Towards the end of October, the Bangladesh Election Commission shared a concept paper with members of the media in which it said "the political impasse prevailing in the country means that the environment needed for a free, fair, inclusive, and participatory election has not yet been created."

In the concept paper sent to media editors on October 19, the EC was also keen to emphasise that the resolution of the crisis was a political matter, with no direct involvement of the EC.

"The major opposing parties remain steadfast in their positions, resorting to street demonstrations to garner support and display their strength. However, the commission does not believe this is the anticipated solution to the crisis," the paper said.

"In multi-party democracy, differences, disagreements, and crises are inherent to the system. It can be more productive to seek compromises and solutions through dialogue, leaving behind political vengeance and distrust. Absolute tolerance, mutual understanding, and solidarity are essential elements for sustaining a stable democracy," it continued.

Suffice it to say, anyone can see that there has been no change in the situation for the better in the political arena since then. Indeed, if anything, following the events of October 28, the day of the BNP's big rally in the capital that triggered multiple bouts of street violence leading to a police crackdown that continues to this day amid a series of blockades and strikes, the situation has gotten worse.

Despite that, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal this week announced the polls schedule for the 12th parliamentary election, setting a date of January 7 for the vote.

In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday (Nov. 15), the CEC unveiled the election schedule, asking all political parties to find a solution to the political disagreements over election and electoral system, which have plagued the country for too long now.

The deadline for submission of nomination papers has been set for November 30, while December 1-4 was fixed for scrutinising nomination papers while the last date for withdrawal of candidature is December 17. Appeals against the decisions of the returning officers will be received and disposed of between December 6-15, and electoral symbols will be distributed among the candidates on December 18.

The period for electioneering will be from December 18 to 8am on January 5 (till 48 hours before voting starts).

The announcement of the polls schedule came amid a 48-hour blockade called by the BNP and like-minded opposition parties to press home their one-point demand for the resignation of the incumbent government. But the ruling Awami League is determined to press ahead with holding the election while remaining in office.

To be fair, the EC is also determined to hold the next general election within a stipulated time as per a constitutional requirement. According to the Article 123(3)(a) of the Constitution, there is a clear direction to hold a general election at any time during the last 90 days before the expiry of the term of the current Parliament, he said (November 1, 2023 to January 29, 2024 for the current parliament). It has recently introduced two digital apps for the submission of nomination papers online from any place and another for the common people to glean polling stations and other polling-related information.

The CEC in his speech said a favourable political environment is essential for a free, neutral, participatory and festive election. But it has been witnessing disagreements in the country's overall political leadership for a long time on the question of election, especially on the question of the institutional system of election, he said.

In multi-party politics, there can be ideological divisions. But if disagreements lead to conflict and violence, the emerging instability can leave an adverse effect on the electoral process, he said.

"Consensus and solutions are needed. I humbly request all the political parties on behalf of the Election Commission to seek amicable solutions avoiding conflict and violence," said the CEC, adding: "The Election Commission will always welcome the spontaneous participation and contest of all parties in the election."

"Compromise and solution through dialogue, avoiding mutual revenge and mistrust is not impossible," he said, adding that absolute tolerance, mutual trust, tolerance and solidarity are the essential parameters for a sustainable and stable democracy.

He called upon the people to exercise their voting rights in the election freely and fearlessly amid a festive atmosphere, coming to the polling stations by overcoming all worries, anxieties and discomforts. But clearly this was the CEC being more hopeful than realistic about the prevailing situation.

Whither democracy?

Secretary of governance watchdog Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan), Badiul Alam Majumdar, in his immediate reaction to the announcement of the polls schedule, raised questions about the 12th parliamentary election's potential impact on the country's democracy. Following the announcement of the election schedule on Wednesday, he posed a total of four questions.

Firstly, he inquired whether the ongoing crisis regarding the current government's legitimacy, stemming from two controversial elections in the past, would be resolved following the forthcoming election.

Secondly, he emphasised the constitutional responsibility of the Election Commission to establish a conducive environment for a free, fair, impartial, and competitive national election. He questioned whether the constitutional duties of the 'Awal Commission' would be fulfilled through conducting the upcoming elections as they plan to do.

His third question revolved around the potential increase in the popularity of the ruling party, Awami League, through such an election.

Lastly, he queried whether democracy in Bangladesh would become stronger and more effective following the conclusion of this election.

Emphasising talks between the political parties to resolve their differences, former election commissioner and political analyst Brig. General (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain said the US has been calling for dialogue to resolve the crisis from the very beginning. This time they did it in writing (see below). The political parties should consider this positively.

He did however say that in the face of the mass arrests of BNP leaders and activists, it is doubtful whether the BNP can even join any unconditional dialogue, even if it wanted to. More than 10,000 BNP activists have been arrested all over the country since October 28. This has in turn caused many of their leaders who remain free to go into hiding.

However, the retired army general also observed that the uncertainty brewing around the election will only increase if the crisis is not resolved through dialogue and if the election is held amid violence.

Where do the parties stand?

A total of 17 out of 44 registered political parties of the country rejected the polls schedule announced by the EC on Wednesday evening. Ruling Awami League and 14 other parties welcomed the polls schedule. The remaining 12 parties are yet to disclose their stance on the issue., at the time of writing.

The AL is gearing up for the election while the BNP has been waging a movement demanding the polls be held under a neutral administration.

Jatiya Party, which is the opposition party in parliament, has neither rejected nor welcomed the schedule. The party is still hoping for a consensus. Notably, it has put itself firmly on the side of a dialogue in the political arena.

Jamaat-e-Islami, which lost its registration in a court order, termed the polls schedule 'a blueprint of the ruling party' and rejected it.

Chief election commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal announced the schedule of the 12th parliamentary election on Wednesday. As per the schedule, the next general election will be held on 7 January.

BNP and its like-minded parties rejected the schedule of the election. Left Democratic Alliance and Ganatantra Mancha held rallies in Dhaka rejecting the schedule immediately after the CEC announced it.

The 12-party alliance which has been waging simultaneous movement with BNP and another alliance of like-minded parties issued statements rejecting the schedule. Many parties of these alliances are not registered with the EC, and hence cannot compete in the election.

The registered parties that have already rejected the schedule include BNP, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP), Biplabi Workers Party, Bangladesh Muslim League (BML), Islami Oikya Jote, Jamiat Ulamae Islam Bangladesh, Nationalist Democratic Movement (NDM), National People's Party (NPP), Gano Forum and Bangladesh Kalyan Party.

BNP senior joint secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi termed the election as 'vote drama' while rejecting the schedule.

The Left Democratic Alliance is also participating in the movement demanding the government's resignation and election under a neutral administration. The alliances' components Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) and Socialist Party of Bangladesh (BASAD) rejected the schedule. Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (Bangladesh Jasad) also rejected the schedule. Islami Andolon Bangladesh protested the announcement of schedule for two days in Dhaka.

The EC on 4 November invited 44 parties to a dialogue ahead of the election. BNP and 17 other parties did not join the dialogue. Most of these parties also rejected the schedule.

Immediately after the CEC announced the election schedule, the ruling AL took out processions welcoming it. AL general secretary Obaidul Quader in his reaction said the announcement of the schedule reflected people's aspiration.

AL-led 14-party alliance hailed the announcement of the election schedule. The parties that welcomed the schedule include Jatiya Party (JP), Workers Party of Bangladesh, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JASAD), Ganatantri Party, Islamic Front Bangladesh, Bangladesh Nationalist Front (BNF), Bangladesh Samyabadi Dal, Bangladesh Tariqat Federation, Bilakpadhara Bangladesh, Zaker Party and Bangladesh Islamic Front.

BNP leaders have recently been complaining that the government is trying to split the opposition parties by forming a number of 'King's Parties' ahead of the election. Names of some relatively new parties-- Trinamool BNP, Bangladesh Nationalist Movement (BNM) and Bangladesh Supreme Party (BSP)- appeared more as Kings parties. These parties welcomed the schedule.

Jatiya Party was cautious in its reaction to the development. The party neither welcomed nor rejected the schedule. JaPa secretary general Mujibul Haque Chunnu told Prothom Alo, "We hoped a way out can be found through discussion among all parties. There is still time although the schedule has been announced. We are yet to give up the hope of reconciliation."

The other parties that are yet to disclose their stance include Bangladesh Muslim League, Khelafat Majlish, Bangladesh Congress, Gano Front, Bangladesh Khelafat Movement, Bangladesh National Awami Party, Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish, Bangladesh Sangskritik Mukti Jot, Bangladesh National Awami Party-Bangladesh NAP, Bangladesh Jatiya Party and Krishak Sramik Janata League.

An alliance of five Islamic parties which consist of Khelafat Majlish urged the EC not to announce the schedule. These parties have not made their positions clear yet.

Letter from Lu

Earlier in the week, with rumours swirling of the schedule announcement being imminent, a surprise development saw the United States, which has been taking an unusual interest in the upcoming election, called upon the three major political parties to hold an unconditional dialogue to reach a consensus on how the election should be held. It also reminded recipients of its visa restriction policy that remains in place for anyone hindering free, fair and peaceful elections.

In this regard, the US sent letters to the BNP and Jatiya Party on Monday (Nov. 13). The letter to the ruling Awami League was delivered on Wednesday. The US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, wrote the letter to the three parties.

Spokesperson of the US Embassy in Dhaka Stephen Ibelli issued a statement regarding the letter, that said: "The United States wants free and fair elections conducted in a peaceful manner and calls on all sides to eschew violence and exercise restraint. The United States does not favour any political party over the other."

The opposition BNP said they are at the final stage of the movement pressing for their one-point demand seeking resignation of the government and holding election under a neutral government. On the contrary the ruling Awami League is advancing with the goal for holding the election on time in accordance with the constitution.

Replying to a query of newsmen on Monday, the election commission secretary Md Jahangir Alam said, "The election schedule may be announced on 15 November."

Under such circumstances, the US called upon the three major political parties to hold unconditional dialogue. US ambassador Peter Haas personally went to the Jatiya Party office in Banani on Monday. He held a meeting with JaPa chairman Golam Mohammad Quader there.

BNP senior joint secretary general Ruhul Kabir Rizvi confirmed receiving the letter from Donald Lu. Rizvi didn't comment further, but later said they would be providing a written response.

Awami League office secretary Biplob Barua said they didn't receive any letter from the US assistant secretary of state on Monday, although that didn't stop Obaidul Quader from downplaying its significance from the start. He said with the announcement of the schedule imminent, there was little to no time left for dialogue.

Later after Haas visited him in the Secretariat to hand over the letter, Quader maintained by-and-large the same position, although he didn't rule out the possibility completely. Neither the AL or the BNP expressed much interest in the dialogue, and the idea never really took off. Especially after it emerged that Haas himself had left his station to go on a pre-scheduled vacation by the end of the week.

JaPa secretary general Mujibul Haque Chunnu did speak to the press about the letter, having been present at the meeting between Haas and the JaPa chairman. He said three things have been mentioned in the letter. First, the US mainly wants to see a free, fair and inclusive election. Second, it has been mentioned that a dialogue without conditions has to be held. Third, the letter had a reminder about the visa restrictions that the US has adopted for a free and fair election.

Later in the week, the letter was leaked to the London-based Bangladeshi journalist Zulkarnain Saer, who published it on his social media handles. Although we haven't been able to independently verify the letter, from there we can see the exact wording of the most relevant part of the letter was as follows:

"To reiterate, the United States does not favor one political party over another. We strongly urge all parties to exercise restraint, avoid violence, and work together to create the conditions for free, fair, and peaceful elections. We hope that all sides will engage in dialogue without preconditions to de-escalate tensions. We will continue to meet with a range of members from political parties as part of our normal diplomatic duties. We will continue to implement the 3C visa restriction policy in an even-handed manner, including on members of any party responsible for undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh."

Earlier on 31 October, Haas had held a meeting with the chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal. After the meeting he told newsmen that he hoped the political parties would hold an unconditional dialogue. That too had failed to bring all the parties to the table.

The Election Commission's concept paper of October 19 had also mentioned that the country has sufficient election laws in place, but achieving the desired objectives, in its opinion. could be challenging "due to a lack of harmonious alignment between these laws and the prevailing political culture." The fact is that dialogue, discussion, discourse - they are the lifeblood, the liquid currency of any democracy. Sooner or later, Bangladesh will have to face up to the fact that the political culture prevalent here is drifting further and further away from anything resembling democracy.

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