Bangladesh will go to polls on January 7—but its winner has already been decided. Over the past decade, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has gutted the core institutions of democracy—turning even its elections into a banana republic-like farce.
Researched by: Rachel John & Aarthi Ramnath
Remind me about Sheikh Hasina…
She is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He was assassinated by the military in 1975—following a coup. That event has defined her life:
That fateful night, while 28-year-old Hasina was in Germany with her younger sister, a group of army officers burst into the family’s Dhaka home and killed her parents, three other siblings and the household staff — 18 people in all.
Much like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, Hasina built her career as a staunch opponent of a dictatorship. After taking over her father’s party—Awami League—she lived in exile in India until 1981—and then was held in military detention until elections were held in 1996.
The battling begums: Since 1996, Bangladesh politics have been defined by a tug-of-war between Sheikh Hasina and her nemesis Khaleda Zia—head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. They remained bitter rivals—each ousting the other from the gaddi—until 2008 when Hasina took over—and has remained PM ever since. Zia, OTOH, is now under house arrest on trumped up corruption charges—with declining health.
Domestically, she has propagated a suffocating cult of personality around Mujib; an enormous portrait of the “Father of Nation” looms over our conversation, and his mustachioed visage adorns every public office and website. Inside the departure lounge of Dhaka’s international airport, a floor-to-ceiling plasma screen plays his speeches on loop to the captive audience. “I’m here just to fulfill my father’s dream,” says Hasina.
Also, as one expert puts it: “Hasina has one very powerful quality as a politician — and that is to weaponize trauma.”
And now she’s taken to rigging elections?
Yeah, pretty much. The 2024 polls won’t be the first time either.
A very dubious record: In 2014, most of the opposition boycotted the election—because Hasina removed key constitutional clauses aimed at ensuring free and fair elections. Her party secured its second consecutive term by winning more than half of seats uncontested. Hasina promised to hold a rerun—to appease Western critics—but backtracked thanks to strong support from India and China.
In 2018, the opposition decided to contest the polls—but the outcome remained the same. Both elections have been condemned by the US and EU for “significant irregularities, including stuffed ballot boxes and thousands of phantom voters.” FYI: She won 84% and 82% of the vote, respectively, in these elections.
Deja vu, all over again: No one expects the 2024 elections to be any different. Zia’s BNP has once again boycotted the polls—and doesn’t stand a chance even if it were to jump in the fray:
Most of the BNP’s leaders and thousands of its activists have been jailed over the past six weeks. Five have died in custody since late November. Many of those who have so far evaded arrest are in hiding.
In fact, Hasina has abandoned any remaining pretensions to democracy. This is how farcical the contests have become:
For the 300 directly elected seats in Bangladesh’s parliament, the ruling Awami League has official nominees in 263 constituencies. In addition, it also has 269 party members standing as “independent” candidates, meaning there are two or sometimes even more Awami League candidates in many places—and that’s not counting the candidates of other parties allied to the Awami League under the Moha-joth, or Grand Alliance.
The Awami League is essentially running against itself.
Data point to note: The key opposition party—BNP—claims over four million cases have been filed against their leaders, activists, and supporters and its associate bodies between January 2009 and June 12, 2023.
Aisi taisi democracy: According to Hasina: “Democracy has a different definition that varies country to country.” And that definition is fairly loose. In recent years, she has sealed her control over the judiciary, police and the press. She has suppressed dissent much as a classic tinpot dictatorship:
The arrested activists have been charged with crimes from arson to attempted murder. Many of the arrests look arbitrary; where police could not find those they were looking for, they took their relatives. Witnesses say the arresting officers were sometimes accompanied by [Awami League] activists carrying wooden truncheons.
Point to note: Hasina’s autocratic rule has also been characterised with remarkable economic growth. As TIME notes:
Hasina’s economic achievements are impressive. Bangladesh has gone from struggling to feed its people to a food exporter with a GDP rising from $71 billion in 2006 to $460 billion in 2022, making it South Asia’s second largest economy after India. Social indicators have also improved, with 98% of girls today receiving primary education. Bangladesh is moving into high-tech manufacturing, allowing international firms like Samsung to extricate supply chains from China.
Abdul Halim, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka, says he is not a supporter of the prime minister, but “Hasina gave us electricity. I thought my family would never have power at home. Now my entire village has electricity,” he said.
And what does India feel about her?
Ah, the Hasina aur Modi ki jodi is doing smashingly well. As Himal Magazine notes:
The India–Bangladesh relationship has hit new heights in almost all respects over Hasina’s tenure in Dhaka and Narendra Modi’s decade in power in New Delhi. Bilateral trade has taken an impressive leap – Indian exports to Bangladesh have tripled, though the balance of trade has also widened in India’s favour. Cooperation now even extends to Bangladesh procuring arms from India, after decades of China dominating its defence imports.
In fact, New Delhi has fiercely defended Hasina from allegations of autocracy. When questioned on the subject, the External Affairs spokesperson said:
Crackdown, jailed opposition leader, etc. are your interpretation. Please don’t ascribe them to me. We do not want to comment on the policy of any third country. Elections in Bangladesh, as I have said, are a domestic matter for them. It is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their own future.
Point to note: The US is openly unhappy with Hasina’s regime—as is the EU. And it would be fairly easy to pressure Dhaka—whose garment industry is highly dependent on Western markets… except for New Delhi’s intervention:
As early as in 2022, US pressure rattled Hasina’s government so much that her foreign minister, A K Abdul Momen, sought New Delhi’s help to lobby in favour of a continued Awami League government. Delhi has done this in two ways. First, it has been opposing, through public statements, any other country making statements or taking measures that might bolster Hasina’s opponents. Second, it has raised the issue at the highest bilateral levels with the United States, explaining how continuity of the current regime would help India, an increasingly close ally of Washington DC, on both the security and economic fronts.
But why is that? Why are we in Hasina’s corner?
For a number of strategic reasons, it’s vital to keep Bangladesh in our corner. And if Hasina is going to be the one in charge, there is no profit in alienating her.
Location, location, location: Bangladesh sits right at our “chicken neck”—the critical 20 km corridor that connects the rest of India to the northeast. That region is also next door to China—which has been ardently wooing Hasina:
Officials in Delhi are afraid it is strategically vulnerable in any potential conflict with India's rival, China… There are concerns that any excessive arm twisting could push Dhaka towards China. Beijing is already keen to extend its footprint in Bangladesh as it battles for regional supremacy with India.
The S-word: Ironic as it may seem to many Indians, Hasina is also valuable because she is staunchly secular—unlike BNP which has been willing to cater to Islamic fundamentalist groups—who are viewed as a clear and present danger:
India also acknowledges that there is no alternative to Hasina. If she loses and the BNP comes to power, then… Jamaat-e-Islami follows close behind. And if the Jamaat is anywhere around the levers of power, then its backers, Pakistan’s military establishment, will be in the driving seat.
The BNP problem: The biggest reason is that New Delhi simply doesn’t get along with Zia or the BNP:
In the past, the BNP was accused of allowing or even encouraging Indian insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), an armed separatist organization in India's northeastern state of Assam, and similar outfits to operate from Bangladesh. The BNP also shunned cooperation with India in trade, energy, connectivity and security.
Hasina is the best bet for India—which is far more invested in its security than democracy in Bangladesh.
The bottomline: Hasina insists, “It is not that easy to overthrow me through a democratic system. The only option is just to eliminate me. And I am ready to die for my people.” That sounds about right except for the ‘democratic’ bit.
BBC News and Economist have a good overview of the current political climate in Bangladesh ahead of the general elections. Associated Press and TIME are best on Sheikh Hasina and her politics. Himal Magazine has a must-read on the geopolitical implications of these elections. On the India angle, read The Print, BBC News and Asia Nikkei.