The ruling coalition of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has won landslide victory in the recently-held parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. This Awami League-led Grand Alliance bagged 288 out of the 298 parliamentary seats up for grabs. Surprisingly, Jatiya Oikya Front, the main opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Pakistan (BNP) could win only 7 seats. So, the opposition alliance has rejected the election results accusing the government of orchestrating vote rigging and ballot stuffing. The opposition parties have also complained that they have been denied a level playing field during the campaigning, with mass arrests of their workers and attacks on their candidates by the ruling party workers. Deadly clashes also marred these elections as at least 17 people were killed in election-related violence on polling day. Pointing out a number of electoral irregularities, the media and international observers have expressed some concerns over the credibility and transparency of these elections. There have also been reports about unnecessary delays in issuing visas to international monitors and press freedom groups by the Bangladesh authorities, hampering efforts to independently monitor these polls.
The United Nations and the European Union have called for an independent and impartial investigation into the accusations of violence and voting irregularities. In fact, the 2014 parliamentary elections in Bangladesh were also controversial. They were largely shunned by international observers for being “unfair” and an “electoral farce”. The 18-party opposition alliance led by BNP formally boycotted these elections. Thus, more than half the seats had remained uncontested. The opposition parties had called for the government to resign so that a non-partisan interim administration could hold free and fair elections. It was rather a reasonable demand in view of the prevailing political culture in the country. Following these elections, the government launched a massive crackdown on the opposition. BNP leader Khaleda Zia was also put under house arrest.
The latest election victory marks Sheikh Hasina’s third consecutive and overall fourth term as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Now she has become the longest-serving leader of the country. She is also the undisputed leader of Awami league (AL), the country’s largest political party. She has constantly been consolidating her political position since being elected as the premier of Bangladesh in 2009. During this period, she has tended to wield absolute powers after establishing an autocratic and authoritarian government. That’s why her critics usually call her an “elected dictator”. They accuse her of transforming Bangladesh into a “single-party state” through political repression and persecution. Over a period of time, she has succeeded in eliminating her political opponents and dissidents. There have been a large number of enforced disappearances and political assassinations in Bangladesh during this period. Some politicians were also jailed or hanged. Besides this, a number of media laws, generally dubbed as “black laws”, were enacted and enforced to suppress political dissidence and free speech in the country. She also scrapped a constitutional amendment in 2011 putting an end to the practice of forming an interim/caretaker administration to ensure fair and transparent elections in the country.
The bitter political rivalry between Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia has poisoned Bangladeshi politics for nearly three decades. These “Battling Begums of Bangladesh” just gave rise to a sort of zero-sum political culture in the country. However, Sheikh Hasina somehow succeeded in making her arch-rival politically ineffective and irrelevant after coming into power in 2009. She resorted to typical tools of power politics to suppress her political opponents. Consequently, BNP and its allies could secure only seven seats in the recently-held elections. Khalida Zia was sentenced to 7 years in prison after being convicted twice last year on what BNP describe as trumped-up corruption charges. Similarly, her exiled son and political heir apparent, Tarique Rehman, was also awarded life imprisonment by a Bangladesh court over a 2004 attack on Sheikh Hasina’s rally in Dhaka.
Sheikh Hasina’s government has also introduced some draconian media laws, known as “black laws”, to curb free speech and rein in press freedom in the country during the last few years. It toughened the controversial Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), increasing the maximum jail term from 10 years to 14 years, and eliminating need for arrest warrants. A Human Rights Watch report reveals that scores of people have been arrested in Bangladesh over the past five years under the ICT for criticizing the government and political leaders on Social Media. In the name of combating cybercrimes and preserving the country’s ideology and national unity, the government also enacted the Digital Security Act (DSA) last year. The DSA contains provisions to give heavy jail sentences for secretly recording government officials and spreading “negative propaganda” about the country’s “liberation war” or about the “father of the nation” Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. This law unnecessarily restricts the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Moreover, this law is also in conflict with the principles of the right to information, which ensure accountability of state institutions, public officials, and elected representatives. International rights bodies, journalists and opposition leaders in Bangladesh have been critical of these draconian laws.
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Bangladesh has been another political rival of Awami League. This Islamist political party strongly opposed the break-up of Pakistan to create Bangladesh in 1971. Therefore, after the ‘independence’ of Bangladesh, Awami League government banned Jamaat-e-Islami from political participation and its leaders went into exile in Pakistan. Considering it a potential hurdle in way of her self-styled modernisation and pro-Indian policies, Hasina-led Awami League government has also perused a witch-hunt against Jamaat-e-Islami to eliminate it from Bangladesh. This government formed an “International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)” in 2009 to prosecute and punish individuals involved in “war crimes” during the “1971 Bangladesh Liberation War”. This tribunal has awarded death sentences to 9 JI leaders and 2 BNP leaders. So, prominent JI Bangladesh leaders like Abdul Kalam Azad, Abdul Kader Mullah, Motiur Rahman Nizami, Mir Qausem Ali have been hanged in Bangladesh since late 2013. In 1974, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh signed a tripartite agreement to normalize their relations through reconciliation by ending their post-war mutual confrontation. Under this agreement, pledging to ‘forgive and forget the past mistakes’, Bangladesh government undertook not to try the prisoners of war as an act of clemency. Therefore, it is a blatant violation of this tripartite agreement as Hasina’s government has just chosen to establish an ICT for war crime trials after more than 40 years.
Bangladesh, during Hasina’s premiership, developed close diplomatic, economic, military and strategic relations with India. Both countries also peacefully resolved their longstanding boundary disputes. In fact, some geographic and strategic factors compel ‘India-locked’ Bangladesh to make peace with its South Asian neighbour. Historically, Awami League has been having good ties with India. It is also a historical fact that India played an instrumental role in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 by supporting various separatist elements in the erstwhile East Pakistan. Inspired and influenced by India, the founding father of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rehman also tried to make Bangladesh a secular state. Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina is currently enjoying full Indian confidence and support. She certainly has used this foreign leverage to consolidate her political position domestically. Bangladesh’s military is also considered a major player in the country’s politics. However, it has been staying on the sidelines since its latest ‘political experiment’ in the form of provisional government eventually failed in 2008. This caretaker government could not achieve its primary objective of ridding Bangladesh of ‘corrupt politicians’. So, the civil-military balance has tilted in favour of Sheikh Hasina making her the formidable leader of the country.
The supporters of Hasina attribute her political success largely to her vibrant economic policies whereby Bangladesh’s economy has steadily been growing by more than 6% annually since 2009. Her opponents, however, see some fascist tactics behind her rise to power. Notwithstanding these contradictory claims, we have observed Bangladesh being transformed into a totalitarian state under Hasina’s authoritarian rule where there is hardly anything like the opposition. And where there are curbs on the free speech. The opposition and a free press are indispensable for a democracy to function effectively and smoothly. Similarly, two or more vibrant political parties are always needed to successfully run a country with a parliamentary system of government like Bangladesh. I am afraid Sheikh Hasina’s autocratic and dictatorial tendencies would eventually lead Bangladesh to a political cul-de-sac.