Critics Decry Bangladesh’s Ban on Most Political Activities as ‘unconstitutional’

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The Bangladesh Election Commission is facing criticism and accusations of constitutional violations following its decision to impose a three-week ban on all political activities, except election campaigning, from Dec. 18 to Jan. 7.

Opposition parties and experts have criticized the commission for suppressing political discourse ahead of the Jan. 7 general election after it requested on Tuesday that the Home Ministry ban public gatherings and rallies except for election-related campaigns.

“The Election Commission has broad power to do many things for the sake of fair elections, but it cannot curb constitutional rights,” said Supreme Court lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan. “In my opinion, such an instruction is absolutely illegal and will raise further questions about the commission’s impartiality.”

The request came hours after the ruling Awami League’s general secretary, Obaidul Quader, asked the electoral body to take “a strong stand against anti-election forces,” referring to the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party that is boycotting the election.

Selima Rahman, a member of the BNP’s top decision-making body, contends that the ban was specifically designed to target the party’s future protest rallies, laying bare the commission’s deference to the ruling Awami League party.

“This ban was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the commission merely acted as a rubber stamp,” she told BenarNews. “It’s an eyewash.”

The commission has not disputed that its move will affect the opposition party, but said it was necessary to minimize potential violence.

“Obstructing a fair election is a crime under our law. In light of this, we asked the Ministry of Home Affairs to ensure that no political party can do so,” Mohammad Alamgir, the commission’s top executive, told reporters on Wednesday. 

“A party can boycott an election and peacefully ask the electorate not to cast their ballot in the election. But they cannot engage in terrorizing activities or violence to prevent polling.”

However, the commission’s formal letter sent to the ministry does not appear to have any such caveats.

“It’s imperative to restrain anyone from undertaking or organizing rallies, assemblies or any other political programs – except for electoral campaigning – that may obstruct electoral works or discourage electorates from casting their ballots,” reads the letter reviewed by BenarNews.

The BNP has waged protest rallies for months, demanding the government’s resignation to pave the way for a caretaker government to oversee elections. The protests escalated to strikes and transportation blockades after security agencies forcibly dispersed its grand rally on Oct. 28, an event that ended in violence.

In response to the protests, the government arrested tens of thousands of opposition supporters, including senior party figures. Subsequently, the opposition party announced its formal boycott of the upcoming elections.

The ruling Awami League has been in power for about 15 consecutive years. In 2011, it removed the constitutional provision of the caretaker government. 

Elections since then have been controversial.

In 2014, the opposition parties boycotted in protest against the removal of the caretaker system, resulting in the Awami League returning to power virtually unopposed.

Despite the opposition’s participation in the 2018 election, the ruling party and its allies secured more than 95% of the constituencies in a process marred by widespread reports of intimidation and fraud.

‘Unconstitutional’

Bangladesh’s Election Commission has broad executive and supervisory powers during an election period, including the authority to instruct the executive government to undertake certain measures and even summon the military for election purposes.

However, a blanket ban on nonelection-related public assemblies is unprecedented.

Muzahidul Islam Selim, a veteran politician who leads the Bangladesh Communist Party, also questioned the commission’s authority to issue a directive that will essentially suspend fundamental constitutional provisions.

“The Election Commission does not have the power to ban assemblies, rallies or any initiatives to mobilize public opinion,” said Selim, whose party is not aligned with the opposition BNP but is also boycotting the election. 

“Every citizen has the right to vote and refrain from casting their vote. Similarly, just as one has the right to call for the people to take part in the election, the other has the right to ask the public to boycott the election.”

The constitution prominently guarantees freedoms of speech, movement and assembly, but the rights can be subject to “reasonable” legal restrictions in the interests of public order or public health.

Sabbir Ahmed, a political science professor at Dhaka University, said the commission’s move follows an extraordinary circumstance.

“Since the opposition party is not contesting the election, the commission wants to restrict its rallies in opposition to the polls.

“I’m not sure whether they have the authority to suspend any article of the constitution temporarily, but the necessity cannot be ruled out.”

During a news conference on Wednesday, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal vowed to comply with the commission’s requests.

He also rejected the notion that the directive was unconstitutional.

“The Election Commission is a constitutional body. If they have sent us any instructions, they must have done so after reviewing the constitution,” he told BenarNews.

Source: Benar News