15 January 2019

The outcome of the last general elections in Bangladesh and what lies ahead

Protests by the opposition are likely to continue in the near-term and have the potential to escalate to unrest after the election victory by the ruling Awami League party, which has been increasingly accused of being authoritarian.

The ruling Awami League (AL) party won parliamentary elections held on 30 December, securing 288 out of 298 seats with incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina attaining a fourth term. Her government has been accused of gradually turning authoritarian over the years, using a mix of systemic reforms and heavy-handed measures that include arbitrary arrests which have weakened opposition parties and paved the way to AL’s re-election. The months leading up to the elections saw numerous anti-government protests by the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), while the polls were marred by violent clashes between AL supporters and their rivals. Around 20 opposition parties, which had united as the BNP-led Jatiya Okiya Front, boycotted the election results and claimed widespread vote-rigging. However, despite the efforts of the ruling party to silence the opposition, they will likely continue their protests, fuelling further unrest nationwide.

The crisis has its roots in 2001, when Hasina abolished a law that required the government to hand over power to a neutral caretaker government 90 days before elections. Since then, the opposition has repeatedly called for the law to be reintroduced in order to ensure impartial polls, and general elections have subsequently been rife with violence. Additionally, most election officials and policemen have been recruited along party lines in recent years, fuelling the BNP’s accusations of election fraud and corruption. Curbing freedom of expression by restricting media reporting and arresting bloggers and BNP activists on thinly fabricated charges have also become more common in Bangladesh. In the most salient case, Hasina’s strongest political rival and leader of the BNP, Khaleda Zia, was jailed and barred from politics for five years on politically-motivated corruption charges in February 2018. The sentence against Zia has limited the options of her party to proffer a strong prime ministerial candidate to replace her. Meanwhile, the AL-led government also passed the Digital Security Act in September 2018, with the apparent intent of prosecuting journalists critical of the AL, labeling their work as fake or defamatory. Internet restrictions and website blocking have also been carried out at will by the authorities, especially ahead of the elections. As a consequence of this poisoned climate, at least 19 people have been killed in acts of political violence in weeks prior the elections, with thousands opposition supporters jailed on charges of holding unsanctioned political rallies.

The opposition Jatiya Okiya Front has demanded a rerun of the election and the release of jailed politicians, including Zia, vowing to launch nationwide protest blockades against the government if this does not happen. Similar actions have caused major disruptions to transport and essential public services as well as violence in recent years. The AL-led government has refused all demands from the opposition, with the Election Commission confirming the final results of the election in early January. Meanwhile, activists of the AL have also promised to take to the street if necessary to prevent any protest by the opposition. At this stage, to deminish prevailing political tensions the AL-led government is likely to order the release of some opposition activists and journalists who were jailed in the run-up to the election; a similar tactic was indeed used by the AL to pacify opposition activists after the 2014 election. But under the present conditions such measures may be insufficient to calm the opposition, and as long as the AL-led government continues to crackdown on its political opponents, the country’s credibility and long-term political stability are in peril.

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