Standards of Bangladesh’s Jan 7 election undermined: NDI-IRI

Standards of Bangladesh’s Jan 7 election undermined: NDI-IRI

The joint National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute Technical Assessment Mission from Washington has found that a pre-election environment characterized by increased political polarization, violence among political actors, contracting civic space, and worsening freedoms of expression and association underlined the quality of the January 7 election in Bangladesh.

The election was undermined by incidents of state, ruling party, and opposition violence as well, according to the final report of the NDI-IRI Joint Technical Assessment Mission, released on Sunday.

‘The mission found that the 2024 election period, including the campaign period, election day and immediate aftermath, had less physical and online violence compared to previous election cycles, primarily due to the absence of nationwide partisan competition and the state’s increased focus on election security,’ said the report.

The joint NDI and IRI TAM deployed to monitor potential electoral violence conditions before, during, and after the country’s January 7, 2024 parliamentary elections released its final report on Sunday.

The document provides a thematic analysis of different types of election violence and includes recommendations to the Bangladesh Election Commission, the executive and legislative branches of government, political parties, civil society, and other stakeholders based on IRI’s and NDI’s comparative experience, to mitigate the risks of violence in future elections, in the furtherance of international cooperation and with respect for the sovereignty of Bangladesh.

‘This report provides a valuable roadmap for more peaceful elections in Bangladesh's future,’ said Manpreet Singh Anand, NDI’s Regional Director for the Asia-Pacific.

‘Leaders across the sociopolitical spectrum — including political parties, the government, and civil society – have a responsibility to reform the rules, practices, and norms of electoral politics toward nonviolence,’ he added.

‘Election violence is a key deterrent of citizen participation,’ said Johanna Kao, IRI’s Senior Director for the Asia-Pacific Division.

‘For Bangladesh’s elections to be fully inclusive and participatory, all sides need to prioritize nonviolent politics,’ Johanna added.

Bangladesh's security actors should cease surveillance and intimidation of journalists and media outlets and protect space for critical reporting during elections, said the report.

Besides, the government should review the Cyber Security Act to ensure that it is in line with international standards to protect the information environment during elections, it said.

The TAM also called on the government to implement CSA in a manner that addresses online harms and preserves freedom of speech, and iteratively seeks and responds to feedback from civil society, citizens, and other stakeholders on the law's implementation and amendment.

The report said many stakeholders made credible accusations that state security services and other government institutions at times unevenly enforced election rules to favour the ruling Awami League (AL).

"The scale of the government's efforts to arrest opposition members and restrict or disrupt opposition political activities was not satisfactorily justified and generated a widespread perception of politicised law enforcement during the election period."

The report stated that the information environment during the election period saw diverging trends.

"Prominent newspapers and social media platforms included some space for critical statements and reporting on the ruling party and state institutions."

"However, stakeholders also noted that fear of government retaliation led to self censorship in the media. Interlocutors often cited the 2018 Digital Security Act and its replacement, the Cyber Security Act, passed in 2023, in driving self censorship, despite the government's assurances of reform.

"Journalists also faced election violence from the ruling party and opposition during campaign events and protests."

It recommended several recommendations to mitigate and combat violence in future elections.

Regarding state institutions, the joint mission recommended that parliament, the EC, and other relevant governmental actors amend the legal framework to explicitly incorporate impartiality and neutrality requirements for election officers, including law enforcement, involved in election administration.

It also recommended the EC to establish a dedicated code of conduct for security personnel assigned to election duty and provide greater training and oversight to ensure nonpartisan provision of election security.

It asked government departments concerned to create and empower an independent oversight mechanism to efficiently monitor the work of the police and systematically address complaints related to the conduct and behaviour of police personnel, particularly during election periods.

The EC should review existing collaboration mechanisms with the security sector and MoHA in order to provide clear rules of engagement during elections that increase transparency, cohesion, and standardisation.

To prevent physical violence during elections, the NDI-IRI team suggested that the EC and other relevant governmental actors enforce existing laws to deter violence against voters and investigate and prosecute individuals implicated in intimidation, threats, and other forms of violence against voters.

Besides, security actors, the judiciary, and other relevant non-state actors should facilitate an independent and thorough investigation into election violence incidents, hold individuals responsible for acts of violence accountable through legal proceedings, promote reconciliation and dialogue among political factions and encourage political leaders to condemn and discourage post-election violence.

To protect marginalised groups,  security actors and the judiciary should conduct timely and thorough investigations of all cases of violence reported against women and other marginalised groups and promptly address them, said NDI and IRI.

Furthermore, the government should introduce and strengthen legal codes to ensure the protection of women's rights in order to create a more inclusive, safe, and enabling environment for their political participation.

Regarding information environment and violence, the TAM recommended that the EC undertakes systematic monitoring of election-related harmful speech and violent rhetoric, including threats of violence against women and other marginalised groups online, in traditional and social media outlets and sanction perpetrators in a uniform manner for violations of election laws and codes of conduct.

During its stay in Bangladesh, the TAM’s five accredited long-term analysts met with election and government officials, security actors, political party leaders from across the political spectrum, journalists, civil society organizations including those focusing on youth, women, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities, as well as with accredited international observer missions, said a release issued from Washington.

This mission follows a joint pre-election assessment mission (PEAM) that NDI and IRI conducted from October 8 to 11, 2023.

IRI and NDI are nonpartisan, nongovernmental organizations that support and strengthen democratic institutions and practices worldwide.

The Institutes have collectively observed more than 200 elections in more than 50 countries over the last 30 years.