantial majority” in parliament by taking 267 seats in Sunday’s vote, although results from one constituency were postponed because of alleged irregularities at three polling centers. Nationwide, polling was suspended at only 16 centers in all, the statement said.
“In the end, almost all foreign observers have issued statements affirming that the elections were orderly, fair and mostly peaceful,” the government said.
Among the 18 countries and organizations that were approved to send 176 observers to monitor the polls, the United States deployed the largest contingent, made up of 65 observers, according to a list from the Election Commission.
In the week before the vote, the U.S. State Department and American ambassador to Dhaka issued statements expressing concern that the polls be free and fair as well as staged in a safe atmosphere.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which was accredited to send observers, told Benar it could not comment on whether the Bangladeshi elections were held in a free and fair manner.
K.M. Nurul Huda, the embattled head of the Election Commission whom the opposition had accused of being biased for the government during the run-up to the polls, on Monday described Sunday’s vote as “peaceful” and “fair.” Police, however, had said that at least 16 people were killed in political-related violence nationwide on Saturday and Sunday.
“No, we will not hold a fresh election; there is no scope for holding an election anew,” Huda told reporters in Dhaka.
He also rejected allegations from the NUF that officials and activists from the ruling Awami League party had been spotted stuffing ballot boxes ahead of the 11th general election.
“This is a totally untrue statement,” the elections chief said, adding, “We, the election commission, are satisfied … We have not received a single written allegation of irregularities.”
As soon as Huda left the media briefing room, Mahbub Uddin Khokon, a barrister and BNP candidate, came in, saying he had filed written complaints with the commission about alleged voter fraud in his constituency.
“Across the country, the style of rigging was the same,” Khokon told BenarNews.
“The police, the ruling party armed cadres, the administration and the election commission officials stuffed the ballots in advanced to get the ruling party candidates elected,” he alleged. “They kicked the agents of Sheaf of Paddy out of the centers and cast false votes in the presence of the police and administrative officials.”
He was alluding to the symbol of the NUF coalition.
On Sunday night, Islami Andolon, a faith-based independent party, said it had filed written complaints about fraud in at least 24 constituencies, where its appointed poll monitors were allegedly beaten and forced out of polling centers.
The party said other irregularities had occurred, including the stuffing of ballot boxes, the closing of police centers at 11 a.m., and the casting of falsified votes. The party fielded candidates for all 299 seats but did not win a single one.
“This is not a vote. This is a farce. We reject this election,” Yousuf Ahmad, the secretary general of Islamic Andolan, told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, a BenarNews correspondent who on Sunday visited a polling center in Rupganj, a sub-district near Dhaka, said he saw no voters at the polling booths. Some local people, including a 12-year-old boy, were stamping seals on ballot papers in the presence of a police constable.
When the group saw that journalists were observing them, they ran away.
“There may be one or two such cases. Very peaceful voting is going on. By 12:45 p.m., over 2,400 out of 3,100 votes have been cast. You go, now,” a presiding officer, who was on site but declined to identify himself, told the Benar reporter.