Bangladesh is heading for a one-sided general election

Political message "" by artist and author Debashish Chakrabarty. Used with permission.

A political message that reads, “To regain the right to vote, the state must be reformed” by artist and author Debashish Chakrabarty. Used with permission. See more of his work here.

General elections are scheduled to be held in Bangladesh on January 7, 2024, to elect 300 members for the 12th Jatiyo Sangshad (unicameral Parliament). There are nearly 120 million eligible voters in the nation of over 171 million people, and almost half of them are women, and 15 million are first-time voters. Approximately 1,970 candidates are contending for the 299 seats, and over 4.5 percent of them are women. Elections in one constituency (Naogaon-2) have been withheld due to the death of an independent candidate.

However, one thing is missing in this election. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a major opposition party, and some of its allies are boycotting this election and withholding their candidacies, declaring it a “sham election.”

They have long been campaigning for the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and calling to hold the election under a neutral caretaker government, expressing doubts that free and fair elections may not be achievable under the current government.

The incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has rejected the opposition's demand and the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) is expected to win this election for the consecutive fourth term without the participation of major opposition parties. The ruling party leaders claim that the elections will be representative and participatory, as 28 out of 44 registered parties are running in the elections. However, the opposition has claimed that AL is fielding dummy candidates and threatening people to appear at vote centres.

Dynasty politics and political gridlock

Similar to other prominent parties in South Asia, the two major political parties in Bangladesh — AL and BNP — follow a dynastic leadership structure. The decision-making and leadership selection remain mostly ‘family affairs‘ rather than practising internal democracy. The current Prime Minister and President of Awami League (AL), Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in August 1975. There are many speculations but no apparent plan to groom her successor.

Leading the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is Tarique Rahman, the Acting Chairperson and son of the ailing former Prime Minister and Chairperson of the BNP, Begum Khaeda Zia and the late former army chief and President Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1981. Tarique Rahman has been in exile since 2008, and he has been convicted in numerous corruption cases, and the 2004 assassination attempt against Sheikh Hasina while the BNP was in power. According to a leaked US Embassy cable from 2008, Tarique is a “notorious and widely feared … symbol of kleptocratic government” who frequently demanded bribes in return for procurement decisions and political appointments and his leadership is deemed one of the weak points of the BNP.

The current parliamentary system, adopted in 1991, followed a period of military rule in Bangladesh from 1975–1990. To negate the power abuse by the ruling party, an interim caretaker government system was established, involving a non-partisan, technocratic administration overseeing the elections. Between 1991–2008, four elections were conducted under this system, with power alternating between the two major parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL).

The overwhelming election win of the Awami League and allies in 2008 saw them accumulating 263 seats out of 300, enabling them to abolish the caretaker system in 2011 through the 15th amendment of the constitution. The 2014 elections were marred by violence as the BNP and its allies — including the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party — protested and boycotted the election. Among the 300 seats, the Awami League secured victory in 234, and its candidates ran unopposed in 153 instances.

In the 2018 general election, the BNP agreed to participate peacefully with assurances of a level playing field. Twenty-five contestants of the Jamaat-e-Islami party also contested under BNP’s name as their registration was cancelled by a court. However, the BNP and its allies struggled to regain popular support, as many of its leaders and activists were either in hiding or incarcerated. Despite evident state bias against the party, there was a lack of significant public sympathy for the BNP during the campaign and on election day.

In the 2018 elections, the Awami League (AL) and its grand alliance secured a third term with 257 seats, marking another overwhelming majority. However, the opposition rejected the results, and critics said the election was poorly managed and riddled with irregularities.

The political gridlock persists due to a lack of confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. However, according to the Awami League, the caretaker government issue is a “closed chapter” and will not be revived in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Election Commission secretariat in Agargaon, Dhaka. Image via Wikimedia Commons by MdsShakil. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Bangladesh Election Commission secretariat in Agargaon, Dhaka. Image via Wikimedia Commons by MdsShakil. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Politicization of bureaucracy and judicial harassment of the opposition

Since 2011, the country's ruling parties have attempted to politicize law enforcement agencies and civil administration as they focused on concentrating power. According to research published in The Journal of Development Studies in 2022, the country's police force is often politicized and is usually directed against the opposition.

Thousands of opposition leaders, supporters and activists have been arrested in the past year as they protested for the return of the caretaker government system. Many central leaders faced an endless cycle of arrest and release during protests in intervals and remained in hiding. Transport blockades and opposition strikes disrupted normal lives in the past few months. Fearing arrest, many opposition activists were involved in guerilla tactics like arson in the public transport systems and private vehicles, which also resulted in injuries and deaths.

Journalist Muktadir Rashid Romeo shares a report on X (formerly Twitter), which says that 1,124 cases were filed against 100,689 BNP leaders and activists in the past five months.

Even international figures like the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus faced judicial harassment as he was recently jailed for six months in a labour law case. Yunus had a falling out with Hasina and many senior AL leaders after he floated the idea of starting a political party in 2007.

Human Rights groups have highlighted the brutal crackdown against the opposition activists. In 2022 and 2023, several internet shutdowns were imposed by the authorities, which were used to disrupt opposition rallies. In August 2023, 104 Nobel Laureates and 79 other global figures wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressing concern about the continuous judicial harassment against Yunus.

The hastily approved Cyber Security Act 2023 (CSA) in September 2023 represents a rebranded version of its predecessor, the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) enacted in 2018. A recent study by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) revealed that a majority of the accused in over 1,400 ongoing cases under the now-repealed DSA from 2018 to 2023 consists of political party workers (31 percent) and journalists (29 percent).

Human rights defenders have also expressed concern that the judiciary is being weaponized against political parties. They called the charges vague and said courts in Dhaka were reported to have been holding hearings of opposition activists past the usual office hours to expedite opposition convictions.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) voiced its concern regarding the impending elections in Bangladesh, citing that it lacks genuineness and electoral competitiveness:

Approval rating and the state of the economy

An August 2023 survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows a high approval rating of Sheikh Hasina (70 percent). However, the opposition approval rating has also increased since the 2018 elections. About 44 percent of respondents supported the return of the caretaker government system, and a majority believed that the opposition should participate in the election regardless. Surprisingly, 53 percent of the respondents felt that Bangladesh was headed in the wrong direction.

Hasina and the AL are banking on the socio-economic success and infrastructural developments in the past decade to garner public acceptance. Despite the recovery of the economy from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war, Bangladesh is facing surging inflation, economic woes, kleptocracy issues and its foreign currency reserves have been depleted.

Geopolitical implications

The US has reminded Bangladesh to hold free and fair elections and has warned that it would impose visa restrictions on those involved in undermining the democratic process. Russia, a large infrastructural development partner, accused the US of trying to meddle in Bangladesh's political affairs. A similar message was also sent by China, which has invested heavily in the country’s infrastructure in the past decade. India also wants to keep the Hasina Government in its good book to balance China's advances in this region. Whatever the outcome of the election, these countries will be watching the developments closely, as Bangladesh is a key geopolitical figure in this region.

Over 750,000 police, paramilitary and armed forces personnel will be responsible for the security of this massive election event. However, this election is unlikely to resolve the political deadlock. Without a credible opposition, elections like this may lead the country to turn into a full-blown one-party state.

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