Bangladesh’s one-sided election leaves some voters asking, ‘What’s the point?’

BenarNews staff
Bangladesh’s one-sided election leaves some voters asking, ‘What’s the point?’ Posters of the election candidates are seen hanging over a street ahead of the 2024 general elections in Dhaka on December 26, 2023.
[Munir Uz Zaman/AFP]

Bangladesh goes to the polls next week with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League all but assured victory, and with the opposition boycotting an election that analysts say is likely to cement autocratic rule.

Voters in the South Asian nation of 166 million will have little choice but to elect 76-year-old Hasina for a fourth consecutive term on Jan. 7. 

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, along with several smaller parties, has refused to participate after Hasina rejected calls to step aside for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls.

Without the BNP’s involvement, government critics and independent observers say the vote is shaping up as a one-sided exercise, in a nation with a long record of dubious elections.

“Ultimately, these elections will enable Sheikh Hasina to have absolute power,” Prof. Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, a political analyst and chief of the election monitoring body Janipop, told BenarNews. “The democratic checks-and-balances and the principle of separation of power will collapse.”

Since 2009, Hasina has presided over one of the region’s best-performing economies, largely on the back of the country’s booming textile and garment industry, which employs more than a million women in the workforce.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina nods as officials guide her through a new terminal at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Oct. 7, 2023. [BenarNews]

But she has steadily clamped down on opposition parties and civil society while consolidating control over state apparatuses – from law enforcement and the judiciary to the Election Commission, according to analysts and activists.

Local and international advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented in detail alleged abuses by Bangladesh authorities, including mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearance, torture, extrajudicial killings, and widespread repression.

Tens of thousands of opposition leaders and activists – including its secretary general and other top leaders – have reportedly been arrested since Oct. 28 alone, when the BNP staged the last in a series of mass rallies demanding a caretaker government be put in place. 

Thousands of BNP activists gathered in front of its Naya Paltan central office for a rally ahead of the January general election, Oct. 28, 2023. [BenarNews]

Ten people died in political violence that weekend, and another 21 have died since – mostly opposition members – amid a series of transportation blockades, vehicle arsons and street clashes, according to media reports. Six of the deceased died in police custody and jails.

Members of the opposition party are facing up to four million criminal charges, according to the BNP’s estimates, with some regarded as “ghost cases,” which are planted against individuals presumed dead, incarcerated, or in exile. 

On Thursday, a Dhaka court gave prison terms to eight BNP leaders – including two former cabinet ministers – for participating in a rally vandalizing vehicles about 10 years ago, officials and lawyers said. Authorities have resorted to arresting family members of opposition activists as well.

‘One-party system’

The arrests and deadly protest violence have raised tensions ahead of the vote, which will be the 12th since Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Out of the 11 previous general elections, only four were considered to be relatively free and fair, because they were held under non-partisan caretaker administrations – a system that the Awami League government removed in 2011.

The BNP and its allies boycotted the 2014 election over concerns about its fairness. And in 2018, despite the BNP’s participation, the ruling party secured more than 95% of the parliamentary seats, although amid widespread claims of fraud.

In recent months, the United States and other Western countries have ramped up calls to demand that free and fair elections be held in Bangladesh. Washington in May said it would deny visas to Bangladeshis whom it suspects of trying to undermine democratic elections.

Despite the pressure, few observers expect the vote to be competitive.

“The consequence is that we are going to see a one-party political system,” said Prof. Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political analyst and writer of several books on Bangladesh politics.

Wary of international scrutiny, the Awami League has greenlighted the use of “dummy candidates” during the election, which refer to members of the ruling party that are registered to run as “independents.”

The government has also cajoled new, smaller parties into participating, amid concerns about possible low turnout.

Still, the government-aligned Jatiya Party, the largest opposition camp in Parliament, is not expected to secure more than a dozen of the 300 parliamentary seats up for grabs, Kalimullah said.

“We have a Westminster form of governance in place. But the next Parliament will be composed of MPs elected in the style of the Chinese Communist Party, which allows the party members to contest among its members,” he said.

‘People want change’

Roughly 119.7 million people are registered to vote for 28 parties on Sunday. Just 5% of 1,895 candidates are women, according to data from the Election Commission analyzed by BenarNews.

For many voters, the cost of living is a key concern. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics recorded food inflation at 12.56% in October, the highest rate in the past decade.

The BNP has criticized power cuts, fuel price hikes and corruption, while strikes by garment workers demanding better wages have in recent months paralyzed parts of Dhaka and neighboring outskirts.

Bangladesh police fire tear gas at garment workers protesting for better wages at Mirpur intersection, Dhaka, Nov. 2, 2023. [BenarNews]

Matiur Rahman, a resident of Dinajpur-6 constituency in northwestern Bangladesh, said the rising cost of essential items was hurting his family.

“The local MP does not talk about the suffering of the poor people in Parliament,” he told BenarNews. “People want change.”

Change, however, is likely to prove elusive due to the one-sided nature of next week’s election. That has left some voters like Abdul Mannan entirely disillusioned.

“What’s the point of going to the polling centers?” said Mannan, a resident of the Patuakhali-2 constituency in southern Bangladesh. “The Awami League candidate will win no matter whether I go or not.

“None of my family members will go to the polling centers.”


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