Despite a historic win, challenges pepper Sheikh Hasina’s path

As a result, AL secured 234 seats. It is useful to note that, in both the boycotted elections, Sheikh Hasina’s party secured fewer seats than in the contested election of 2018.
Despite a historic win, challenges pepper Sheikh Hasina’s path

A gross tactical error on the part of the opposition parties in Bangladesh has ensured that Sheikh Hasina secured her fifth (and fourth successive) term as Prime Minister, with a sweeping majority in Parliament. Her Awami League (AL) now commands 222 of 299 seats (the election for the 300th seat was cancelled due to the death of a candidate), while her allied Jatiya Party secured 11. The remaining 63 seats have fallen to independents. The main Opposition, Bangladesh National Party (BNP), as well as another 15 political formations boycotted the elections.

It is significant that despite the Opposition’s participation in the 2018 general elections, Sheikh Hasina’s 14-party alliance had romped home with 288 seats. In 2014, the Opposition had also boycotted elections. As a result, AL secured 234 seats. It is useful to note that, in both the boycotted elections, Sheikh Hasina’s party secured fewer seats than in the contested election of 2018.

A strident narrative of an imminent defeat of the AL preceded the 2024 election boycott —fuelled by the Western line of endemic corruption and the violation of human rights. This ignored a far more credible narrative that appears to have been pushed into the margins of the discourse often dominated by manipulated social media: the reality of the dramatic successes of the Hasina government—most visibly in creating a stable and flourishing economy, despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic and the fallout of the war in Ukraine; as well as the near comprehensive containment of Islamist terrorism that threatened to overrun the country in the first decade of the present millennium.

Nevertheless, the abrupt withdrawal of the Opposition from the electoral process would suggest that it was not quite so confident of victory as it publicly made out. The Opposition boycott was based, inter alia, on the argument that, absent an election under a neutral caretaker government, there would be massive rigging. But allegations of rigging have dominated every election in Bangladesh, and have had little impact on the legitimacy or otherwise of elected governments. Moreover, participation with demonstrable evidence of massive rigging—if this was indeed inevitable, as the Opposition insisted—would have served infinitely better to delegitimise the Hasina regime than an election that she has now swept, and to which there can be no legal objections.

The argument, moreover, that the ‘low turnout’—40 per cent—of voters further delegitimises the present election also fails to hold water. When the AL boycotted the elections in 1996, at a time when the BNP was in power, the turnout was an even lower 28 per cent. This did little to undermine the BNP’s following term in office.

The Opposition has threatened to escalate protests, but this is unlikely to bring anything new to the table. The Opposition under both AL and BNP governments, has invariably done its worst to provoke instability, and this is a trajectory that will continue. The record suggests that the BNP and its Islamist allies will be a persistent irritant throughout Hasina’s new term, but are unlikely to be able to create any magnitude of disruption that could threaten the government. This is more the case since the Army continues to stand firmly with the Hasina government.

Allegations have been made that Sheikh Hasina is transforming Bangladesh into a dictatorship, and that the present electoral outcome will accelerate this process. The Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index has already characterised Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina as a “moderate autocracy”—a descriptive that, given Bangladesh’s history and global trends today, most countries should aspire to. A movement towards authoritarianism is visible across the world—and the moralising West is in no position to lecture others on ‘autocracy’ or human rights.

It is uncertain whether Sheikh Hasina will, in fact, choose such a path. While her protracted tenure in government is far from perfect, she has demonstrated no greater proclivity to authoritarianism than the leaders of several other ‘established’ democracies, and her commitment to secularism and social justice does not appear to be faltering.

In a world swinging violently into religious fanaticism and right-wing extremism, Hasina’s re-election is far from bad news, particularly given the alternatives in Bangladesh. She has pulled Bangladesh back from the brink of Talibanisation, and has extracted the economy from the basket case it once was. Tremendous challenges remain. Bangladesh is among the nations worst impacted by climate change, the threat of Islamist extremism is far from over, and the economy is at least at transient risk under the burden of debt accumulated over the pandemic years. Whether Sheikh Hasina acts with sagacity on these issues, or chooses to adopt a more extreme path over the coming years, remains to be seen.

Ajai Sahni

Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, South Asia Terrorism Portal

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