Bangladesh votes in controversial election as opposition boycott continues

BNP leader Tarique Rahman, speaking from exile in Britain, expressed concerns about potential ballot stuffing. Some voters abstained, citing the assured outcome with only one party participating.

Bangladeshi election officials are in the process of counting votes on Sunday, 7th December following polls that are expected to secure a fifth term in office for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The election closed amid a boycott led by an opposition party that Hasina labelled a “terrorist organization.”

Despite overseeing remarkable economic growth, Hasina’s government faces allegations of human rights abuses and a harsh crackdown on the opposition. The ruling party faces minimal competition in the contested seats, strategically avoiding candidates in certain constituencies to prevent the legislature from becoming a one-party institution.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), significantly weakened by mass arrests, called for a weekend general strike and urged the public to reject what they deem a “sham” election. Hasina, however, urged citizens to participate, asserting, “The BNP is a terrorist organization,” while emphasizing her commitment to sustaining democracy.

Results are expected soon, with early counts from polling stations indicating ruling party candidates in the lead. Chief Election Commissioner Habibul Awal reported a preliminary turnout of around 40 per cent, amid reports of inducements and threats to boost participation.

BNP leader Tarique Rahman, speaking from exile in Britain, expressed concerns about potential ballot stuffing. Some voters abstained, citing the assured outcome with only one party participating. Reports surfaced of coercive tactics, including threats to confiscate government benefit cards, necessary for accessing welfare payments.

While voting was largely peaceful, opposition protests were dispersed in Chittagong, with concerns raised about a potential further crackdown. Human Rights Watch expressed scepticism about the fairness of the polls, noting that “many fear a further crackdown.”

Bangladesh’s political landscape has long been defined by the rivalry between Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Hasina has dominated since her return to power in 2009, with previous polls marred by irregularities. Zia, currently convalescing in Dhaka, was convicted of graft in 2018, leaving her son, Tarique Rahman, to lead the BNP from London.

Accusations of arson and sabotage during last year’s protests have strained relations between Hasina’s government and the BNP, with security forces facing allegations of extrajudicial actions. Economic challenges, including food cost spikes and power shortages, have fueled dissatisfaction, while wage stagnation in the vital garment sector triggered unrest.

As the election results unfold, analysts warn of a potentially “dangerous combination” as dissatisfaction grows despite limited outlets for change at the ballot box.