Sheikh Hasina Wajed with supporters, the Awami League and ministry officialsSheikh Hasina Wajed celebrated her electoral win with supporters and with her Awami League. [Photos: Office of the Prime Minister]

The coalition government, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League, was swept back to power in disputed elections on 31 December that left the opposition crushed by the scale of the victory. However, allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and state-sponsored violence against opposition activists and the media tarnished the landslide win, which ushers in a third consecutive term for the 71-year-old prime minister.

Hasina’s alliance won 288 of the 299 seats at stake, the Daily Star reported. The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which boycotted the last election (and led to a turnout as low as 22% in Dhaka, the capital), and its Jatiya Oikya (National Unity Front) allies gained just seven seats. Of her junior partners, the Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal won two seats each, the Workers Party won three and the Tariqat Federation won one. Three others went to independents.

‘We urge the election commission to void this farcical result immediately,’ the Jatiya Okiya leader, Kamal Hossain, said. ‘We are demanding that a fresh election is held under a neutral government as early as possible.’ The BNP secretary-general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, called the election ‘a cruel mockery of democracy’.

But Hasina, in dismissing allegations of vote-rigging, underlined the ruling party’s emphasis on the big strides in development that have transformed Bangladesh from a low-income to a middle-income country in the past decade. ‘They voted so enthusiastically,’ Reuters reported her telling the press and foreign election observers. ‘What do people want? They want to fulfil their basic needs. When they feel that yes, only this government can ensure it, then definitely they will vote for us.’ Since she took power in 2008, Bangladesh’s per capita income has risen threefold and last year growth reached 7%. The International Monetary Fund has praised the decline in poverty and improvements in gender disparity and maternal mortality. Major infrastructure projects launched include the 6km-long Padma bridge, a nuclear power station and a metro rail system in Dhaka.

The general election in what is ostensibly one of the world’s biggest democracies, with more than 100 million voters, saw more than 600,000 security forces deployed to the 205,000 polling stations. But for many in the opposition, this was a source of intimidation rather than reassurance, as reports emerged of party workers being attacked and at least 17 people killed during the campaign. A polling centre was attacked and ballot papers snatched in Noakhali on the eve of the election; elsewhere, voters were told their ballots had already been filled in and they could not vote.

On the eve of polling, Hossain said more than 100 candidates were boycotting the election over fears of ‘vote dacoity’ (banditry), others had been unable to campaign and some 21,000 opposition activists had been arrested since the election was called. The BNP said 7,000 supporters had been detained and police harassment meant it could not field enough polling agents, the Dhaka Tribune reported. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), the Islamist allies of the BNP, said more than 3,500 activists were detained, Agence France-Presse reported. The Electoral Commission did, however, allow JeI candidates to stand as independents, after the supreme court deregistered the party in 2013 over complicity in war crimes during the 1971 independence war. On 20 December, the UN Human Rights Council warned: ‘Even one of the election commissioners has expressed the view that he does not believe there is any level playing field.’

The Bangladeshi rights organisation Odhikar reported 456 extrajudicial killings, 83 ‘enforced disappearances’, 64 deaths in prison, 72 attacks on journalists and 79 deaths in political violence last year up to November. Nine days before polling, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the ‘repressive political environment’, saying it was ‘undermining the credibility’ of the elections. While acknowledging there had been violence on both sides, it said the authorities had failed to act impartially. Days after the election, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concerns over ‘credible reports of fatalities and numerous injuries on polling day’ and ‘reprisals…against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases.’ Calling for prompt investigations, it also noted reports of journalists being arrested and injured, and at least 54 websites being blocked weeks before polling. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) called for ‘credible resolution of allegations’, noting that the violence and election code violations had raised doubts over the polls and the Election Commission itself. ‘If left unaddressed,’ the CHRI said, ‘the issues could seriously undermine the independence of the electoral process.’ The Commonwealth Secretariat had not commented on the election result at the time of writing, though a statement three days before the polls expressed concern over reports of ‘violence, intimidation and harassment’.

The respected photojournalist Shahidul Alam was detained in August for what the police deemed ‘provocative comments’ hours after an Al Jazeera interview in which he criticised the government’s response to a student protest over road safety. The 63-year-old was released after an international outcry and more than 100 days in detention, though not before being beaten in custody, he said. Alam was arrested under a controversial laws banning electronic communication that ‘tends to deprave or corrupt’. The absurdly broad ICT Act had been used to detain more than 1,000 people for months over political criticism on Facebook or a caricature of Hasina, HRW noted. In October it was replaced by the Digital Security Act, which Amnesty International condemned as ‘even more repressive’. It has had a chilling effect on the media: Reuters interviewed 32 journalists ‘living in fear of ever-tightening media laws and engaging in self-censorship’.

Bangladeshi politics has long been animated and polarised by the highly personalised clash between Hasina, daughter of the country’s murdered founding father, Mujibur Rahman, and the BNP leader, Khaleda Zia, who was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption last February and then handed another seven years on separate embezzlement charges in October.  Supporters of Zia, whose husband became a military dictator after the assassination of Hasina’s father (a plot he seems likely to have known about), claimed the trials were ‘political vengeance’ to stop her standing for election. This time, however, Hasina faced the 81-year-old Hossain: an eminent jurist, lead author of the country’s constitution and Bangladesh’s first foreign minister. Dr Kamal, as he is known, formed a credible and surprisingly mixed coalition to challenge the government, as secular centrist parties fearing Hasina’s authoritarianism allied with the BNP (tainted, for many, by its links with the extreme Islamist JeI), while the Awami League, according to the Washington Post, maintained power through a broad coalition of nationalists, moderate Islamists and secularists. Hasina has also won support from the minority Hindu population; ‘she has definitely unleashed and freed us minorities,’ one Hindu told Associated Press. ‘To keep its diverse support base intact, the Awami League has combined quasi-democratic elections with pervasive political repression,’ the Post said.

Hasina and Zia were allies in the pro-democracy protests that forced the military dictator General Ershad to step down and allow elections in 1991. But by 1994 the two appeared to be implacable enemies. In practice, they behaved similarly; as the Economist noted, both ran their parties as personal fiefs, presided over corrupt governments while in power and tried to frustrate parliament and derail the economy while in opposition. Crucially, though, Zia embraced Islamism in a state that enshrined secularism as a founding principle. It was an unholy alliance that may help explain why another unchallenged term for Hasina might be quietly welcomed by many countries in the world all too worried about their own Islamist problem. Her government, by contrast, has cracked down on extreme Islamists, not least through the war crimes tribunal set up in 2009, which has sentenced to death many of those on the losing side of the civil war (see ‘V for victory – and vengeance’, Commonwealth Update, April 2013).

The Washington Post said the international reaction, with a series of congratulatory messages led by the Indian and Chinese governments, smoothed over the initial concerns about irregularities and violence. Indian newspapers also reacted positively, the Daily Star reported, reflecting the Awami League’s historic alignment with Delhi, compared with the BNP’s pro-Pakistan stance. But while recognising Hasina’s success in pushing development, the editorials also expressed concern at her authoritarianism and apparent disregard for human rights. Further afield, The Diplomat said: ‘Contrary to its impressive development records, Bangladesh has regressed toward authoritarian rule.’

In March the Bertelsmann Stiftung named Bangladesh as one of five countries (which included two other Commonwealth states – Uganda and Mozambique) that no longer met democratic standards. The German thinktank’s 2018 Transformation Index said: ‘Due to the worsened quality of elections, the formerly fifth largest democracy is classified as an autocracy again.’ Its report gave Bangladesh a score of 3.8 out of 10 for rule of law, 4.3 for political participation and just 3 for stability of democratic institutions.

Bangladesh deserves credit for opening its borders to the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees who have fled from Myanmar. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, praised the government for its stance last July, while the British minister Alistair Burt declared on this subject that ‘we must always pay tribute to the government of Bangladesh.’ Elsewhere, however, Burt also said Bangladesh was now on the UK’s watch-list of 30 ‘human rights priority countries’, alongside Saudi Arabia, Syria and North Korea. As the British MP Rupa Huq said: ‘The two statements highlight an almighty clash.’