The ruling Awami League party has won a decisive victory in Bangladesh’s general election held on January 5th, securing Sheikh Hasina a record fourth consecutive term as prime minister. However, the election was marred by violence, allegations of vote rigging, and an opposition boycott that has raised serious concerns about the state of the country’s democracy.
Sheikh Hasina Wins Landslide Amid Low Turnout and Opposition Boycott
Official results show Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party and its allies won 292 of 300 parliamentary seats up for grabs, giving them a large majority. The main opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) boycotted the polls, saying they would not be free or fair.
Voter turnout hit a record low of only 31% as the BNP and other parties refused to participate. By contrast, turnout was over 70% in the last election in 2018. The low participation has raised doubts over the credibility of Sheikh Hasina’s victory.
The US State Department said the elections “were not free or fair” and failed to represent the will of the people. The UK and EU echoed this sentiment. India, China and Russia, however, have endorsed the results.
|Parliament Seats Won
|Awami League Alliance
Election Marred by Violence and Irregularities
Though voting was largely peaceful, the pre-election period saw violence including several deaths. The BNP claimed over 10,000 opposition supporters were arrested ahead of the polls to stifle dissent. International observers were also barred from monitoring a vote they warned would not meet minimum democratic standards.
There were also numerous reports of vote rigging and ballot stuffing amid the Awami League’s sweeping win. A local monitoring group said they had evidence of around 140 constituencies with suspicious results.
Rights groups say the Awami League has grown increasingly authoritarian, detaining critics and introducing restrictive laws to curb dissent. Its absolute majority will likely erode checks and balances further.
Continued Awami League Rule Raises Concerns
Hasina’s decisive win raises difficult questions about Bangladesh’s democracy. This was the first election since the scrapping of a neutral caretaker system to oversee polls. With the Awami League supervising an election they contest, critics argue there are serious conflicts of interest.
Many warn de facto one-party rule will increase political polarization in the country. There are also economic concerns, as analysts say lack of political competition breeds complacency and reduces pressure for reforms needed to boost Bangladesh’s growth trajectory.
However, the Awami League remains enormously popular, especially in rural areas, for overseeing rapid economic expansion. Under Sheikh Hasina, GDP growth has averaged well over 6% as the textile industry flourished. She has also shown steady leadership throughout natural disasters and the pandemic.
What Next for Bangladesh?
With her sweeping win, Sheikh Hasina is set to retain total control over Bangladesh for another 5 years. Having first taken power in 1996 after a 21-year exile, she has established firm authority that looks difficult to shake.
However, questions over the legitimacy of her rule could spark unrest. There is talk of a possible “Arab Spring” style movement against Awami League dominance. Much depends on how the embattled opposition regroups under the BNP, and whether they plan to actively dispute this election’s outcome.
If the BNP continues pushing its rejection of results and non-participation in a system it argues is undemocratic, the risk of large-scale protests cannot be discounted. However, the Awami League has shown it is willing to crack down hard on dissent.
For now, Sheikh Hasina remains firmly ensconced as Bangladesh’s premier in what looks set to be a continuation of stable but authoritarian rule. While still enjoying public support for delivering economic gains, if her party fails to create space for democratic opposition it may sow the seeds for intensifying future challenges to its power monopoly.
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