For nearly 15 years, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has used every weapon available to dismantle the opposition and consolidate power in her hands.
Now, Bangladesh is on the brink of sliding into one-party rule after the 76-year-old and her ruling Awami League swept Sunday’s parliamentary election in a vote boycotted by the opposition, human rights advocates and academics say.
Results released by the Election Commission showed the Awami League won 222 of 300 parliamentary seats, enough to form a super majority and once again govern the South Asian nation of 170 million people.
But with support from smaller parties and so-called independents with ties to the government, Hasina’s control of Parliament is even stronger.
The outcome of the election was never in doubt. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) stayed away from the polls because Hasina refused to step aside to allow a neutral caretaker administration to oversee voting.
Hasina campaigned on political stability, her record of economic development and her position as the daughter of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Should she last through her next term, she is on track to spend 25 years in the prime minister’s office.
On Monday, the PM dismissed opposition criticism and said the election was “free and fair.”
“Each political party has the right to make a decision. The absence of one party in [an] election does not mean democracy is absent,” the Reuters news service quoted Hasina as telling a select group of reporters as she met with foreign observers and journalists at her residence in Dhaka.
But for many Bangladeshis, the question now is what will become of the country’s multiparty political system?
“The people’s cherished dream of multiparty democracy is shattered,” said professor Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political analyst and writer of several books on politics in Bangladesh.
“We will now see a system which we academics call ‘one dominant party system:’ the Awami League will decide everything inside and outside the legislature including the opposition in the assembly.”
What next for the BNP?
Since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh’s politics have largely been dominated by competition between two parties, the Awami League and the BNP.
Hasina formally took over the Awami League six years after her father, mother and other family members were gunned down during a military coup in 1975.
Her primary rival has been former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the widow of former military ruler Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who established the BNP in 1978.
The two parties switched governments from 1990 for 16 years, but the Awami League has put a stranglehold on power since its uninterrupted rule began in 2009 when it won that year’s election with a thumping supermajority.
Before Sunday’s vote, the party consolidated its position through two elections in 2014 and 2018, both of which were marred by reports of irregularities and vote-rigging.
Mizanur Rahman, a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, said the Jan. 7 election was a turning point for most political parties.
“This election clearly indicates that the future of Jatiya Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, Workers’ Party and others is at stake. These parties have participated in the elections and performed badly,” he told BenarNews.
“On the other hand, the BNP and other like-minded parties have boycotted the polls. In my assessment, they have made a mistake. What will happen in future is the BNP will simply be an onlooker and have to wait five more years.”
In the meantime, the future of the BNP remains uncertain. After casting her vote Sunday, Hasina branded the party a “terrorist organization” – and analysts say the BNP can expect more pressure from the government, including efforts to ban it.
At Monday’s meeting with foreign observers and select reporters, she accused BNP activists of being behind a fire that killed at least four people aboard a commuter train in Dhaka on Friday night. At least eight BNP members have been arrested on suspicion of arson connected to that blaze.
“Just a few days ago they set fire on the train and killed people including women and children. Is it democracy? Yes, we believe in democracy,” the state-run news service Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha(BSS) quoted her as saying in response to a reporter’s question.
“But when attempts are made to kill common people, only for political purposes, I don’t know if this is politics. It is an act of terrorism. … Such incidents have happened several times in this country. We have shown patience. We have ensured people’s rights,” she said.
On Tuesday, however, U.N human rights Volker Türk expressed dismay that the election in Bangladesh was tainted by “repression of opposition candidates and supporters” as well as violence, as he called on Hasina’s newly relected government to renew its commitment to democracy and human rights.
“In the months leading up to the vote, thousands of opposition supporters have been detained arbitrarily or subjected to intimidation. Such tactics are not conducive to a truly genuine process,” Türk said in a statement.
“I implore the Government to take the necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of all Bangladeshis are fully taken into account, and to strengthen the underpinnings of a truly inclusive democracy in the country.”
At least 20,000 opposition leaders and activists – including the BNP’s secretary general and other top leaders – were arrested in the lead-up to polling day, according to the party and authorities.
BNP Acting Chairman Tarique Rahman, who lives in exile in Britain, said Sunday’s election was a “disgrace to the democratic aspirations of Bangladesh,” and marred by irregularities and violence.
“The resounding rejection of 120 million voters, overcoming the regime’s threats and intimidations, as evident in a microscopic voter turnout, serves as a public mandate for our struggle to reinstate democracy and a referendum for Hasina’s resignation,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Voter turnout was 41.8%, the Election Commission said Monday, about half of the rate of participation in 2018.
Shrinking civic space
Analysts and human rights groups have warned of more challenges ahead.
“The Awami League will become more intolerant to criticism, and press freedom and freedom of expression are likely to shrink further,” said Ahmed, the political analyst and author.
Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said Bangladesh had seen a steady decline in human rights protection during Hasina’s previous terms.
“Going forward, we would like to see the Awami League government, which so desperately wanted to remain in power, use this term to uphold human rights whether it is to protect the Rohingya refugees or those harmed by climate change … and ensure that Bangladeshis are no longer subjected to crushing rights violations because they choose to peacefully protest government failures,” she told BenarNews in a statement.
Hasina has faced criticism from the United States and Europe for her human rights record and crackdown on dissent.
But she has the backing of China, Russia and – most importantly – India, the latter of which sees her as a bulwark against Islamic militancy and a leader with whom to curry favor as Beijing expands its influence in South Asia.
Envoys from the three countries, as well as Bhutan, the Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka, visited her home on Monday to congratulate her “absolute win,” according to BSS.
Despite the uncompetitive election, Hasina is unlikely to face an international backlash – even from the U.S. – according to analysts who spoke to BenarNews.
But it could be a different story at home if she fails to deal with rising frustration over the cost of living and broader concerns about the health of the economy.
Until relatively recently, Hasina had presided over one of the region’s best-performing economies, largely on the back of the country’s booming textile and garment industry.
But Bangladesh’s post-pandemic recovery stuttered, and it was forced to approach the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
Food inflation has been stubbornly high over the past 18 months, raising fears of a crisis, while power cuts and fuel-price hikes have added to consumer woes. Strikes by garment workers demanding better wages have in recent months paralyzed parts of Dhaka and neighboring outskirts.
In December, the IMF board agreed to provide Bangladesh with $4.7 billion in loans to stabilize the economy that has come under pressure from currency depreciation and a decline in foreign exchange reserves.
“The rising price of essentials and decreasing foreign currency reserves are going to be the two critical challenges the government is going to face,” Ahmed said. “If the government fails on the economic front, they are likely to face consequences.”