How Sheikh Hasina pulled a non-inclusive election

Bangladesh’s 2024 election, held on 7 January, delivered a predictable victory to Sheikh Hasina and her party, Bangladesh Awami League (BAL). The newly minted parliament is by all intents and purposes a one-party show as there is no opposition to be reckoned with. In fact, the BAL and its leaders who contested as ‘independents’ secured 94.33% of seats in the 300-member parliament. Despite global attention and repeated calls by the Western countries, especially the United States, to hold a free, fair and inclusive election, the regime succeeded in orchestrating a non-inclusive election. The question is how the election was designed to keep the opposition at bay.

The 2024 election engineering had four elements: disqualifying the opposition leaders; founding “King’s parties” and trying to split the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); crackdown on the BNP; and weaponizing the judiciary.

Disqualifying the opposition leaders
The opposition parties which were demanding that Sheikh Hasina resign and appoint a neutral administration to oversee the election made it clear time and again since early 2022 that they were going make good on their threat. Their demands began to gain more support in the summer 2022 when the country faced an economic crisis, especially the rising cost of fuel and daily necessities, and the foreign reserve began to dwindle fast. Opposition parties started to organize rallies throughout the country. By summer 2023, it became evident that the government had decided that it would cripple the BNP so that it could not appear as a formidable opposition. On July 6, a deputy inspector general (DIG) of police met with other senior police officials in Dhaka and authorized an initiative to gather data on the cases of leaders and activists from the BNP and another opposition group, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh party (JEI). The memo of the meeting stated, “On the issue of elections, the government is under international pressure. By any means, the government has to win the election. BNP and Jamaat have to be declared disqualified for the election. … All BNP and Jamaat leaders who are expected to contest elections are accused in some cases. If their trials, convictions, and punishments are ensured quickly [by September 2023], they will be declared disqualified from taking part in the elections. Every Thursday after 5.00 p.m., I will meet the law secretary to ensure issuance of directives — where and what exactly are needed — for the judges, to ensure conviction [of the opposition leaders].” This clearly showed that the government was trying to use any means at its disposal to keep the BNP away from the election even if the party decided to join at the last moment.

Founding of “Kings’ Parties” to split the BNP
In the months ahead of the election, three political parties were given registration by the Election Commission: the Trinomool BNP; the Bangladesh Nationalist Movement (BNM); and Bangladesh Supreme Party (BSP). These were meant to serve as the platform for the BNP leaders who would defect to join the election. State machineries, in particular the intelligence agencies, were used to coerce and cajole potential BNP candidates to join. After October 28, 2023 thousands of BNP leaders including 8 central leaders were arrested. They were offered an opportunity while they were in jail. ‘’Jailed BNP leaders were offered release on condition of contesting polls’ -said then Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzak on 16 December in an interview with media. A BNP Vice-President, who was arrested after 28 October and was charged with violence, secured bail, joined the AL, and got an AL ticket to contest. He won the election.

Crackdown on the BNP
BNP leaders and grassroots activists have faced criminal cases and were being arrested in large numbers for years. The number of arrests increased significantly as the party started to organize rallies around the country after August 2022. On several occasions ahead of rallies in Dhaka, police ransacked the party office. This crackdown reached the zenith on 28 October 2023. A BNP rally was dispersed by force even before the gathering started. The authorities cut off internet services in the area of the rally. The rally was reportedly peaceful, but the police used violence that took place on the fringe away from the rally as an excuse to swoop in even before the rally formally started. Within days thousands of BNP leaders were arrested. The crackdown was described the Human Rights Watch as ‘violent autocratic crackdown’.

Weaponizing judiciary
Through the summer of 2023, the courts started to hold additional hours of session, going into the night, to hear the cases against the BNP leaders. These cases were frivolous at their best. Bangladeshi media call these cases ‘ghost cases.’ Either the incident of violence didn’t take place, or the person charged wasn’t there. Such cases were filed before the 2018 election as well. These courts went on an overdrive after 28 October. Between 29 October and 28 December, in 60 days, 1500 BNP leaders were convicted based on police testimony only — in most cases independent witnesses were not brought to testify. An instruction went to the police that they could not change their initial report of the case.

Beyond the four strategies
These four strategies pursued concurrently created an environment of fear and established total control of the government over the situation. But these failed to ensure inclusiveness and participation. For the BAL this was essential because since 2022, the US, EU and a few other western countries had insisted not only on a free and fair election but also an inclusive one. The BAL was hoping that founding Kings’ parties, and coercing or cajoling the BNP leaders to join these parties and participate in the election, would make the election participatory.

As the election became nearer, these steps were not achieving desired successes. The BAL embarked on a different path – allowing its own leaders to contest as ‘independents’. This was contrary to the party bylaws. Yet, it went ahead. Of the 382 independents contested in 221 seats more than half of them were AL leaders, including 28 who were sitting MPs, and some former Minsters.

Despite these efforts, on the election day, it appeared that voters have decided to vote with their feet. Media coverage throughout the day showed empty polling booths all around the country. The EC said at noon (four hours after polling started) that there had been an 18.5% voter turnout; at 3 pm it was raised to 26.37%. While at the end of the day the CEC initially claimed that it was 28%, this was immediately retracted at the prodding of his colleagues and raised to 41%. Experts and observers have described the claim of a 41% turn out as not only inflated but also ridiculous. Voter turnout in the last free competitive election, held in 2008, was 87.13%. In the 2001 election, it was 74.97%. The turn out shows that even the supporters of the AL did not show up at the polling booth, as the result was already a forgone conclusion.

The role of external actors
While the domestic factors and the machination of the government played the key role in setting the stage for a non-inclusive election, the role of external actors facilitated the process. In particular, this was true of India, the principal backer of the Hasina regime since it came to power in 2009. Ahead of the 2014 election, India directly influenced the electoral process by ensuring the Jatiya Party led by former President Ershad joined the election while all other opposition boycotted.

Ahead of the 2024 election, it became evident that a divergence between the USA and India had emerged. Demanding a free and fair election, the US repeatedly warned that an election which did not meet these criteria would not be acceptable. In May 2023, the United States announced a policy of allowing it to withhold visas from Bangladeshis who undermined the electoral process and called for a dialogue between two major parties to reach a solution. India, on the other hand, insisted that pushing Hasina for an inclusive election would ensure a victory of the opposition BNP (and its ally Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami). The Indian establishment considered a BNP- led government in Dhaka is a ‘security threat’, given its alleged past support to the insurgents in India’s Northeastern states and ‘militant Islamists’ within Bangladesh.

India further insisted that US efforts to promote democracy in Bangladesh would push Hasina towards China. The US has tacitly expressed its concerns regarding growing influence of China in South Asia, including Bangladesh. Bangladesh joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016 and has developed a ‘strategic relationship’ with China. Chinese influence and leverage grew in the past decade even as the Hasina government had received support from India. The divergence between Washington and New Delhi was finally settled in favor of India’s position. After the election, the US State Department and the British Foreign Office described the poll as “not free and fair,” but this pronouncement fell far short of the actions that prior US statements seemed to indicate it would take.

What happened by this election?
The 2014 election Bangladesh resulted in a de facto one-party state which was later cemented through the 2018 election. Since then, opposition parties have been weakened through persecution, civil society have been decimated through legal and extralegal measures, state apparatuses have been unleashed to create a culture of fear by wanton extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, cyberspace has been controlled through a law called the Digital Security Act 2018, and media have been brought under control through ownership and veiled threats. The victory of the AL and Sheikh Hasina was delivered in 2018 by a combination of the civil administration, law enforcing agencies, the Election Commission (EC) and the party activists. As such, the 2024 election was destined to continue this trend, unless the opposition could stop this on the track. The fragmented opposition was not up to the task. Ahead of the election, the opposition parties ramped up their rhetoric against the government, but it appeared that they were unprepared to face the onslaught of the regime. Besides, there was a lack of plan B if the government did not heed their demands.

The long-lasting impact of the election is that it has transformed the country into a personalistic autocracy. As is in any personalistic autocracy, Sheikh Hasina is not constrained by her party or any other institution. She is ‘virtually indistinguishable from the regime [she] rules.’ In personalistic autocracy policy choices reflect the whims of the ruler, Bangladesh is unlikely to be an exception in this regrad.

Ali Riaz
Ali Riaz

Ali Riaz is a political scientist with research interests in South Asian politics, democratization, violent extremism, and Bangladeshi politics. He is a Distinguished Professor of political science at Illinois State University, a Nonresident Senior Fellow of Atlantic Council, and the President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS). His recent publications include Pathways for Autocratization: The Tumultuous Journey of Bangladeshi Politics (Routledge: 2024), The Charade: Bangladesh’s 2024 Election (Prothoma: 2024) and a co-authored book How Autocrats Rise: Sequences of Democratic Backsliding (Palgrave Macmillan: 2024).

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