Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured a fourth term after winning by a landslide margin in the polls conducted on December 30. However, the opposition slammed the polls as “farcical” over claims of vote-rigging.
Hasina’s ruling party, Awami League, and its allies won 288 seats in the 300-seat parliament, while the main opposition managed to win only six seats, Election Commission secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed said.
“My congratulations to the Awami League,” Ahmed said in a televised speech while announcing the results, as per a Reuters report.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated Hasina on the win. Modi emphasised India’s commitment to work together with Bangladesh. Press secretary of the Bangladeshi prime minister, Ihsanul Karim, told PTI that Modi had said that “Hasina’s victory was the reflection of Bangladesh’s stunning development under her dynamic leadership”.
Hasina’s victory consolidated her decade-long rule over Bangladesh, where she is credited with improving the economy and promoting development. But human right allegations have been leveled against her, and she has also been accused of cracking down on media and dissenters.
An important task for Hasina, after she takes over office, will be to raise the minimum wage for workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry, the world’s second largest after China.
Opposition seeks fresh election
Opposition leader Kamal Hossain said that their alliance, which is led by the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), had called on the Election Commission for a fresh vote under a neutral administration “as soon as possible”. Hossain alleged that Sunday’s poll was flawed.
“The whole election was completely manipulated. It should be cancelled,” 82-year-old Hossain said in an interview at his residence late on Sunday. Candidates of the alliance had reported having witnessed ballot-stuffing and vote-rigging by party activists from Hasina’s Awami League, Hossain said. He further alleged that opposition polling agents were also barred from voting centres.
“We’ve had bad elections in the past, but I must say that it is unprecedented how bad this particular election was. The minimum requirements of free and fair election are absent,” Hossain told Reuters.
Hasina’s critics have accused her of authoritarianism and crippling the opposition, including arch-rival and BNP leader Khaleda Zia who is serving 17 years in prison on graft charges.
BNP spokesman Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal told reporters there were “irregularities” in 221 of the 300 seats contested.
Even before the polls had opened, a BBC correspondent saw that ballot boxes were already filled at a polling centre in Chittagong. But the presiding officer declined to comment. Additionally, only polling agents from the ruling party were present at the Chittagong centre as well as several other polling centres in the city.
The BBC further reported that at least 47 candidates from the opposition alliance withdrew before polling closed, alleging vote rigging and intimidation. Activists, observers, and the opposition party had warned that the vote would not be fair, but the governing party claimed that the opposition was peddling false claims.
15 people killed in election violence
As per reports on Sunday, at least 15 people were killed in election-related violence several places across Bangladesh. The deaths were reported from Noakhali, Rangamati, Chattogram, Cumilla, Rajshahi, Natore,Tangail, Narsingdi, Bogura, Brahmanbaria, Gazipur, Sylhet, and Cox’s Bazar districts on Sunday.
The violence was reported while voting was underway amidst allegations of irregularities.
Bangladesh election commission spokesman, S.M. Asaduzzaman, told AFP that the body had “received a few allegations of irregularities” and was investigating.
AFP reported that voting in Dhaka was largely peaceful as convoys of soldiers and paramilitary forces roamed the streets where most traffic was banned. However, voters in provincial areas reported intimidation.
One voter, Atiar Rahman, said that he had been beaten by ruling party activists in the central district of Narayanganj. “They told me not to bother, ‘We’ll cast your vote on your behalf’,” he told AFP.
Besides the opposition, media and press freedom groups also complained of harassment and threats ahead of the polls. Hasina’s government was slammed for introducing a law that facilitated a crackdown on the press and dissenters.
Rights groups feared that the controversial digital security law could further erode press freedoms and silence dissenting voices online. The law was approved in October. It combines the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with new measures that empower the police to make arrests without a warrant.
Amnesty International said that the law imposed “dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression” and pointed towards its potential to stifle dissenting voices.
The arrest of Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam also raised several questions over a clampdown on freedom of speech. Alam was released in November after having spent more than 100 days in prison.
Experts have also raised doubts over the impartiality of the Election Commission, which rejected the candidacy applications of 141 members of the leading opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Although a majority of these were approved on appeal, their initial rejection was a clear indicator of paying a high price when contesting against the ruling party.
In a December 13 statement, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams slammed the Awami League for the crackdown and its effects on the democratic process. “The Awami League government has been systematically cracking down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” Adams said.
What does this mean for Bangladesh?
Experts opine that Hasina’s victory will be sullied by accusations that she cornered the opposition. The opposition claims more than 15,000 of its activists were detained while campaigning, thereby weakening it substantially, and crushing its ability to mobilise support.
A total of 17 opposition candidates were arrested over what they said were trumped-up charges. Bangladesh courts disqualified another 17 candidates from contesting elections, and Hasina’s opponents claim that the courts are government controlled.
Should India rejoice?
It seems that India will be comfortable with Hasina’s win since bilateral ties have improved over the last decade of her term. Hasina and Modi jointly inaugurated 19 development projects, and they signed over 90 bilateral agreements in new areas such as space, IT, electronics, cybersecurity, and civil nuclear energy among others.
Hasina has also addressed India’s connectivity needs. Use of Bangladesh ports and her land territory to access India’s northeast will now make it easier for India to pursue its “Act East” policy, BBC journalist Subir Bhaumik wrote in a blog for the Times of India.
Citing a CSDS-Hindu public attitude survey, Bhaumik wrote that Indians trust Bangladesh more than its traditional ally, Russia. This is largely due to Hasina’s leadership, and bilateral ties could be improved further as she secured a third term.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.