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Bangladesh’s Recent Crackdown on Dissent

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Bangladesh's Recent Crackdown on Dissent

In a much-expected turn of events, Sheikh Hasina Wajid of Awami League became Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, yet again, following the recent general election. For over a decade, the electoral developments in the country have been evidently tipped in favour of the ruling political party. Hasina’s fourth consecutive term in office appears to be a consequence of a controversial election with low voter turnout and boycott by the main opposition party. Her prolonged career has been characterised by the detention of opposition leaders, the repression of opinions that differ from those of the ruling government, and restrictions on free speech.

Awami League, the ruling political party, now reigning for the fifth time overall, has gradually evolved into a source of suppression for any deviating political voice. Months before the polls, widespread silencing of opposition was observed across the country in the form of excessive use of force by police to curtail protests. The mass demonstrations were a result of the targeting of political opposition by the state authorities. Jails were filled with opposition leaders. There were reports of coordinated efforts by the police and the Awami League followers to intimidate and target opposition party campaigners. Given the scenario and the country’s history of flawed elections, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) demanded Prime Minister Hasina’s resignation and for a caretaker government to oversee the January elections.

Following a planned rally by the BNP, at least 10,000 opposition activists were arrested, and more than 16 were killed, including two police officials. The government blamed the opposition for causing havoc and attributed BNP party offices to a crime scene, thus shutting them down. As per the BNP evaluation, approximately half of its five million members have been facing prosecution due to political reasons. Similarly, the front-runner of the principal opposition party, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, and her son, Tarique Rahman, have been sentenced on criminal charges. While Zia has been put under house arrest, Rahman currently lives in exile in the United Kingdom.

It is yet to be seen how the regime addresses the legitimacy crisis stemming from historically low voter turnout, alleged suppression of opposition, and perceived bias of the election commission and judiciary.

On the other hand, as a part of the crackdown, news organisations have been facing pressure to practice self-censorship, as government authorities are exerting their power to demand the removal of certain news articles from websites. This is made possible by the Digital Security Act, which gives the state the authority to demand the deletion and blocking of any information online that it considers so needed. Reviewing the situation in Bangladesh, human rights group Amnesty International condemned the government’s “complete clampdown of dissent in Bangladesh” before the country’s January elections.

However, since the opposition’s call for the ruling administration’s resignation and installing a caretaker government before the polls were not heeded, the BNP chose not to participate in the January elections. Therefore, the two parties in favour of the polls, Awami League and Jatiya Party, had candidates contesting. Still, the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami party boycotted the polls in the “public interest, for civil liberties and in the interest of basic freedom of the people”.

Many observers in Western countries and several other nations have been warning for several months about the reliability of the voting process. With such uncontested elections, though the purported Iron Lady of Asia, Sheikh Hasina, continues to stay in power, Bangladesh has emerged as a one-party state. Only 40% of voters showed up to the elections, and that was also in the absence of the major opposition, thus nullifying the credibility of the process. The scenario is expected to damage the veneer of democracy in the country.

The elections garnered varied reactions across many countries. Though the controversial elections were not supported by the United States and the United Kingdom, which called the polls “unfair”, the announcement of election results was welcomed in India and China. Soon after the results were disclosed, Ms Hasina expressed her gratitude towards India, calling them a trusted friend. PM Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate the winner, highlighting New Delhi’s commitment to enhancing the “people-centric partnership” and reflecting the close bilateral relationship between the neighbouring countries in South Asia. Similarly, Beijing expressed its commitment to work with the new administration in Bangladesh to make the age-old friendship flourish. President Joe Biden has expressed the United States’ readiness to collaborate with Bangladesh in achieving its economic objectives. This statement comes almost a month after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina assumed office following an election that was boycotted by the opposition.

Badiul Alam Majumdar, founder of Citizens for Good Governance based in Dhaka, stated that the government engineered partisanship in the election commission, politicised bureaucracy and law enforcement, and took control of all the institutions. Such rigged polls could generate a “serious legitimacy crisis” for the newly elected administration and may lead to economic collapse.

Bangladesh’s January 7 elections, marred by controversy and low turnout, cast a long shadow over the nation’s democratic future. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina defends the process by citing multi-party participation, concerns linger about a slide towards authoritarianism. The Awami League, once a champion of democracy, stands accused of betraying its own legacy. This raises crucial questions. Whether the Bangladeshi people, who fought for democracy, tolerate another term of perceived authoritarian rule, especially amidst growing economic woes or not.  It is yet to be seen how the regime addresses the legitimacy crisis stemming from historically low voter turnout, alleged suppression of opposition, and perceived bias of the election commission and judiciary. These questions demand answers as Bangladesh stands at a crossroads. The Awami League must navigate public anger, international scrutiny, and economic instability to maintain its grip on power. Can it reconcile its democratic past with its present actions, or will Bangladesh drift further into the shadow of its former self? Only time will tell.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan serves as a Senior Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. Holding an MPhil in International Relations from the National Defence University, she also occasionally teaches at esteemed public sector universities.

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