The Outcome of the Election in Bangladesh and What Lies Ahead for Its Foreign Policy

The Outcome of the Election in Bangladesh and What Lies Ahead for Its Foreign Policy

by Tariq A. Karim
January 11, 2024

Tariq Karim examines the outcome of Bangladesh’s election and the implications for the country’s foreign relations.

Bangladesh held its twelfth general election on January 7, 2024. Almost 120 million registered voters chose among 1,969 candidates from 28 registered parties and 437 independent candidates vying for election to the 300-seat parliament. Sixteen registered political parties, in particular the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its affiliates, did not participate. The Jamaat-e Islami Bangladesh (JI-B), a former coalition partner of the BNP, was barred from participating by an earlier Supreme Court ruling on its alleged association with anti-state extremist elements. Of the independent candidates, 382 were members of the ruling Awami League (AL) party who had been denied tickets to run on behalf of the party. AL party leader and current prime minister Sheikh Hasina addressed doubts and confusion over their participation by declaring that nothing barred these members from running as independent candidates provided they fulfilled the requirements stipulated by the Election Commission. This essay examines the outcome of the election and the implications for Bangladesh’s foreign relations.

The Conduct of the Election and Voter Turnout

The Election Commission announced as unofficial results that the ruling AL won 222 seats, the Jatiya Party won 11 seats, the Workers Party of Bangladesh won 1 seat, the Bangladesh Kalyan Party won 1 seat, and independent candidates won a staggering 62 seats, in many cases defeating their former AL colleagues who had been officially nominated by the party.

Violence is common in South Asian elections, and Bangladesh is not immune to this. As a precaution, however, the chief election commissioner, exercising powers vested in him by the constitution, deployed military and paramilitary forces in aid of civil authorities to maintain a peaceful atmosphere. Barring scattered incidents of violence, the election was conducted in a remarkably peaceful atmosphere. It was also largely seen as being run in a free and fair manner, with no overt signs of coercion or undue influence of the voters as they cast their paper ballots. (Electronic voting machines were not used this year to avoid the controversy they generated in previous years.)

According to the Election Commission, voter turnout in this election averaged 41.8%, which was low compared with some past elections. The traditional respective voter share of the two main political parties, the AL and the BNP, ranged from 30% to 48% in the elections from 2001–8. The two principal lesser parties, the Jatiya Party and the JI-B, which tended to form a coalition or support the Awami League or the BNP respectively, ranged between 4% to 8%. Therefore, the voter turnout could be interpreted to mainly represent the AL.

The relatively low turnout in the 2024 elections may be attributed to several factors. First, the BNP and its allied parties refused to participate in the election, prejudging it to be rigged and unfair, so one may assume that most of their followers would have shunned voting (although some former BNP strongholds were won by AL candidates this time). By not abjuring its zero-sum stance, the BNP may well have denied itself a chance to wrest a place in the sun and its followers the chance to exercise their right of franchise. Second, BNP activists, through speeches, protests, and leaflet distribution, called on people to boycott the election. Third, a series of arson attacks on buses and trains may have induced many to stay away (the identity of those responsible for these attacks is currently under investigation). Fourth, the Jatiya Party witnessed infighting between its two principal leaders and constantly vacillated positions. It thus may have missed a chance to capitalize on the BNP’s decision to boycott the election and the ban on the JI-B from participating.

There also appears to have been both an urban-rural and gender contrast in this election. Major urban cities, notably Dhaka, registered a rather low turnout of not more than 20%, whereas outlying areas averaged 60% or more. In constituencies with female candidates, women voters turned out in large numbers, ranging from 43% to 58%, ensuring the election of 19 women to the new parliament on their own steam. (An additional 50 women will be inducted on a basis proportionate to the relative strength of parties/groups elected.)
An interesting facet of the 2024 election is the virtual subtext of a contest within the AL itself. The phenomenon of so many AL members defying party diktat to contest with fellow party members for seats, and their being permitted to do so by the party’s top leadership, is a sign of political maturity not seen in earlier elections. Former ministers or members of parliament who had established dubious reputations among their constituents appear to have been rejected, and the emerging cabinet is likely to include many new faces. It will be looked at keenly to see whether the new government will address matters relating to corruption, misgovernance, weakened or abused financial institutions, and weak macroeconomic policies that are the subjects of people’s grievances. Like the people, the new government must be seen to have learned from its past mistakes and matured.

The Preliminary Reactions of Election Observers

A total of 124 foreign observers and experts from 43 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as international bodies and NGOs, observed the election. An additional 45 foreign journalists and around 21,000 local observers and media personnel were given permits to observe the election independently. While not all reports are available at this time of writing, some have conveyed that the election was largely “very peaceful, free, and fair” (former U.S. congressman Jim Bates, independent observer) with a “high degree of enthusiasm of voters” and with the “highest degree of professionalism and integrity” (Alexander Gray, independent observer from American Global Strategies). Leaders in India, China, Russia, and elsewhere in the world conveyed felicitations. Notable exceptions have been the United States, the UK, the European Union, Australia, and Canada, which have all been critical, with nuanced degrees of severity in tone.

Implications of the Election for Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy

In realm of foreign policy, one may expect to see from the new government a rededication to the basic foreign policy tenet “friendship to all, with malice to none.” Bangladesh will likely endeavor to keep a judicious balance of relations with other countries based on its own national interests in strengthening its economic, trade, and people-to-people relations with all its immediate neighbors and in its close neighborhood to the west and east.

The new government will likely continue to pursue the same balance in its existing economic and trade relations with the United States, the UK, and the EU. Relations with Russia, which have considerably revived recently through cooperation in the nuclear energy field, will also likely continue to strengthen. Bangladesh will remain closely connected to other Islamic countries as well. It has deep economic relations with many of these states, particularly in the Persian Gulf, through the presence of a large number of expatriate workers. Bangladesh has similar ties with some ASEAN and East Asian countries, to which one may reasonably expect greater attention than before. The personal rapport between Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Narendra Modi will likely manifest in greater and deeper cooperation in matters of trade, commerce, and connectivity, as well as more meaningful and holistic cooperation on river basin management, which is of critical importance for Bangladesh’s long-term visions of transformation.

Now that the election is in the past, there may also be a backtracking of the United States’ sharp rhetoric that unhappily characterized the pre-election period over the last two years. It is not in the larger interest of either country to sharpen, deepen, or prolong this unseemly rhetorical animosity. Indeed, one hopes that the signals of a toning down that appears to be in the works already will be assiduously followed up and the bilateral relationship reinvigorated.

It is in Bangladesh’s best interests to have not merely good but excellent broad-ranging relations with all the countries mentioned above. Similarly, all these countries want to see a stable Bangladesh continue the remarkable growth and development trajectory that it has displayed over the last decade and a half. Given the important strategic dimensions arising from the country’s location at the heart of the Bay of Bengal, which connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it is indeed in Bangladesh’s interest to advocate and work for positive relations with all and an open, resilient, and interconnected Indo-Pacific.

Tariq A. Karim is the Director of the Centre for Bay of Bengal Studies at the Independent University in Bangladesh and a member of the Board of Advisors at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He is concurrently Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore. Ambassador Karim was formerly an advisor to the World Bank for Regional Integration, South Asian Region, and from August 2009 until October 2014, he was Bangladesh’s high commissioner to India with the rank and status of a minister of state. He has also served ambassadorial assignments in Pretoria, Tehran, and Washington, D.C.