Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina heads to victory after polls without Opposition

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is guaranteed to win a fifth term after a boycott led by an Opposition party she has branded a “terrorist organisation”

January 07, 2024 11:54 am | Updated 09:48 pm IST - DHAKA

Election officials prepare to count ballot papers at a polling booth in Dhaka on January 7, 2024. Bangladesh election officials began counting votes on January 7 after polls guaranteed to give a fifth term in office to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina closed, following a boycott led by an opposition party she branded a “terrorist organisation”.

Election officials prepare to count ballot papers at a polling booth in Dhaka on January 7, 2024. Bangladesh election officials began counting votes on January 7 after polls guaranteed to give a fifth term in office to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina closed, following a boycott led by an opposition party she branded a “terrorist organisation”. | Photo Credit: AFP

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina looked certain on January 7 to win a fifth term in office following a boycott led by an opposition party she branded a “terrorist organisation”, as partial results pointed to an overwhelming victory.

Ms. Hasina has presided over breakneck economic growth in a country once beset by grinding poverty, but her government has been accused of rampant human rights abuses and a ruthless opposition crackdown.

Her party faced almost no effective rivals in the seats it contested, but it avoided fielding candidates in a few constituencies, an apparent effort to avoid the legislature being branded a one-party institution.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose ranks have been decimated by mass arrests, called a general strike and, along with dozens of others, refused to participate in a “sham election”.

But Ms. Hasina, 76, called for citizens to show faith in the democratic process.

“The BNP is a terrorist organisation,” she told reporters after casting her vote.

“I am trying my best to ensure that democracy should continue in this country,” she added.

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Bangladeshi media reported that with results in more than a third of the 300 seats announced, Hasina’s ruling Awami League and her allies had won at least 85 percent.

Somoy TV, the country’s largest private news broadcaster, said of the 114 seats declared, Hasina’s ruling Awami League had won 93 and its ally Jatiya Party had won four, while the other 17 seats had been taken by independent or other allied lawmakers.

Counting continues, but among the victors was Shakib Al Hasan, the Bangladesh cricket team captain, who won his seat to become a ruling party lawmaker.

‘Disgrace’

Chief Election Commissioner Habibul Awal told reporters the turnout, based on preliminary figures, was around 40 percent.

First-time voter Amit Bose, 21, said he had cast his ballot for his “favourite candidate”, but others said they had not bothered because the outcome was assured.

“When one party is participating and another is not, why would I go to vote?” said Mohammad Saidur, 31, who pulls a rickshaw.

BNP head Tarique Rahman, speaking from Britain where he lives in exile, told AFP he feared “fake votes” would be used to boost voter turnout.

“What unfolded was not an election, but rather a disgrace to the democratic aspirations of Bangladesh,” he wrote on social media, alleging he had seen “disturbing pictures and videos” backing his claims.

Fear of ‘further crackdown’

The BNP and other parties staged months of protests last year, demanding Hasina step down ahead of the vote.

Officers in the port city of Chittagong broke up an opposition protest Sunday, firing shotguns and tear gas canisters, but election officials said voting was largely peaceful, with nearly 800,000 police officers and soldiers deployed countrywide.

Meenakshi Ganguly, from Human Rights Watch, said Sunday that the government had failed to reassure opposition supporters that the polls would be fair, warning that “many fear a further crackdown”.

Politics in the world’s eighth-most populous country was long dominated by the rivalry between Hasina, the daughter of the country’s founding leader, and two-time premier Khaleda Zia, wife of a former military ruler.

Hasina has been the decisive victor since returning to power in a 2009 landslide, with two subsequent polls accompanied by widespread irregularities and accusations of rigging.

Zia, 78, was convicted of graft in 2018 and is now in ailing health at a hospital in Dhaka, with her son Tarique Rahman helming the BNP from London.

‘Dangerous combination’

Hasina has accused the BNP of arson and sabotage during last year’s protest campaign, which was mostly peaceful but saw several people killed in police confrontations.

The government’s security forces have been dogged by allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances -- charges it rejects.

The United States, the biggest export market for the South Asian nation of 170 million, has imposed sanctions on an elite police unit and its top commanders.

Economic headwinds have left many dissatisfied with Hasina’s government, after sharp spikes in food costs and months of chronic blackouts in 2022.

Wage stagnation in the garment sector, which accounts for around 85 percent of the country’s $55 billion in annual exports, sparked industrial unrest late last year that saw some factories torched and hundreds more shuttered.

Pierre Prakash of the International Crisis Group said before the vote that Hasina’s government was clearly “less popular than it was a few years ago, yet Bangladeshis have little real outlet at the ballot box”.

“That is a potentially dangerous combination.”

Bangladesh newspaper site blocked

One of Bangladesh’s key newspapers critical of the government said its website had been blocked, as the country votes in a general election boycotted by the Opposition.

Sajid Hoque, news editor at the Daily Manab Zamin, said the paper had been “flooded with calls and messages” from readers who said “that they cannot access our website”.

The newspaper’s printed edition was still available on the streets.

The paper, one of the most popular in the South Asian nation and known for its critical coverage of political affairs, posted on its Facebook page on Saturday that the blockage was not due to “any technical issues” on its site.

“Manab Zamin’s website is not accessible from across the country”, the paper posted.

AFP could not access the website in Dhaka, and Bangladesh internet monitor Activate Rights reported that the site had been offline since Saturday.

International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which ranks Bangladesh 163rd out of 180 countries in its world press freedom index, warned ahead of the vote of what it dubbed the government’s “harmful grip on information”.

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