Bangladeshis head to polls in elections marred by violence

Written by Minahil Nawaz

Over 100 million people headed to the polls in Bangladesh to vote in the country’s 11th general elections on Sunday, December 30th.

The major contenders were the Grand Alliance coalition and the Jatiya Oikya Front (or National Unity Front). The Grand Alliance was led by Sheikh Hasina, head of the Awami League, who has led the country since 2009. She sought her third consecutive term, a record breaking number for a Bangladeshi politician. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the nation’s first President, and is known as the father of independent Bangladesh.

Sheikh Hasina’s main rival was the National Unity Front, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. BNP chief and two-time Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was banned from contesting in the 2018 elections due to corruption charges for which she is serving a 10 year prison sentence. In her absence, the National Unity Front was led by Kamal Hossain, a former law minister who himself did not contest the elections. It was thus unclear who would become Prime Minister if the opposition were to win.

Before heading to the polls, Bangladeshis were compelled to ask themselves a few important questions. First, did Bangladeshi citizens want the incumbent to return to power? Apart from the 2014 election that was boycotted by the BNP, Bangladesh has never elected an incumbent as Prime Minister two terms in a row. This has often been because of a desire to change up the political order following the use of brute force to silent political voices and dissent in the country by the incumbent. The Awami League thus faced the threat of anti-incumbency sentiments, particularly due to its recent crackdown of student protests on road deaths, and its politically motivated arrests of opposition party members.

Second, Bangladeshi citizens had to balance the accusations of authoritarianism and suppression of free speech, with the economic success the country has seen under Sheikh Hasina. According to the Dhaka-based Odhikar group, the government has carried out “enforced disappearances” of opposition leaders, students and activists. In September 2018, there was also international outcry following the arrest of prominent photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who was imprisoned for months after accusing the government of using brute force in an interview with al-Jazeera. However, Hasina’s power base has often chosen to focus on her socioeconomic achievements, with Bangladesh currently experiencing a rate of nearly 8% growth, and predictions of Bangladesh’s per capita income crossing that of India’s by 2020.

Third, Bangladeshis must now ask themselves whether the election was free and fair. The lead-up to the election was marked by increasing violence, arrests, and crackdowns on political voices. Campaign clashes also resulted in the deaths of four BNP supporters and two Awami League supporters. The Human Rights Watch declared the election as being conducted in a “politically repressive environment” due to intimidation by the government. Visas for election observer groups such as the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) were also delayed. The government targeted the opposition, detaining members and attacking campaigns. In the 2014 elections, when similar intimidation took place, the BNP ended up boycotting the election.

On polling day, nearly 18 people were killed in election-related violence due to clashes between government and opposition party supporters. Nine people were killed in the Chittagong division alone. These clashes took place despite the fact that nearly 600,000 security personnel had been deployed across the country to try to prevent the violence. Salahuddin Ahmed, a BNP candidate from Dhaka, was even stabbed in his own constituency. The elections were rejected by the opposition, with leader Kamal Hossain called them “farcical.”

Though Sheikh Hasina won a landslide victory amid claims of rigging, the elections were crucial for the country and world regardless. Bangladesh has been in the international spotlight for a few years now, with the Rohingya Muslims taking refuge from neighboring Myanmar there, with the Islamic State attack in Dhaka in 2016, the controversial War Crimes Tribunal over the 1971 war, and as a South Asian country experiencing record economic growth. Bangladesh will now see Sheikh Hasina as Prime Minister for her third consecutive term.