Bangladesh held general elections on January 5th, 2024 that were won in a landslide by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League party and its allies. However, the election was marred by an opposition boycott and allegations of vote rigging and voter intimidation.
Opposition Parties Boycott “Sham” Election
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies boycotted the vote after accusing the government of creating an atmosphere of fear that prevented fair elections.
Exiled BNP leader Tarique Rahman, who leads the party from London, called the election a “sham” and said the Awami League would be installing an “authoritarian one-party regime”:
“The current government has destroyed the foundation of free and fair elections. There is no atmosphere for opposition parties to participate,” Rahman said in a video message.
Rahman’s late mother Khaleda Zia served as Bangladesh’s prime minister several times and remains a popular figure despite being convicted on corruption charges in 2018. Rahman himself was convicted in absentia of several charges and has lived in exile since 2008 to avoid imprisonment.
The BNP had demanded that the army supervise the elections, but the Awami League government rejected the request.
Ruling Party Accused of Intimidation to Boost Turnout
Observers accused the Awami League of using intimidation tactics to pressure voters and boost turnout in an effort to legitimize the election. Reports indicated local officials went door-to-door telling people they would lose government services if they refused to vote.
There were also reports of violence and attacks intended to drive away opposition supporters and prevent them from monitoring polling places.
“We are deeply disappointed to see media and human rights groups already documenting irregularities and intimidation in the lead-up to elections,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
Sheikh Hasina Heads for Another Term
Belying the protests and allegations, the election resulted in Sheikh Hasina securing a fourth term as Bangladesh’s prime minister. Her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was Bangladesh’s first leader after it secured independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Hasina’s supporters credit her with impressive economic development, averaging over 6% GDP growth during her tenure. Bangladesh’s apparel exports have boomed and millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty.
But the Awami League’s authoritarian tendencies have also grown under Hasina’s rule. Dissent has been stifled through arrests and legal harassment of opposition voices in media, civil society groups, and on university campuses. There are now real worries over the fragility of Bangladesh’s democracy.
International Reactions: Concern Over “One-Party State”
The United States expressed disappointment over the vote and said it would “consider implications for future cooperation with Bangladesh authorities.” The U.K., EU, and Australia echoed similar worries over flaws in the electoral process.
Analysts said these statements indicate significant concerns among Western nations over the trajectory of Bangladesh’s democracy under Sheikh Hasina, who was once seen as a champion for democracy.
China, India, Japan, Russia and other countries congratulated Sheikh Hasina on her victory despite the opposition boycott and claims of irregularities. As Bangladesh’s two largest neighbors and investors, both China and India see the country’s stability as vital to their interests.
“Essentially, China and India seem united in not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ in Bangladesh,” said Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi foreign minister.
What’s Next for Bangladesh?
With Sheikh Hasina cementing one-party domination through yet another disputed election, experts fear Bangladesh is transitioning into a de facto one-party state.
The Awami League government may pursue even more aggressive tactics to subdue dissent while confronting little organized opposition. There remain worries over radicalization among those politically sidelined under such a system.
Meanwhile Tarique Rahman remains a shadowy figure who continues trying to assert control over the BNP from exile in London. Many see Rahman as the only figure capable of mounting an opposition challenge given his family pedigree. How things develop under his remote stewardship could impact the BNP’s future direction.
Ultimately, with Sheikh Hasina beginning another 5-year term, the world will be watching if mounting international criticism compels her government to take even nominal steps to open political space and restore some pluralism. Few expect genuine concessions, but the stability of Bangladesh’s economy and its strategic balancing act between China and India remains pivotal.
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