Could Hassina’s landslide victory pose a challenge to Bangladeshi democracy?
On December 30, Bangladesh went to the polls with the outcome certain to alter domestic politics. In the elections, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, won her third consecutive term (and fourth overall) as prime minister of the country. The 71-year-old Hasina’s Awami Party’s landslide victory included winning 288 out of 298 seats and capturing 96 per cent of the vote.
Opposition parties and international observers were quick to suggest that the elections were marred by voter intimidation, and politically motivated action against the opposition. For example, representatives from the EU, US and UK all issued statements regarding objections to the elections. Opposition parties have called the elections “farcical” and local media accounts have recorded instances of Awami Party stuffing ballot boxes with fake votes.
Hassina, who has ruled the country since 2008, has been given credit for the country’s resurgent economy since she took over the office. The country’s GDP in 2017-18 was 7.86 per cent; higher than the expected 7.65 per cent. It was the sixth year in a row where the GDP exceeded 6 per cent. The World Bank estimates This prosperity is reaching the poorest in the county with the bottom 40 per cent of the population growing at 0.5 per cent faster than for the country as a whole. Hassina is also complimented for the handling of the Rohingya crisis by allowing 700,000 refugees into the country from Myanmar where they are being persecuted. Further, Hassina has been instrumental in increasing the foreign investment for infrastructure projects in the country. Data from the Bangladesh Central Bank shows that investment into the country has almost tripled since she came into power from $961 million in 2008-09 to $2,454.81 million in FY16-17.
The major casualty under the Hassina Administration has been democracy in the country. The Economist Intelligence Index Ranked 92 out of 167 countries in its Democracy Index – a steady slide since Hasina came to power. The BTI Transformation Index ranks the country 79 out of 129 countries. Both rankings suggest that the country is sliding into Authoritarianism. In terms of press freedom, the country ranks 146 out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Additionally, the past few years have seen the arrests and killing of bloggers, journalists and academics.
Most significantly, Hassina has been adroit at eliminating her political rivals. In February, rival party Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s Khaleda Zia was arrested on charges of alleged Corruption. In light of this decimated opposition, veteran journalist Kanchan Chandra describes Bangladesh as a “one-party democracy” saying that Hasina has “has skilfully, methodically and strategically defenestrated potential challengers within the Awami League and defanged those in rival parties.”
What does this mean for Bangladesh? In the absence of democratic checks on Hasina’s power, Bangladeshi democracy faces a massive challenge. The steep increase in investment in the country has come in mainly through China who Hassina shares friendly relations with. China too will be more than happy extend investment in the country in its efforts to continue to expand its power across the region. The Hasina government is also on good terms with India which will be happy to have one less problem to worry about on the international front. What is uncertain is how the results of the upcoming Indian elections will impact the relationship.
Image Credit: Sheikh Hasina/ Wikimedia Commons