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Bangladesh: What's next after PM Sheikh Hasina's reelection?

January 8, 2024

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won another term in power in a contentious general election that was boycotted by the main opposition and drew a low turnout.

A policeman walks past a portrait of Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in Dhaka
Hasina said on Monday that Bangladesh's economic development was her main aim in the next five yearsImage: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured a fourth consecutive term in power on Monday with her Awami League party taking three-quarters of seats in parliament following a controversial election. 

The vote was boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who described it as "illegitimate." The BNP had demanded a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls, saying that Hasina's government could not hold free and fair polls. But the ruling party rejected the calls.

The election commission on Monday said the Awami League won 222 out of 298 parliamentary seats in Sunday's polls.

Authorities suspended voting in two constituencies, one because of violence during the election, and the other over the death of an independent candidate due to natural causes a week ago.  

Critics say that Hasina's control over parliament is even higher than the 222-figure suggests, as many smaller opposition groups and independent candidates are allied with the ruling party.

Jasmin Lorch, a senior researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), labeled it an "autocratic election."

"There was no real opposition party in the electoral race, and the Awami League government controlled the electoral process entirely," she said. 

"Overall, this was an autocratic election, which was aimed at cementing the power of the ruling party and creating a democratic façade for what is, in fact, an autocratic political regime."

Was Bangladesh's election free and fair?

What's behind low voter turnout?

Bangladeshis largely stayed away from the election, which was roiled by political violence and international scrutiny.

Turnout was low, at just 41.8%, according to the election commission, compared

with over 80% in the last election in 2018.

Some say the voter participation was even lower. When DW reporters visited four polling centers in the capital, Dhaka, during the last hour of polling on Sunday, they were largely empty. Their presiding officers said that voter turnout at these centers was around 20%.

The turnout was also low at the other centers DW reporters visited throughout the day, except for a polling booth in the suburb of Mirpur.

"The low election turnout indicates that many Bangladeshi citizens did not consider the process as legitimate and did not view it as a meaningful way to express their political preferences," Lorch said.

This is the third general election in Bangladesh in the last 15 years that was tarnished by credibility concerns.

The previous two votes — held in 2018 and 2014, respectively — were also widely seen as flawed.

They were beset by violence and widespread allegations of vote-rigging, which authorities denied.

The BNP participated in the 2018 vote but kept away in 2014.

Concerns over democracy and human rights

In the run-up to the vote, Bangladeshi authorities were accused of clamping down on the opposition using trumped-up charges following deadly anti-government protests in late October.

The BNP said police detained nearly 25,000 of its activists and that many more are on the run.

Bangladesh election: PM Hasina wins fourth straight term

The BNP's 78-year-old leader Khaleda Zia has been living under house arrest, and many other senior party officials are also behind bars or in exile.

Over the past 15 years, rights groups and critics have repeatedly accused Hasina's government of stifling dissent, restricting free speech and press freedom, and committing human rights violations.

And after the latest election result, Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, a Bangladesh expert at Amnesty International USA, fears the country could see a "profound reshaping of its social and political order."

"Following three contentious elections, the current regime appears to have consolidated its grip on power," he said.

"The blurring of lines between the state, society, and economy, a trend that began with the one-sided 2014 elections, might lead to their complete merger," he told DW.  

Zakaria said such a development risks worsening the political polarization and turmoil. 

"This phenomenon, observed in various nations, often sees a strong political dictatorship evolve into a totalitarian system where a specific group dominates every aspect of a state," he underlined.

"Such political strangleholds typically breed heightened violence, a withering of human rights, and global isolation."

How could it affect Dhaka's diplomatic ties?

The situation may also challenge some of Dhaka's diplomatic ties, particularly with the US. Relations between the two sides have been tense since Washington vowed to impose visa restrictions on anyone disrupting the electoral process.

Hasina then accused the US of trying to plot her ouster.

Bangladesh headed for election

Bangladesh expert Lorch said, "there is wide consensus in the US and Europe that this was not a democratic election."

"The EU, for instance, did not send an election observation mission because the conditions for a free and fair election and for the mission itself to operate freely were not in place," she noted. "The repression of the opposition is generally recognized and rejected in the US and European capitals."

Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, a Bangladesh expert at Amnesty International, pointed out that the US has already taken steps to put pressure on Dhaka over human rights violations.

"The US has responded by imposing sanctions on Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and enforcing visa restrictions on individuals accused of undermining democracy," he said.

But, he added, that the measures have so far had little impact.

"Despite these measures, the election was held and widely criticized, indicating that the current Western strategy may not be effective," Zakaria said.

Hasina says the economy is her focus

Hasina said on Monday that Bangladesh's economic development was her main aim in the next five years.

"Each political party has the right to take a decision. The absence of one party in an election does not mean democracy is absent," Hasina told reporters.

Hasina is often credited with presiding over Bangladesh's impressive growth in recent years.

But the country's economy is currently facing an array of problems.

The prices of food and fuel have been surging, threatening to push many Bangladeshis back into poverty. At the same time, foreign exchange reserves have dropped to less than three months' worth of imports.

The garment industry, which is crucial to Bangladesh's economy accounting for around 85% of its $55 billion (€50.2 billion) in annual exports, has witnessed a wave of labor protests.

"So far, there are no signs that the Awami League government will be able to tackle the economic situation. If it was able to curb the price hike of essentials, it would most likely have done so before the elections to gain popular support and, thereby, improve the electoral turnout," Lorch said.

"If the economic situation of large parts of the population does not improve, the government might face social unrest, especially if the opposition joins in and increasingly mobilizes around social demands."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul