‘Rebel’ candidates risk it all: Elections in Bangladesh

Illustration by Giovana Fleck

Welcome to Undertones, the Civic Media Observatory newsletter! In each edition we'll analyze an event, emerging trend, or a complex story, identifying key narratives of urgent public interest, delving deep into the context and subtext of local, vernacular and multilingual media. Undertones also offers an entry point into the public datasets that underpin our Observatory work.

In this edition: Bangladesh

Bangladeshis will head to the polls for the last phase of their local elections on January 31 and February 7. The election period has been mired in political violence. In 2021, 126 people were killed and 7,989 injured during local campaigns, according to human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra

Contrary to what one might think, the clashes are not always between the country’s leading party, the center-left Awami League, which has been in power since 2009, and its long-time opposition rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). 

Electoral violence in fact has flared up within the ranks of the Awami League itself, as prospective candidates compete to be nominated by the party. Party outsiders are strongly discouraged from participating in elections. The Awami League has a strong hold on Bangladeshi politics which has been bolstered by the weakening of the opposition due to corruption allegations and repression by the ruling party. 

Why care?

Despite being formally a multi-party state, the ruling party Awami League has placed significant obstacles to power before opposition parties and independent candidates. Use of violence is common against political opponents, scholars, journalists, and activists, and its 2018 Digital Security Act stifles freedom of press.

Awami League narratives

“Independent candidates are working covertly in the interests of the opposition”

The Awami League effectively squelched its opposition in 2014, the year in which the BNP began refusing to participate in elections at all on the grounds that they were rigged. 

Today, nomination by the Awami League is a golden ticket to being elected. Candidates who are not chosen by the party but still run for election are labelled “independent” or “rebel,” and are at the highest risk of being the targets of lethal violence. In the previous round of elections in January, independent candidates led in the polls.

The largest daily newspaper in Bangladesh, Prothom Alo, reported that Abul Kalam Azad, an Awami League candidate, had ordered party workers to draw a list of independent candidates and make sure they voted for the Awami League, as these candidates were essentially “the shield of [the opposition] BNP.”

Screenshot of item BD_32

Posted on Facebook, the Prothom Alo story garnered many critical reactions against the way the Awami League does politics. Our researcher assigned this item a score of +2 in the Observatory’s ranking of civic value, as unbiased reports on election violence are rare in Bangladeshi mainstream media. More analysis here.

“The use of violence is justifiable for the Awami League to remain in power

Another popular target of pro-government politicians and oligarchs are scholars, journalists, cartoonists, activists, and others who publicly critique and scrutinize Bangladeshi politics. People who criticize the government online risk imprisonment under the country’s Digital Security act, and may also be physically attacked and, in extreme cases, forcibly disappeared. The number of instances of political violence fluctuates from year to year, but in some years has reached more than 26,000. 

As a result, mainstream media outlets exercise selective self-censorship when reporting on powerful politicians and oligarchs. Protests have also erupted these past few years calling for the repeal of the Digital Security law. 

This mainstream news item showcases a video of the son of an Awami League candidate for local office encouraging his father’s supporters to “commit murders if necessary” to win the election.

Screenshot of item BD_21

The video went viral—at the time of writing it has received 15,931 reactions and was posted 180 times on Facebook, as well as viewed over a million times on the YouTube channel of Jamuna TV. Most commenters argued that the video reveals—or confirms—the way the Awami League conducts politics. The post, according to our researcher may incite violence.

See the analysis of this item here, as well as another similar item.

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Undertones is the Civic Media Observatory's newsletter, created collaboratively by the Observatory's researchers, coordinating editors, and project writer. Find out more about our missionmethodology, and publicly available data.

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