The Death of Democracy in Bangladesh

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The Death of Democracy in Bangladesh

With a fourth consecutive win in yet another uncompetitive race, the Awami League is on a path to destroy any opposition and dissent for good.

The Death of Democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi polling officials count votes after the voting ended at a polling station in Munshiganj, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 7, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

The outcome of the 12th parliamentary election in Bangladesh was expected, and long predicted. With the main opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), pulling out of the race, the path was always clear for the incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in office since January 2009, to tighten her grip on power.

Even though calls were made from observers for a free and fair election, and despite the ruling government trying its best to paint the election day with a festive and enthusiastic mood, the 2024 election was marred by numerous controversies, allegations, and reports of violence. 

When the dust settled, unsurprisingly, it was Hasina’s Awami League that came out on top. And with a fourth consecutive win in yet another uncompetitive race, the party is on a path to destroy any opposition and dissent for good.

Democracy: A Long Forgotten Luxury

Ever since independence, Bangladesh has had a contentious relationship with democracy. In 1975, the country’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his family were brutally murdered in a military coup after he flirted with the idea of a one-party state. Sheikh Hasina and her sister, who were traveling in Europe at the time, were the family’s only survivors.

His death sparked a long queue of coups, anti-coups, and efforts to legitimize military rule in the country by Ziaur Rahman, followed by General H. M. Ershad. In 1991, after 16 years of tumultuous politics in the country, democracy was “restored” after a mass protest forced the then-dictator Ershad to step down. 

But every election since 1991 has seen the opposition complain about an unlevel playing field. Elections in Bangladesh, under any ruling party, have always translated to election day violence and repression for the opposition. The same apparent cardinal rule was also applicable to the last three elections held under the current Awami League rule. 

In the 2014 general election, the first election after the AL came to power in 2009, four major opposition parties , including the BNP, boycotted the polls; 153 seats went uncontested, and violence killed nearly two dozen people on polling day.

In the 2018 general election – one that many observers and rights groups called a “sham election” – the AL won an unprecedented 288 out of 300 seats. Electronic voting machines were used for the first time and there were reports and accusations of vote rigging and voter intimidation by cadres of the ruling party. 

Perhaps a track record like this was the reason why the opposition wanted an election under a neutral caretaker government in 2024. The demand was not unprecedented. Bangladesh has held elections under neutral caretaker governments in 1991, 1996 (demanded by Sheikh Hasina herself, who was the opposition leader at the time), and in 2006. But this time, Hasina had the grounds to call this demand unconstitutional because her government had abolished the system in 2011 through a constitutional amendment. 

The Road to 2024

The 15-year rule of the Awami League, from 2009 to 2024, has been characterized with rapid  economic growth and envious social development in Bangladesh, despite global economic uncertainty and crisis. In fiscal year 2024, the country is set to achieve the sixth highest GDP growth in Asia, according to the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report. Bangladesh is also set to graduate from the United Nations’ list of Least Developed Countries (LDC) in 2026 and in 2022, Bangladesh’s per capita income continued to outshine that of neighboring economic giant India’s. 

But all these impressive feats of growth ride on the back of rampant wealth accumulation by a league of oligarchs and a handful of corrupt party members, lack of press freedom and transparency of information, and widespread crackdowns on any voice of dissent, particularly the opposition.

Since August 2023, at least 27,000 BNP workers have been imprisoned, and more than 100,000 BNP workers have been sued on different charges, according to figures provided by the party. At the same time, the now-scrapped Digital Security Act (DSA) had seen at least 200 journalists accused of violating the law. Despite the government labelling the DSA as an essential act to protect the cyberspace, human rights watchdogs had repeatedly claimed that the law was notoriously used to suppress voices of dissent. 

In the face of increasing pressure from Western allies, observers, and watchdogs to make the 2024 elections free and fair, the Awami League spared no expense to pass the election off as a participatory one. 

With the BNP boycotting the race, as it had in 2014, the AL scrambled to put “dummy” candidates up against running party members to make the elections look competitive. In many seats, AL party members who were not awarded a nomination to run as official candidates under the party banner were rather encouraged to run independent campaigns against their own nominated party counterparts. 

With major opposition parties boycotting the election altogether or pulling out of the race in the last minutes, it was a bizarre election that saw many AL candidates pitted against fellow party members, now labeled as independents, running as their “dummy opposition.”

The Election of Maladies

In the week before the polling on January 7, 225 out of 265 contesting members of the Jatiya Party – another opposition party – pulled out of the race, complaining of vote rigging and voter intimidation by candidates and cadres of the ruling party. In at least one case, a deepfake video of an opposition party member was circulated on social media misleadingly claiming that she had pulled out of the race.

On election day, multiple reports pointed out that voter turnout had been at a historical low, with many polling centers completely deserted throughout the day. In some centers, fake queues were quickly scrambled together every time journalists arrived to report on the election proceedings. In multiple centers, there were also reports of violence, vote rigging, ballot stuffing, and fake voters. 

Analysts had predicted that in an otherwise uncontested and one-sided election, the voter turnout rate would become the real challenge. This proved to be true as just an hour before the polls closed, the Election Commission reported that the voter turnout throughout the day was at 28 percent. However, when the polls were closed an hour later, the figure reported suddenly jumped to 40 percent. The number was still lower than the 50 percent voter turnout rate the government was aiming for.

Even in an election that had the charade of competitiveness, the Awami League managed to carve out another supermajority, winning 222 out of 300 seats. The next highest number of seats – 62 – were won by independent candidates, most of whom were also AL party members. 

International observers, including the United Nations, the United States, and the United Kingdom, condemned the elections while Russia and China expectedly were pleased with the proceedings. Bangladesh’s official stance was that it was “not bothered” about the U.S. or U.K. comments on the election.

The Road Ahead

From 1991 to 2008, a political seesaw in Bangladesh has been ridden by two parties – the BNP and the AL, which previously exchanged power every four years. But since 2009, that seesaw has gathered a layer of rust as Sheikh Hasina continues to solidify her position as the iron lady of Bangladesh. 

With a fourth consecutive win, and a fifth term as the head of the state in the country, Hasina is now the longest serving prime minister in Bangladesh, and also the longest serving female prime minister in the world. Another term at the helm will almost surely mean that her government will not course correct itself to rise above its controversial use of repression against dissent.

But for the citizens of the nominally democratic People’s Republic of Bangladesh, yet another controversial election means that any hope of casting votes that truly reflect personal choice continues to remain an elusive dream.