Political meddling and state violence could break Bangladesh’s fragile hold on democracy.
A potentially long political crisis is looming over Bangladesh before a date is even set for next year’s elections.
Since its birth as an independent country in 1971, Bangladesh has had a troubled relationship with democracy and the rule of law, undergoing the assassination of its founding president and a series of coups and countercoups in its first decades.
The political landscape has been characterised by an array of governance systems, shifting between one-party rule, military control, electoral democracy and an autocracy under a civilian government.
With an election coming in January 2024, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has been raising the pressure, taking to the streets in a series of massive rallies to demand the election be held under a neutral caretaker government.
However, the governing Bangladesh Awami League, is adamant it will go ahead with the election under current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The last election considered free and fair took place in 2008 and catapulted Hasina to power the following year.
Elections in 2014 and 2018 were marked by controversies. The 2014 election faced opposition boycotts. Major liberal democracies including the US and Australia called for a new vote but India, Russia and China expressed no problem with the result.
In an apparent rebuke to US pressure on Hasina, China’s Ambassador to Bangladesh recently said his country would not meddle in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, and Russia denounced what it called interference by the US envoy in Bangladesh.
India’s position remains complex. It must navigate its historical and close ties with Bangladesh while confronting allegations of enabling authoritarianism.
A free and fair election would likely stop Bangladesh’s authoritarian slide and pave the way for greater accountability. The economy is struggling and unemployment is rising.
However, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party could boycott the upcoming election if their demand for a caretaker government is not met. Even then, they would likely persist with countrywide street protests.
Although the opposition participated in the 2018 election, the vote was marred by allegations of intimidation, repression of the opposition and widespread vote rigging, including ballot stuffing for the ruling party.
Transparency International Bangladesh found multiple anomalies in 47 out of 50 seats it surveyed for voting integrity.
Hasina has insisted that “the people” are with her because of the country’s economic growth and infrastructure development during her tenure. She has been lauded by the World Bank and the United Nations, while US economist Jeffrey Sachs has hailed her leadership.
The police, judiciary and state bureaucrats are seen as all-in for Hasina. Meanwhile, the international community, especially the US, may take further measures — such as additional sanctions and visa bans — against those it views as tampering with the electoral process.
Elections used to be a cause for celebration in the country. Now millions of younger people are finding their basic right to choose their leaders has been suppressed, while draconian anti-free speech laws have squelched their ability to criticise the powerful.
Human rights organisations have accused Sheikh Hasina’s government of brutal tactics, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and imprisonment of critics and opposition figures.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 600 people have disappeared since 2009. Security forces have been implicated in 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018. Swedish investigative news site Netra News found a secret prison named Aynaghar (‘house of mirrors’) in Dhaka Cantonment where missing people are allegedly held.
In December 2021, the Biden administration announced the US would impose sanctions against the elite paramilitary force Rapid Action Battalion and six of its former officials, as well as current and recent heads of the Bangladesh Police. The US State Department also imposed a visa ban on two former police officials and their family members for gross human rights violations.
The New York Times noted that millions of opposition activists were on trial in a display of how politicised the judiciary had become.
The World Jurist Project ranks Bangladesh 127 out of 140 countries in its rule of law index. Freedom House ranks the country as partly free, and the latest World Press Freedom Index ranks Bangladesh at 163 — lower than Afghanistan (152) and autocratic Cambodia (147).
Dr Mubashar Hasan is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, Norway. His research was funded by the Norwegian Research Council.