Continued Struggles After the Bangladesh Election

Bangladesh held its controversial national election at the end of 2018, and the results have done little to dampen the political conflict within the country. While the ruling Awami League party won in a landslide victory, taking 288 seats of a possible 300, the country remains politically fractured with some deepening divisions.

The Awami League has been in power since 2009, and while its leader, Sheikh Hasina, has overseen strong economic growth recently, her administration has long been accused of authoritarianism and attempts to harass and suppress political rivals and the media. The 2014 elections were boycotted by the opposition, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, in protest of the unfair electoral conditions. While the BNP contested this election, they only took seven seats.

Almost immediately after the election results were declared, opposition parties rejected the vote and demanded a fresh election. The Jatiya Oikya Front accused the Awami League of stuffing ballot boxes, and there were numerous instances of election-related violence, causing at least 18 deaths. In the lead up to the election, many human rights groups and opposition figures warned that the election could be easily rigged. Despite the government’s assurances of transparency, many election observer groups’ visas were delayed, preventing them from monitoring the election. Earlier in December, the Human Rights Watch released a harsh report on the political environment in Bangladesh leading up to the election, describing it as a “climate of fear,” and that the police and election commission appeared to be acting as extensions of the ruling party.

The results are no real surprise as the Awami League has spent the last decade carrying out a systemic process to remove political opposition from Bangladesh. Opposition leaders have been jailed or exiled, including opposition leader Khaleda Zia last year for “corruption charges,” and her son remains in exile in the United Kingdom. The months leading up to the election saw the highest number of extrajudicial killings in the last six years, and opposition coalition rallies were attacked by thugs. The UN human rights office also reported that they had received numerous credible reports of fatalities, injuries, and wide-scale intimidation towards the opposition and its supporters, including arbitrary arrests and disappearances. The UN agency urged the authorities to carry out an independent investigation into alleged acts of violence, but it is unclear just how receptive Hasina’s government will be to the UN’s demands.      

Despite the UN’s calls for investigation, Hasina seems secure in her victory. While international congratulations were delayed slightly by the allegations of irregularities, the scenario settled once Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Jinping offered their congratulations. Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran quickly followed, and the United States and European Union both expressed their desire to continue cooperating with the government.

Hasina has been building strategic relations with influential countries for the past decade, providing further guarantees that her party would stay in power. She has formed long-standing commitments with various foreign governments that the leaders would be loath to see fall apart, allowing her to carry her authoritarian practices largely criticism-free. Bangladesh is a member of the 34-nation Islamic military coalition to fight terrorism, is cooperating with Russia and India to build its first nuclear power plant and is a major purchaser of Chinese military weaponry. It also is a major exporter of textile, especially cheap garment products to the United States and the European Union. These influential nations have little desire to see Bangladesh become even more embroiled in political conflict, especially when Bangladesh is housing nearly a million Rohingya refugees, who could easily be put at risk should the country’s political turmoil increase.

The future for Bangladesh’s opposition looks bleak. Since accepting her victory, Hasina has refused calls to offer the opposition an olive branch, instead choosing to continue attacks on the other parties’ legitimacy.