By Md Salman Rahman
On January 7th, 2024, Bangladesh conducted its 12th parliamentary election amidst intense political tensions gripping the nation. Awami League’s victory for the fourth consecutive term has managed to clinch the victory. The period leading up to the polls was characterised by clashes between opposing factions. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, the primary opposition parties, opted to boycott the election, insisting that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, leading the current government, should step down to allow a neutral interim government to oversee the election process. However, the ruling party remained steadfast in its stance to conduct the election under its authority, citing constitutional conflicts regarding the formation of an interim government. Today marked the announcement of the election results, affirming Awami League’s victory for the fourth consecutive term.
Bangladesh lies at the heart of the Bay of Bengal, connecting it to the Indo-Pacific region. It is surrounded by India on three sides, being one of the largest nations in South Asia. Apart from India, its only other border is with Myanmar, currently under a junta government. With the decline of democracy in several South Asian nations, it is crucial to observe how the second-largest economy in the region manages its electoral procedures. Domestically, there has been a notable surge in discontent from the opposition, which has escalated into a state of resentment, leading to breaches across the country.
Clashes spread thoroughout the nation
As rulings and oppositions stand in the antithetical direction, a trajectory of uncertainty erupts, risking a wider clash across the country. Since October 28, the opposition’s street protests have led to the destruction of public transportation, assaults on journalists, the targeting of police medical facilities, and a breach of the chief justice’s residence. Tragically, over a dozen individuals have lost their lives, including the reported death of a police officer amid the clashes.
The government has heightened its response to this situation. PM Hasina, in an interview, labelled the opposition as a “terrorist organisation” due to the level of violence exhibited. However, the BNP denies responsibility for the deaths; rather, they allege that the government is undermining the protest’s morale by remaining complicit following these killings.
Bangladesh Party System
Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the political system in Bangladesh has undergone substantial transformation. Following integration with Pakistan, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) endured a period of military dictatorship until gaining independence in 1971. Post-liberation, there was a widespread sense of anticipation across the nation regarding the establishment of democracy and the preservation of people’s rights. However, this optimism was short-lived as Bangladesh’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his family were tragically assassinated in a coup in 1975.
Subsequent to these events, the electoral process in Bangladesh has witnessed multiple deviations, yet it remains predominantly characterized by the presence of two major political parties. This duopoly has rendered it exceptionally arduous for candidates aligned with alternative political entities to secure elections. Jamaat E Islami, if not by seats but with supporters can be considered as the main Islamist party after BNP. In addition, there are moderate Islamic parties, anti-Islamic parties, left-wing and right-wing parties, student-affiliated organizations, nationalist parties like the BNP, and so on.
The Ruling Party
Over the past three consecutive terms, the Awami League has remained in power. Bangladesh saw the emergence of its initial secular political party in 1949, aiming to champion democracy and ensure fairness and justice across the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape. Notably, the Awami League played a significant role in liberating Bangladesh in 1971. Throughout more than seven decades, the AL has transformed significantly. Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the party’s founding member and longtime leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina now heads the party, steering its direction.
The Awami League (AL) rose to power in 2008 with a vision of establishing a digital Bangladesh, adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism, ensuring economic diversification, and combating corruption. Throughout their term, the Awami League stayed true to its promises. However, in 2011, when the AL attempted to amend a constitutional provision related to the “caretaker government,” strong opposition arose, yet their efforts didn’t succeed. The unyielding political atmosphere engulfed the entire nation, resulting in the 2014 elections taking place without the main opposition party, BNP, participating. The AL secured a landslide victory with 153 candidates elected unopposed due to the absence of opponents resulting from the boycott. Subsequently, in 2018, the BNP participated in the election. However, shortly after the polls began, they withdrew, alleging ballot rigging.
The Main Opposition Party
While Sheikh Mujibur Rahman held power, there existed no prominent opposition. He is revered as the nation’s pioneering hero, making it highly improbable for any opposition to rival him. However, in 1978, former military chief Ziaur Rahman introduced the BNP as a formidable nationalist party.The party is well-known for advocating Islamic sentiments and maintaining a swift alliance with Islamist groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and others. Since the inception of parliamentary democracy in 1991, the BNP has held power on three occasions: in 1991, 1996, and at last in 2001. Since the inception of parliamentary democracy, Begum Khaleda Zia, the wife of the late President Ziaur Rahman, has held the position of chairperson. Currently under house arrest and reportedly in critical condition, Begum Zia’s absence has led her older son, Tareq Rahman (sentenced to jail for 9 years), to assume an executive role, guiding the party from exile in London.
Internal and External Factors in the Elections
The internal dynamics shaping Bangladesh’s electoral process hinge on critical elements like political parties, leadership diversity, the electoral framework, socio-economic circumstances, civil society participation, and media influence. Bangladesh boasts over 40 political parties, each led by distinct leadership, vying fiercely for parliamentary seats. At the core of this process lies the pivotal role of the Election Commission (EC). Constitutionally independent and answerable solely to the parliament, the EC’s full implementation of established regulations has remained an elusive goal despite the country’s independent status for over five decades.
Furthermore, external dynamics like foreign relations, involvement of international organizations, aid from global sources, trade relations, remittance inflow, diaspora impact, and security considerations significantly shape the course of Bangladesh’s electoral process. Bangladesh’s leading export, Ready-Made Garments (RMG), chiefly traded with the US and the EU, adds another layer of significance. However, in the absence of the primary opposition party in the election, concerns arise regarding the potential imposition of sanctions or embargoes on Bangladesh if the electoral process is perceived as undemocratic.
Great game in Dhaka
The United States has recently intensified its scrutiny of Bangladesh’s democratic system, expressing concern over cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. This led to the imposition of sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion- the elite force, resulting in increased pressure from Washington. Additionally, in March of this year, the US implemented a visa restriction policy targeting individuals involved in undermining the democratic election, aiming to ensure a free and fair power transition in Bangladesh. Similarly, the European Union (EU) has taken a parallel stance, urging all the parties to engage in dialogues and seek a peaceful way ahead of the poll.
On the flip side, Russia and China seem to be more accommodating partners. Moscow has condemned what it perceives as interference, accusing the US of meddling in Bangladesh’s internal politics. Furthermore, this month, a Russian Navy squadron from the Pacific fleet visited Bangladesh’s port after a hiatus of over 50 years, considered by experts as a significant development in the relations between Dhaka and Moscow.
Beijing is in no way different from Moscow, as it reportedly maintains a warm relationship with the ruling party by avoiding involvement in Bangladesh’s internal political affairs. Earlier this year, Bangladesh reaffirmed its stance on the Indo-Pacific perspective, ensuring it was carefully formulated to not disrupt Beijing’s interests. Moreover, China has a large investment in Bangladesh since it is involved with a good number of mega projects in Bangladesh. In addition, Beijing is the top import source of Bangladesh’s military hardware. Although not explicitly expressing allegiance to any specific political party, rumours circulate in Dhaka regarding China’s affinity towards authoritarian regimes worldwide
Yet, in terms of India, its stance on the election was vague. Delhi echoed sentiments similar to those of its Western allies, emphasizing the necessity of a free and fair poll in Bangladesh. Speculation arises that India prefers the Awami League in power because it better serves Delhi’s interests in addressing terrorism and upholding India’s established position in its eastern region.
What awaits in the future?
The current exclusive nature of this poll, characterized by boycotts and mutual intolerance, might influence future ballots, placing at risk the country’s foundational principles, for which sacrifices were made in 1971. All resulting social divisions based on opposition parties and the cultivation of political vendettas are the outcomes of this ongoing event, wherein there seems to be no path to victory for the nation, only paths leading to losses.
Every election cycle in Bangladesh seems to mirror the past. Street-level political confrontations, the burning of transportation, and targeting opposition figures have become a distressing norm for many Bangladeshis. This recurring pattern leads people to accept these events as commonplace. Bangladesh is now going under a substantial financial crisis as pressure mounts on the Foreign Reserve, which has been consistently dwindling. Like many developing nations, the economy and livelihoods are at risk due to price hikes resulting from inflation and disruptions in the supply chain, attributed in part to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Therefore, this political crisis may add fuel to the flame, worsening the plight of ordinary citizens in the country.
In addition, trade uncertainty loomed over and still vivid as rising concern persists that an undemocratic ballot may propel Western powers to contemplate imposing trade embargo on Bangladesh. This month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh, stressing the importance of equitable treatment and fair wages for workers, which many economists consider politically motivated.
Nonetheless, changing dynamics have cast uncertainty over Bangladesh’s national and international affairs. Powerful entities vie for dominance, but the true essence lies elsewhere. To millions of Bangladeshis, the forthcoming election signifies a potential turning point in their destinies. Whether it unfolds positively or spirals into a precarious situation, it’s ordinary citizens who stand to face the consequences of the worst-case scenarios.
Md Salman Rahman is a Research Assistant at South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) and a Research Associate at Foreign Policy Network Bangladesh.