Suspicion over Hasina’s Bangladesh poll landslide
Bangladesh’s opposition has rejected the “farcical” results of national elections officially declared to have been won by the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in a landslide.
The Bangladesh election commission said early on Monday that Hasina’s Awami League had won a record third consecutive term, taking – along with its allies – 288 of the country’s 298 parliamentary seats on offer.
The thumping margin was framed as an endorsement of Hasina, 71, a dynastic leader who has overseen booming economic growth but is accused of running an authoritarian government that allows human rights abuses to flourish.
The Awami League’s main rival, the Bangladesh National party (BNP), and its allies won only seven seats in the country’s first contested election in a decade, one marred by weeks of violence, the mass arrest of opposition activists and the deaths of at least 17 party workers and police on polling day.
Allegations of voting irregularities, including polling booths closing for “lunch breaks”, voters being turned away, and ballots being counted unrealistically quickly, were widespread.
Local media published accounts by
correspondents who claimed to have witnessed Awami League members stuffing ballot boxes in the presence of police and election officials.
The opposition signalled it would reject the results even before the polls had closed last Sunday. “We call upon the election commission to declare this farcical election void and demand a fresh election under a neutral government,” said Kamal Hossain, who coordinates an alliance of opposition parties that was hoping to unseat Hasina.
Jahangir Kabir Nanak, the joint secretary of the Awami League, said the opposition had been “rejected by the people of Bangladesh” and that its refusal to accept voting results was “not unusual”.
Hasina’s office told a local media outlet the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, was the first foreign leader to call with congratulations. The Awami League is traditionally more inclined towards India, the region’s major power, than the BNP.
Bangladesh’s 11th general election was the latest chapter in a history of political unrest for the country that will celebrate the half-century of its existence in two years’ time. The country freed itself in a bloody liberation war with Pakistan that still resonates and defines its political landscape.
Violence is a persistent feature of its politics, and the country has alternated between fragile forms of democracy
‘We call upon the election commission to declare this farcical election void and demand a fresh election’
and several bouts of military rule. Its first prime minister, Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman, was murdered in an army coup in 1975 along with most of the family while Hasina was out of the country. For more than two decades, she has traded power with Khaleda Zia, the head of the BNP, whose warhero husband Ziaur Rahman was assassinated while serving as prime minister in 1981.
But Hasina has cemented her dominance in the past decade, using the state tools at her disposal to weaken the BNP and its organs, clamp down on judicial and media dissent, and mostly check the country’s small but potent Islamist movement.
Zia is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence after being convicted twice last year of corruption. Her son, Tarique Rahman, is in exile in London after being sentenced to life in prison for his part in a plot to assassinate Hasina.
The BNP was also accused of perpetrating human rights abuses during its rule but rights group say Hasina’s clampdown on dissent has been more systematic and effective at hobbling her opponents.
Her dominance has contributed to a period of relative political stability that has helped the country’s economy grow at more than 6% each year, thanks largely to the garment industry that contributes more than fourfifths of Bangladesh’s exports. Foreign direct investment has remained low, however, due to poor infrastructure, corruption, policy uncertainty as well as lingering concerns about the country’s politics.
Poverty rates have fallen and the country’s GDP has grown by 150% in the past decade. But some analysts say the wealth is not spreading fast enough and has not translated into more resilient or transparent public institutions, deepening popular disquiet.
Despite the buoyant balance sheet, the capital, Dhaka, has been shut down twice this year by protests that some analysts say are evidence of a wider malaise. “We have the fastest growth of ultra-rich in the world,” said Shahab Enam Khan, the research director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. “But that doesn’t mean the lower strata has benefited.”
Demonstrations in August were stoked by popular outrage at unsafe driving and a wider culture of impunity. “Public security issues in terms
of law and order, how the law is being enforced, whether people have confidence in the judiciary, will be determinate,” Khan said.
Earlier Bangladeshi governments have also been accused of trampling human rights, but watchdogs say Hasina’s repression has been more extensive. Hundreds of people have been disappeared or detained in secret prisons and nearly 450 have been shot dead by police amid a crackdown on the narcotics trade this year, according to the human rights group Odhikar.
Bangladesh’s authorities also severely restricted internet services across the country in an effort to fight “propaganda” ahead of the election. Internet services were slowed across the country with some suspended for several hours last Thursday, a Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) official said.
“We asked telecom operators to halt 3G and 4G services temporarily … We have done it to prevent propaganda and misleading content spreading,” the official told AFP.
The authoritarianism has been accelerated by a uniquely weak period for the BNP. The party boycotted the 2014 polls, which it claimed would be rigged, and so has no presence in parliament.
Despite the BNP’s weakness, Hasina’s party took no chances, bringing an estimated 300,000 cases against the major opposition party in the run up to the election and ordering thousands of its members to be arrested.
Facebook told Associated Press last week that it had taken down 15 pages that it said were spreading pro-Hasina fake news in the run-up to the poll.
When polling day came, members of opposing parties clashed. At least eight people died in scuffles between party workers, and police shot another three. A member of an auxiliary security force was also killed by activists from the BNP, police alleged.
Bangladesh’s election commission told Reuters it was investigating allegations of vote-rigging coming from across the country.
Hossain said Hasina had changed while in power. “The urge for power can make someone who’s human into something less than human,” he told the Associated Press in an interview. MICHAEL SAFI IS THE GUARDIAN’S SOUTH ASIA CORRESPONDENT
Voters queue outside a polling station in Dhaka last Sunday. At least 17 people died in election violence across Bangladesh
A mural in Dhaka of Sheikh Hasina and her father, Mujibur Rahman
Kamal Hossain, who coordinates opposition parties who were aiming to unseat Hasina