Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Image Credit: Reuters

As Bangladesh prepares for its 2024 general elections, the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has come under fresh review. The rule of the ruling Awami League (AL) and the systematic sidelining of opposition parties, particularly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), could have repercussions on the multiparty structure.

The approach of the Jan. 7 elections has been marked by arrests of several BNP leaders and activists. The situation escalated following a huge BNP rally on Oct. 28, which resulted in violent clashes with the police and AL supporters. This led to the arrest of over thousands of opposition members in recent weeks in the lead-up to the general election.

Sheikh Hasina has been governing the nation of 175 million people since 2009. She first became Prime Minister in 1996 but lost power in 2001 when the BNP took over until 2008. She returned to power in 2009 following a landslide victory and was re-elected in 2014 and 2018. She is also expected to win the upcoming January 2024 election due to the absence of the opposition in the electoral fray.

While Hasina’s tenure has been marked by significant economic growth, it has also seen an increase in economic disparity. Since late October, coinciding with the political unrest led by the opposition, 4.4 million garment workers have been striking for higher wages.

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Free and fair elections?

Hasina’s tenure, particularly in recent years, has been characterised by a diminishing space for political dissent and opposition. The use of Digital Security Act, has been especially criticised for stifling free speech and silencing critics.

While Hasina-led AL continues to win elections after election in Bangladesh, the critical factor in her government’s electoral successes since 2014 has been a highly controversial constitutional amendment in 2011 regarding Bangladesh’s electoral system. This amendment eliminated the provision for a caretaker government to oversee general elections.

The caretaker government system, introduced in 1996, was designed to ensure free and fair elections, with a non-partisan interim government managing the country during election periods.

However, the 15th amendment to the Constitution in June 2011 abolished this system, leading to allegations of lack of fairness, and even the boycott of general elections by major opposition parties.

With the announcement of the general election scheduled for Jan. 7, 2024, not surprisingly, the opposition, spearheaded by the BNP is demanding Sheikh Hasina’s resignation and the establishment of an interim government to ensure fair elections.

Facing little hope for a fair election, the opposition has intensified its efforts.

Police personnel stand guard in front of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headquarters in Dhaka on November 19, 2023, during a nationwide strike called by BNP activists. Image Credit: AFP

Future of pluralism

Meanwhile the international response to Sheikh Hasina’s actions has been relatively subdued, partly because of Bangladesh’s strategic importance and its economic growth trajectory. It is situated between South and Southeast Asia, and its access to the Bay of Bengal is also strategically important for naval and shipping routes.

Bangladesh has shown remarkable economic resilience and growth over the past few decades. It has transitioned from being primarily an agrarian economy to a manufacturing hub, especially in textiles and garments, which is its largest export sector. Bangladesh almost hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, particularly almost a million of the Rohingya from Myanmar.

Given these constraints, Western nations, including the US and the European Union, have called for democratic improvements in Bangladesh.

The US has imposed sanctions on some senior Bangladeshi police figures for human rights violations and has urged dialogue to resolve the political deadlock. However, the chances of successful negotiations seem slim due to the entrenched positions of both sides.

A one-party rule should be avoided as this raises serious concerns about the future of pluralism in the country.