The Election in Bangladesh: What Happened and What Is in the Making?

The Election in Bangladesh: What Happened and What Is in the Making?

by Ali Riaz
January 11, 2024

Ali Riaz offers an overview of the Bangladesh parliamentary election, noting that the low turnout and questions about the fairness of the process raise concerns as to what is next for Bangladeshi politics.

The parliamentary election in Bangladesh has delivered a predictable result in an essentially uncontested election—Sheikh Hasina and her party, the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL), have won. But extremely low turnout, explicit apathy toward voting, and the failure of the state machineries to demonstrate that it was a participatory election rather than a stage-managed show have sent a clear message that a large majority of Bangladeshi citizens have rejected this exercise. This raises questions as to what is next for Bangladeshi politics, whether the low turnout foreshadows unrest in coming weeks, and whether the results will be accepted by the international community as legitimate.

The Predictable Victory: Emergence of a One-Party Parliament

The BAL secured an overwhelming victory in the election, winning 236 of 298 seats of the parliament. These include seats won by 222 official BAL candidates, 3 allies, and 11 Jatiya Party candidates. Moreover, all but 3 of the 62 “independents” are members of various levels of the BAL, including former cabinet members and parliament members. They were described by the BAL as the dummy candidates. As such, 295 of the 298 elected members of the parliament are directly connected to the incumbent. This is the largest victory the party has ever scored, even overshadowing the results of the 2018 election. In some respects, it is akin to the 2014 election, which was boycotted by the opposition. The affiliations of the elected parliament members demonstrate that this is a one-party parliament.

The pathway to the election was filled with events indicating that a free, fair, and inclusive election was not a goal of the incumbent government. To the contrary, the chain of events since opposition protests on October 28—arresting thousands of opposition activists, convicting more than 1,500 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) members in fabricated cases, coercing political parties and individuals to join the election, dividing seats among allies of the incumbent, using state apparatuses in support of preferred candidates, and ensuring impunity to party members for their transgressions—revealed that the BAL did not want to face a formidable opposition.

During the campaign, at least ten people died, and hundreds of clashes were reported by the press. While these violent incidents took place between the supporters of the official party candidates and “independents,” members of law-enforcement agencies remained uncharacteristically inactive.

Questions persist about the fairness of the process. Election day witnessed ballot stuffing and other kinds of irregularities, but almost no action was taken by the Election Commission. After polls closed, the chief election commissioner claimed in a press briefing that voter turnout was 28%, but he immediately retracted this statement after his colleagues prodded that it was close to 40%. The veracity of the revised number is suspect on two counts. First, media reports from the morning showed the absence of voters in polling centers, with some looking completely empty. Second, the number was inconsistent with those periodically provided by the Election Commission throughout the day. At noon local time, 18.5% of votes had been cast in the first four hours of voting. The second official count was provided three hours later, which was just over 26%. An hour later when the polls closed at 4:00 pm, the original claim of the Election Commission putting turnout at 28% seemed more consistent with previous counts than a sudden jump of 14% in one hour. To reach 40% turnout in that time would have required 256,339 votes to be cast per minute.

What Is Next?

With the election over, the question of what is next is now at the front and center of Bangladeshi politics, especially due to the low turnout indicating that a majority of voters heeded the opposition’s call to boycott the election. This question emerged long before the election as it became obvious that the process would be neither free nor fair, let alone inclusive. The opposition’s decision to boycott when their demand for a neutral interim government to oversee the election was rejected by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made this question the most pertinent one.

With almost the entire leadership in jail or hiding, over one hundred thousand cases filed against its grassroots activists since 2009, and almost all the party offices, including the headquarters, locked by the police, the main opposition BNP faces a daunting task to reorganize itself. However, BNP morale is high after the incumbent government failed to split the party. Its decision to boycott was vindicated by the actions of the ruling party to stage a seriously questionable election and the low voter turnout. Yet, whether the BNP can sustain this nonviolent opposition movement in the coming weeks is an open question.

Considering the actions of the government over the past years, and particularly in recent months, the ruling party will likely adopt harsher measures to silence its critics and stop any street agitations. This will affect not only the BNP but all other opposition parties. Unless the opposition can mobilize people to stop the onslaught, Bangladesh will become a one-party state like Cambodia.

The country has been facing a serious economic crisis since the summer of 2022 and has secured loans from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral institutions. But the foreign exchange reserve is dwindling, local currency is depreciating, inflation has reached double digits, the current account is facing a deficit, and the trade deficit is increasing. All these indicators point to a restive population. This combination of political discontent and economic hardship suggests that the situation could become more volatile in the coming months.

Watch Bangladesh Closely

The role of the international community going forward will be a crucial factor. The Bangladesh election not only drew international media attention but has also become an issue in the broader geopolitical tug of war. India, China, and Russia have provided unqualified support to the incumbent government and criticized the Western nations that demanded a free, fair, and inclusive election for meddling in Bangladeshi politics. Hasina’s victory is welcomed by these countries. China has even promised to help her regime against “external interference.” India has been the principal backer of the Hasina regime since it came to power in 2009. Its unqualified support during the previous elections in 2014 and 2018 was instrumental in securing the continuation of Hasina’s rule. India not only played the same role this time but insisted that the United States not push Hasina for a free and fair election.

The United States in the past year repeatedly called for safeguards to ensure a free and fair process, imposed a policy of visa restrictions to foster the “democratic election,” and sent a letter to all parties in mid-November encouraging them to hold a dialogue. These efforts failed to achieve the desired goal. The U.S. statement on Monday recognized that “these elections were not free or fair” but accepted the result as it is and offered to work with the new government. This is a complete retreat, which will help cement China’s foothold in the country. China, which has made significant investments in Bangladeshi infrastructure projects, sold the country two refurbished submarines, and is the principal supplier of weapons, has promised to “further promote high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, and pursue greater progress for China-Bangladesh Strategic Partnership of Cooperation.” This indicates that China’s presence in and influence on Bangladesh will grow further. Such expansion will not be appreciated by China’s archrival India, although both are courting Hasina. Western nations could see these developments as a potential threat to their interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

The coming months will be crucial for Bangladesh as the downward spiral toward a one-party state is likely to accelerate, economic conditions may worsen, disenfranchised citizens may become restive, and opposition parties facing an existential threat may take to the streets. Despite the West’s acceptance of the results as a fait accompli, considering China’s growing influence, tensions will continue. These developments will affect not only the country’s domestic politics but regional dynamics too.

Ali Riaz is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University and President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.