Bangladesh Elections 2024: polarized politics, economic strain, and public sentiments

While election day itself was relatively peaceful, with few disturbances reported, the pre-election period was marred by protests and violence, including arson attacks that resulted in four fatalities. Bangladeshi authorities attributed much of the unrest to the BNP, accusing them of attempting to disrupt the electoral process.

In the recent Bangladesh general elections, the Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, secured its fourth consecutive term in power, while Sheikh Hasina herself clinched her fifth overall term as the country’s prime minister. Despite this significant victory, Sheikh Hasina urged her party members not to organize any victory celebrations in light of the circumstances.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, boycotted the election after their demand for a neutral caretaker government was not met. They were accused of engaging in anti-national activities before the polls.

The voter turnout for the 2024 elections was notably low, standing at 40%, amidst boycotts and tensions surrounding the incumbent government. Although the Awami League reportedly won 216 out of the 299 seats, with independent candidates securing 52 seats and the Jatiya Party winning 11, the Election Commission is yet to confirm the final results for all constituencies.

While election day itself was relatively peaceful, with few disturbances reported, the pre-election period was marred by protests and violence, including arson attacks that resulted in four fatalities. Authorities attributed much of the unrest to the BNP, accusing them of attempting to disrupt the electoral process.

BACKGROUND

The 2018 general elections in Bangladesh saw the Awami League emerge victorious, leading to the formation of the government. The current tenure of the parliament, which began its first session on January 30, 2019, is set to conclude on January 29, 2024, as parliamentary terms last for five years in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the primary opposition party, insisted that the government transfer power to a neutral caretaker government before the next elections. However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina firmly rejected this demand, citing past experiences where such caretaker governments took control, including during the 2006–2008 crisis when political leaders, including Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia, were arrested.

Khaleda Zia herself was convicted and sentenced to prison in the Zia Orphanage corruption case, with her son and successor Tarique Rahman also facing legal repercussions, including a life sentence for involvement in a 2004 grenade attack. Rahman’s conviction barred him from running for office.

The Bangladesh Election Commission for 2024 was established on February 27, 2022, to ensure the upcoming election adheres to electoral laws and the constitution. Chaired by Kazi Habibul Awal, the commission’s responsibilities include scheduling elections, delineating constituency boundaries, compiling voter rolls, overseeing the electoral process, announcing results, and resolving any electoral disputes.

In a historic move, President Mohammed Shahabuddin and First Lady Rebecca Sultana utilized postal ballots to cast their votes on January 3, 2024, marking the first instance of postal voting in Bangladesh’s electoral history.

OPPOSITION ACCUSATIONS

In recent months, Bangladesh has witnessed a surge in arrests of senior Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders and thousands of their supporters following anti-government protests. According to Mr Khan, one of the few senior BNP leaders not arrested, over 20,000 party supporters have been detained on what he claims are “fictitious and concocted charges,” while millions of party activists face legal cases. However, the government denies these allegations.

Despite the government’s denial, human rights organizations have noted a concerning trend of politically motivated arrests, disappearances, killings, and other abuses under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s administration. Human Rights Watch recently labelled the arrests of opposition supporters as part of a “violent autocratic crackdown” by the government.

This crackdown marks a stark departure from Sheikh Hasina’s earlier role as a proponent of multi-party democracy. In the 1980s, she collaborated with other opposition leaders, including her rival Begum Khaleda Zia, in advocating for democratic reforms during the rule of General Hussain Muhammed Ershad.

Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding leader, was initially elected to power in 1996 through a multi-party election. However, she lost the 2001 election to Khaleda Zia’s BNP.

The rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, often referred to locally as the “battling Begums,” has been a defining feature of Bangladeshi politics. With Khaleda Zia effectively under house arrest due to corruption charges and health issues, the BNP is experiencing a leadership vacuum.

This leadership vacuum has been exacerbated by the systematic arrest and conviction of opposition figures and supporters, leading many to argue that the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina’s party, is intentionally weakening the BNP ahead of elections.

Rights groups express deep concern not only over the staggering number of arrests and convictions in Bangladesh but also over documented cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings by security forces since 2009. Despite these allegations, the government vehemently denies any involvement in such abuses, while also imposing severe restrictions on visits by foreign journalists seeking to investigate these claims. Many local journalists have refrained from probing into these cases due to safety concerns.

Although there has been a significant decrease in extrajudicial killings since 2021, when the US imposed sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven of its officers, the overall human rights situation in Bangladesh remains troubling. The limited impact of US sanctions has prompted calls from some politicians for stronger action by Western nations to address human rights abuses in the country.

ECONOMIC SCENARIO

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has experienced a significant transformation economically, emerging as one of the fastest-growing economies in the region. Since 2009, the country has achieved remarkable progress, surpassing even neighbouring India in certain economic metrics. Notably, Bangladesh has tripled its per capita income over the last decade, with over 25 million people lifted out of poverty in the past 20 years, according to World Bank estimates.

Prime Minister Hasina’s administration has spearheaded ambitious infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the Padma Bridge, which is expected to substantially boost GDP upon completion. These endeavours, funded through a combination of domestic resources, loans, and development assistance, have played a pivotal role in Bangladesh’s economic growth trajectory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges to Bangladesh’s economic stability, particularly regarding the rising cost of living. Inflation reached approximately 9.5% in November, contributing to the economic strain faced by citizens. Furthermore, the country’s foreign exchange reserves have seen a significant decline from a peak of $48 billion in August 2021 to around $20 billion presently, insufficient to cover three months of imports. Additionally, foreign debt has doubled since 2016, further highlighting economic vulnerabilities.

Critics have raised concerns that Bangladesh’s economic achievements have been accompanied by a deterioration in democratic principles and human rights. Allegations of repressive measures against political opponents, dissenters, and the media have been levelled against Prime Minister Hasina’s government, prompting scrutiny of its commitment to democratic governance and fundamental freedoms.

SUCCESSFUL POLICIES

Over the past ten years, Prime Minister Hasina’s government prioritized eradicating Islamist terrorism, particularly after the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack. This commitment to combating extremism has instilled confidence in investors, both domestic and foreign, leading to sustained economic growth. The business community demonstrated its appreciation for the government’s efforts by publicly declaring unprecedented support during a gathering attended by Prime Minister Hasina.

Since 2008, the government has been actively promoting women’s empowerment, leading to increased participation of women in various professions, including civil services, armed forces, and security sectors. This effort has also resulted in the rise of women entrepreneurs, with many opting for jobs in the readymade garment industry due to better workplace conditions and wages. The government’s focus on the readymade garments sector has ensured its resilience against competition from other countries.

Additionally, agriculture has flourished under the leadership of Minister Matia Chowdhury. Through pragmatic policies such as agricultural subsidies and incentives, the government has successfully eradicated the spectre of hunger and food shortages, ensuring food security for the nation.

Furthermore, significant improvements have been made in the power supply and distribution sector, with more areas of the country now electrified and power outages becoming increasingly rare. This has had a positive impact on rural development, particularly in terms of boosting irrigation and agricultural productivity.

Remittances from Bangladeshis working abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, have increased, leading to improved economic conditions for families and better access to education for their children.

Moreover, the widespread adoption of the Internet, facilitated by the growing use of mobile phones, has significantly enhanced the quality of life for many Bangladeshis. This trend aligns with the government’s Digital Bangladesh initiative, which aims to leverage technology to improve various aspects of daily life.

The remarkable expansion of road transport infrastructure has significantly improved traffic flow in Dhaka and enhanced connectivity between different regions of the country.

Despite legitimate concerns regarding the performance of the banking sector, the government’s emphasis on increasing revenue through tax collection has shown promising results. While the overall number of citizens contributing taxes to the state treasury may not have increased significantly, there has been notable progress in educating the public about the importance of tax compliance.

PUBLIC SENTIMENTS

Bangladeshis express a growing sense of pessimism regarding the economy, politics, and the overall direction of their country. According to recent polling data, a majority now believe that Bangladesh is headed in the wrong direction, a sentiment that has increased significantly since previous surveys. Economic concerns, particularly regarding price hikes, are a driving factor behind this pessimism, with many citing hardships faced by their families due to the rising costs of daily commodities.

Expectations for economic improvement in the coming year are low, with only a minority of adults expressing optimism. Many participants in focus group discussions (FGDs) highlighted the financial strain caused by increasing prices, emphasizing the stagnant nature of their household incomes.

In addition to economic worries, frustrations with politics are widespread. Dissatisfaction with the state of democracy has surged, and there is scepticism about the fairness of upcoming elections. A significant portion of the public fears reprisals for expressing their political opinions, reflecting concerns about freedom of speech and political violence. Many Bangladeshis feel that political and civic institutions fail to adequately represent their interests, with corruption being a major concern. There is also a perception of a significant gap between political elites and ordinary citizens, with calls for the emergence of new political parties to address these issues. Even civil society organizations are viewed negatively by a majority of respondents, who believe they primarily serve the interests of elites rather than the general population.

Despite pervasive pessimism among the Bangladeshi public, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has managed to maintain substantial support, with about 70 per cent of citizens approving of her performance. Many Bangladeshis acknowledge the government’s achievements in infrastructure development, such as road construction, the Padma Bridge, and the Metrorail project. However, there are criticisms regarding job opportunities and inflation, with concerns raised about the difficulty in securing employment even for highly educated individuals.

The opposition’s popularity has risen in response to public dissatisfaction with the economy and politics. Approval ratings for the opposition have increased significantly, narrowing the gap with the prime minister’s approval rating. The most contentious issue in Bangladeshi politics revolves around election administration, particularly the debate over the restoration of the caretaker government (CTG) system. While the BNP advocates for the reinstatement of the CTG system, which they argue ensures impartiality during elections, the ruling AL asserts that the election commission can oversee fair elections without the need for a caretaker government.

Public opinion on this matter is divided, with many Bangladeshis expressing concerns about the fairness of elections without a CTG. However, a majority still believe that the opposition should participate in elections even without the reinstatement of the CTG system, emphasizing the importance of competition in the democratic process. Despite scepticism about the integrity of elections, many citizens still value the opportunity to participate in the political process and urge the opposition to engage in electoral competition.