On Monday, Bangladesh’s election commission announced that it had deferred the date for the country’s next parliamentary poll from December 23 to December 30, partially meeting demands from several opposition parties, who recently agreed to contest the election, for more time to prepare.
The announcement came as various political parties were still demanding talks with the government to set up modalities that could ensure a free and fair election and left major politically contentious issues unsettled. Bangladesh’s main opposition parties still demand the polls be deferred by a month, the current parliament dissolved, and an election-time special cabinet installed, one not led by current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Sheikh Hasina and her party, Bangladesh Awami League, on the other hand, insist that both the current set of parliamentarians and the prime minister should stay in power during the upcoming election.
Because of the deep-rooted mistrust among politicians and a vicious zero-sum political culture, Bangladesh had installed provisions for election-time caretaker governments under which four previous elections – 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2008 – were held. The constitutional provision for election-time caretaker governments was abolished during the tenure of Sheikh Hasina prior to the 2014 parliamentary elections, which the opposition boycotted, eventually handing out the ruling party 50 percent of the parliamentary seats uncontested. Political observers soured on Bangladesh’s democratic prospects since that election, some going as far as to term the entire 2014 affair as an electoral farce.
If the status quo prevails and the next election is held under conditions similar to 2014, Sheikh Hasina may easily win a contiguous third term, allowing her to govern an otherwise difficult to govern nation of 170 million for more than 10 continuous years – something no other leader, military or civilian, managed to achieve in post-independence Bangladesh since 1971.
Relative to her beleaguered opposition, Sheikh Hasina is an authoritative leader with unparalleled political dexterity and geopolitical acumen. Under her leadership, Bangladesh Awami League was able to crush its political adversaries, while forging numerous alliances of convenience with fringe political elements both secular and religious. After 10 years in power, Sheikh Hasina’s party has penetrated all layers of the key state organs of Bangladesh by appointing personnel favourable to the party’s agenda. This allowed the party to govern unchallenged.
Hasina’s strong rule brought relative political stability to Bangladesh, enabling it to make noticeable socioeconomic progress over the past 10 years. Bangladesh’s per capita income was $1,355 as of 2016, 40 percent higher than it was just three years prior. During the same time, South Asian giant India’s per capita income went up by only 14 percent and Pakistan’s 21 percent.
India’s per capita income stood only 25 percent higher than Bangladesh’s in 2016, while it used to be 87 percent higher back in 2011 when the current Hasina government was just two years into its tenure. Bangladesh surpassed India and Pakistan in the human development index with higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates. Bangladesh also achieved preliminary qualifications to enter the list of middle-income countries by 2024, provided that it maintains its current socioeconomic development trajectory.
Hasina’s political opponents, however, want everyone to look beyond economic figures and development indices.
Bangladesh has become increasingly authoritarian under Sheikh Hasina, and in some aspects, it is now a de-facto one-party state, where the ruling party has usurped even the most basic constitutional rights of its political opponents and citizens.
Arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings of political personnel have increased alarmingly over the last 10 years. Special security forces regularly engage in activities akin to death squads, operating with total impunity, killing political opponents of the government, often under officially sanctioned missions billed as ‘anti-terror’ and ‘anti-drug’ operations.
Under an increasingly authoritarian style of governance over a decade, Bangladesh’s ruling party and its cronies monopolised both the country’s politics and business. Large sums of cash left the country to safe havens abroad and income inequality measures went through the roof. Bangladesh registered the fastest growth in “Ultra High Net Worth” people over the past five years.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Bangladesh moves towards a ‘managed’ election’.