Dhaka: For Kamal Hussain — the Oxford-educated architect of Bangladesh’s constitution — Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina is an autocrat who has betrayed the legacy of her independence hero father.
The 82-year-old former friend of Bangladesh’s first president Shaikh Mujibur Rahman heads an alliance opposing Hasina’s bid for a historic fourth term in a general election Sunday.
Hussain accuses Hasina’s Awami League party of trampling over Bangladesh’s hard-won democratic freedoms by locking up and attacking opposition activists in a bid to rig the poll.
While the prime minister denies wrongdoing, she has a growing number of critics at home and abroad.
“It is really tragic that we are having to witness this in the 47th year of independence,” Hussain told journalists in an interview at his Dhaka home.
“Those who are in government know that in any fair election they would lose hands down. That’s the sad thing,” he added.
Hussain, a lawyer, was Bangladesh’s first law minister following independence from Pakistan in 1971 and headed the committee that drew up a constitution the following year.
He alleges that there has been “overwhelming violence” against members of the opposition coalition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
International observers back claims that government opponents are being targeted, with Human Rights Watch saying that the election was being conducted in a “repressive political environment”.
“We’ve had violence in elections [before] but this time it is systemic and continual violence,” said Hussain.
“I never knew you could have so many goons who could be organised and deployed all across the country,” he added.
The BNP and its Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, say that around 13,000 of their supporters have been detained since the election timetable was announced on November 8.
The BNP, whose leader Khaleda Zia is serving 17 years in jail on graft charges, says eight of its supporters have been killed by Awami League activists during the election campaign.
According to police three Awami League supporters have died.
US ambassador Earl Miller said “the United States is concerned by the high level of campaign violence over the last two weeks,” while the United Nations has appealed for calm.
Hasina is set for a comfortable win, according to an opinion poll, securing her a third-consecutive term and extending her record as the country’s longest serving ruler.
The Awami League leader won a landslide victory in 2008 and the BNP boycotted the 2014 election, saying it was not free and fair, gifting her a return to power.
Now civil society and rights groups accuse Hasina’s government of silencing dissent by muzzling the press and jailing journalists.
Hundreds of people have become victims of enforced disappearances blamed on security forces, according to civil rights groups while the BNP claims Zia’s imprisonment is politically motivated.
Hasina denies a descent into authoritarianism but Hussain insists she has become an “autocrat” and says he finds it “very, very painful” since he helped her return to Bangladesh following her father’s assassination in 1975.
Rahman was the founding father of Bangladesh and also served as prime minister, gaining the nickname Bangabandhu, meaning “Friend of Bengal”.
He was killed, along with most of his family, in a military coup.
Hussain was close to Rahman and Hasina, until they fell out politically in the 1990s.
Hussain says Hasina has betrayed her father’s legacy “with a capital B” and that he wants to restore democracy and Bangladesh’s institutions.
“Is she really Bangabandhu’s [Rahman’s] daughter? It has gone to that level.
“We are the victims of someone who has no commitment to democracy,” he told journalists.
Hussain, who walks with the aid of a stick, insists that as an octogenarian he has no intentions of trying to become president after the election.
He believes that senior politicians must bring through the next generation because once a leader is viewed as irreplaceable “it’s the beginning of the end”.
“I have said I will be around to help, advise and assist but you must get people in their 50s so that you can nurture leadership for the next 20 years,” he said.