‘Sham’ election in Bangladesh keeps Sheikh Hasina in power

Published January 8, 2024
People confront police during clashes on polling day in Chattogram, Bangladesh, on Sunday.—Reuters
People confront police during clashes on polling day in Chattogram, Bangladesh, on Sunday.—Reuters

DHAKA: Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has won re-election for a fifth time, following an opposition boycott, with her party taking at least half of seats and counting ongoing, an election official said.

“The ruling Awami League party has won more than 50 per cent seats,” an Election Commission spokesman said.

However, election officials were still cou­nting votes on Sunday when the official declared her victor amid a boycott of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party that she branded a “terrorist organisation”.

Ms Hasina’s government has been accused of rampant human rights abuses and a ruthless opposition crackdown. Her party faced almost no effective rivals in the seats it contested, but it avoided fielding candidates in a few constituencies, an apparent effort to avoid the legislature being branded a one-party institution.

The opposition BNP, whose ranks have been decimated by mass arrests, called a general strike and urged the public not to participate in what it called a “sham” election.

PM calls opposition BNP a ‘terrorist organisation’ as turnout remains low

But Ms Hasina, 76, called for citizens to show faith in the democratic process. “The BNP is a terrorist organisation,” she told reporters after casting her vote. “I am trying my best to ensure that dem­ocracy should continue in this country.”

‘Why would I go to vote?’

Results are expected as early as Monday (today) morning, with television channels broadcasting early counts from several polling stations putting ruling party candidates ahead.

Chief Election Commissioner Habibul Awal told reporters the turnout, based on preliminary figures, was around 40 per cent.

There were widespread reports of carrot-and-stick inducements to encourage turnout aimed at bolstering the poll’s legitimacy.

BNP head Tarique Rahman, speaking from Britain where he lives in exile, said he worried about ballot stuffing. “I fear that the election commission may inc­rease vot­er turnout by using fake votes,” he told AFP.

Many said they had not voted because the outcome was assured. “When one party is participating and another is not, why would I go to vote?” said Mohammad Saidur, 31, who pulls a rickshaw.

“We all know who’s going to win,” said Farhana Manik, 27, a student.

Some voters said earlier they had been threatened with the confiscation of government benefit cards needed to access welfare payments if they refused to cast ballots for the ruling Awami League.

“They said since the government feeds us, we have to vote for them,” Lal Mia, 64, told AFP in the central district of Faridpur.

Fear of ‘further crackdown’

The BNP and other parties staged months of protests last year, demanding Ms Hasina step down ahead of the vote.

Officers in the port city of Chittagong broke up an opposition protest Sunday, firing shotguns and tear gas canisters, but election officials said voting was largely peaceful, with nearly 800,000 police officers and soldiers deployed countrywide.

Meenakshi Ganguly, from Human Rights Watch, said Sunday that the government had failed to reassure opposition supporters that the polls would be fair, warning that “many fear a further crackdown”.

Politics in the world’s eighth-most populous country was long dominated by the rivalry between Ms Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founding leader, and two-time premier Khaleda Zia, wife of a former military ruler.

Ms Hasina has been the decisive victor since returning to power in a 2009 landslide, with two subsequent polls accompanied by widespread irregularities and accusations of rigging.

Ms Zia, 78, was convicted of graft in 2018 and is now in ailing health at a hospital in Dhaka, with her son Tarique Rahman helming the BNP in her stead from London.

Mr Rahman told AFP that his party, along with dozens of others, had refused to participate in a “sham election”.

Ms Hasina has accused the BNP of arson and sabotage during last year’s protest campaign, which was mostly peaceful but saw several people killed in police confrontations.

The government’s security forces have been dogged by allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances — charges it rejects.

The United States, the biggest export market for the South Asian nation of 170 million, has imposed sanctions on an elite police unit and its top commanders.

Economic headwinds have left many dissatisfied with Ms Hasina’s government, after sharp spikes in food costs and months of chronic blackouts in 2022.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2024

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