Bangladesh Votes in Election Marred by Crackdown and Boycotts


Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh was nearly guaranteed a fourth consecutive term in office as voting ended on Sunday in a low-turnout election that has been marred by a widespread crackdown on the opposition.

Security remained tight across the country of 170 million people as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition, which has boycotted the election as unfair, pushed for a nationwide strike. The situation had remained tense in the days leading up to the vote, with episodes of violence — including arson on a train in Dhaka that killed four people, and the torching of more than a dozen polling stations — reported from across the country.

Ms. Hasina, 76, who cast her vote in Dhaka, the capital, soon after polls opened at 8 a.m. local time, urged people to come out in large numbers.

On the campaign trail, she has called for political stability and continuity, often by mentioning the country’s violent history of coups and counter-coups, including one that killed her father, Bangladesh’s founding leader, in the 1970s. She has highlighted her efforts to champion economic development, and her secular party’s resistance to the rise of Islamist militancy, as reasons the voters should and will give her another term.

“We have struggled a lot for this voting right: jail, oppression, grenades, bombs,” Ms. Hasina told reporters after casting her vote. “This election will be free and fair.”

But with the results foretold, and the election largely a one-sided affair, there appeared to be little excitement on the streets about the vote.

“I didn’t go to vote in my hometown because what difference would my vote make?” said Mominul Islam, a rickshaw puller in Dhaka.

Visits to polling centers in Dhaka showed voting was slow. Members of the governing party, the Awami League, milled around outside the voting centers, but voters merely trickled in. Local news media reported instances of the governing party members lining up their supporters when cameras and foreign election observers reached a polling station, only for the people to disperse afterward.

At 3 p.m. local time, voter turnout stood around 27 percent, Kazi Habibul Awal, Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner, told reporters. After the polls closed an hour later, Mr. Awal said at a news conference that “we can assure that at least 40 percent of the votes were cast” and that the exact turnout would be clearer after counting ended.

With the main opposition boycotting, the competition — still tense, and in many constituencies marked by violence — is largely between members of Ms. Hasina’s own party.

While Ms. Hasina’s officials tried to play down the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s boycott of the vote, pointing to smaller parties still participating, her moves in the final stretch of the campaign made clear that she was worried about the vote’s legitimacy. She instructed her party to prop up what became known as dummy candidates — members of the Awami League contesting as independent candidates against their own party’s official candidates.

It was an effort to not only create a semblance of a contest, but to also shore up voter turnout that could give the election some legitimacy, analysts said.

But with power so centralized, and so much economic and political fortune at stake in a ticket to Parliament, the result has been bitter interparty fights in many of the constituencies, including violent clashes. In at least two constituencies, Awami League candidates have pointed fingers at opponents from their own party for deaths of their supporters.

“The ruling party had been trying for a long time to break up the main opposition party, the B.N.P., and bring some of their people to their side. This would have shown that there was some kind of participation from different parties, especially the B.N.P., in the election,” said Ali Riaz, a political scientist and professor at Illinois State University, using an abbreviation for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. “When they were not very successful in this, they had to choose this path.”

Mr. Riaz said the way that the election had played out made clear that Bangladesh was no longer “an effective multiparty system.”

“I am saying effective because there may be offices with signboards, but there will be no effective opposition,” Mr. Riaz said. “Not on paper, but in practice Bangladesh will become a one-party state.”

After winning a competitive election held under a neutral caretaker government in 2009, Ms. Hasina has set out to turn Bangladesh into a one-party state, analysts and critics say. She changed the Constitution to make illegal the practice of holding elections under neutral administration, and won two additional terms — in 2014 and 2018 — in votes marked by opposition boycotts and irregularities.

Ms. Hasina first moved to crush the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, effectively banning its political work and prosecuting several of its senior leaders for violence and treason during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. More recently, her efforts have focused on the B.N.P., the main opposition party, which has by now been so gutted that it retains little mobilizing capacity. Its leaders who are not already in jail are bogged down with endless court appointments.

During much of the past 15 years, Ms. Hasina’s second time in power after a five-year term ending in 2001, an economic success story took attention away from her autocratic turn.

On the back of investments in the garment industry, Bangladesh experienced such impressive growth that average income levels at one point surpassed India’s. The country also saw major improvements in education, health, female participation in the labor force and preparedness against climate disasters.

She has also played a difficult balancing act in a tough neighborhood, where both China and India are vying for influence. Ms. Hasina has managed to keep India and China on her side.

As Western pressures increased on her government over human rights abuses, including the crackdown on opposition and the enforced disappearances by Bangladesh’s elite security agencies, both Beijing and New Delhi have come to her defense. India, in particular, has been using its growing diplomatic weight to urge the United States and other Western nations to take it easy on Ms. Hasina, diplomats in New Delhi and Dhaka said.

As Ms. Hasina prepared to seek a fourth consecutive term, the sheen was coming off the economic success story, with the population struggling with rising prices. While she might be able to control a decimated opposition through her control of security agencies and the judiciary, the task will become much more difficult if public anger continues over rising prices and she fails to check the economy’s downward spiral.

The successive blows of the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which pushed up fuel and food prices, have exposed Bangladesh’s overreliance on one industry. The country’s foreign reserves have been shrinking, forcing it to seek emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Opposition leaders tried to leverage public anger over the economy, holding their first major rallies in years, prompting Ms. Hasina to intensify the crackdown. The B.N.P. says more than 20,000 of its members have been arrested since its last major rally in October, which faced police batons and tear gas.

“They are playing with the ambition of the country to be a democratic state,” Nazrul Islam Khan, a leader of the B.N.P., said on the eve of the vote. “We will continue the movement until the government falls.”

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