Bangladesh approaches its 11th general elections on Sunday, after what has been a tumultuous year for the country’s political leadership and civilians. Incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (71) and her Awami League (AL) is poised to make a comeback for a record fourth term although her nine-year tenure has been tainted by increasing authoritarianism and stronghold on state machinery.
Arch rival Khaleda Zia (73) is languishing in prison, as poll campaigns led by opposition activists came to an end late Friday, and brought a fresh onslaught of deaths and arrests.
Hand-in-hand with increasing violence, mass arrests, and media repression, the country goes to vote amid deep mistrust between the government and the opposition.
The two sides
Hasina’s AL, which leads the Grand Alliance coalition, goes head-to-head against main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leading the Jatiya Oikya Front (or National Unity Front). BNP chief and former two-time PM Khaleda Zia (73), meanwhile, is behind bars and barred from contesting in elections over corruption charges that the opposition claims is politically motivated.
In her absence, the 20-party alliance under NUF is led by veteran jurist and former law minister Kamal Hossain (83). It is not clear who will become PM should the opposition win the elections.
The duopoly of Hasina and Zia’s political families in the Muslim-majority nation has shaped much of its
Bangladesh has made inordinate economic progress under Hasina’s latest term, although critics have claimed the 8% growth has dealt a blow to the banking sector and has taken the form of economic disparity. The opposition has promised to raise the minimum wage of garment workers, freeze gas and electricity prices, and give the central bank more autonomy.
Although the ruling government secured global acclaim for offering refuge to a million Rohingya refugees last year, Hasina’s government was recently
The heaviest blow, however, was dealt by Dhaka’s student community who protested for road safety, forcing the government to crack down on activists and media alike, facing intense criticism from the world. It resulted in the imprisonment of several journalists and photographers, including Shahidul Alam, and turned the spotlight on Hasina’s intolerance towards dissenters and the country’s draconian laws to keep media under control.
According to Reporters Without Borders, several hundred bloggers, journalists
History of anti-incumbency
Saturday’s polls mark the 11th election in one of the world’s newest
Hasina has always presented AL as
The last election in 2014 was boycotted by the BNP as half the seats remaining uncontested, with international observers calling it “an electoral farce”.
Harassment of and attacks on opposition candidates and campaign have recurred this year as well, triggering fears of another one-sided election.
The opposition alliance even demanded the resignation of chief election commissioner K M Nurul Huda, accusing him of bias, earlier this month.
Amidst widespread violence ahead of the polls, the BNP have alleged heavy-handed coercion and state-sponsored violence by the ruling AL. Thousands of opposition activists have been locked up as part of a bid to rig the elections, BNP spokespersons told local media. Street clashes have already claimed six lives—four BNP supporters and two from the Awami League.
Authorities denied allegations of intimidation, blocking BNP’s website and Facebook page last week, claiming it contained “indecent” and “obscene” material. Internet services were also slowed down on the eve of the polls, to allegedly fight the “propaganda” fuelling unrest and vandalism.
Amid global concern following the recent events, Human Rights Watch noted the “repressive political environment”, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
As 170 million voters go to vote this weekend, it remains to be seen if anti-incumbency will win yet again, and how a nation still haunted by the mores of colonial rule chooses a democratic government.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.