Contentious elections in Bangladesh

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Sheikh Hasina acknowledges her win

The elections in Bangladesh appear to be a one-sided exercise with the opposition rejecting the results as farcical. The sitting prime minister Sheikh Hasina has won a landslide victory winning 288 out of the country’s 298 parliamentary seats on offer. Sheikh Hasina has won an unprecedented thirst straight term of office. The apparent thumping victory is an endorsement of Sheikh Hasina, 71 daughter of the founder of the nation during whose tenure Bangladesh has seen booming economic growth but her government is frequently accused of being authoritative in nature in which abuse of human rights are discovered to be rampant.

The entire election process was marred by violence that saw 17 people dead and also witnessed widespread arrest of opposition activists. Allegations of voting irregularities including polling booths closing for ‘lunch breaks’, voters turned away and unrealistically quick counting of ballots. Local media published accounts of Awami League members stuffing ballot boxes in the presence of election officials and police. During the campaign authorities suspended high-speed 3G and 4G internet services for several hours in an effort to fight what a telecoms watchdog official called the “propaganda” fuelling unrest. The official campaign ended after seven weeks of widespread street clashes and accusations of an official crackdown on the opposition. Post-elections the opposition signaled it would reject the results and make public its future strategy shortly.

The authoritarian grip of the Awami League government could be witnessed by the shabby results obtained by the main opposition party, Bangladesh National Party that could only muster only seven seats. The ruling Awami League was unwilling to brook any opposition and it appeared wiping out BNP. BNP is headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of another former president Ziaur Rahman who was assassinated in 1981. Khaleda Zia has also remained the country’s PM but currently is incarcerated on corruption charges.

Protests over economic difficulties

This was the 11th general election in Bangladesh that opened a new chapter in the history of political unrest in the country. Violence is a persistent feature of its politics and the country has alternated between fragile forms of democracy and several bouts of military rule. Its first prime minister, Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujib was murdered in an army coup in 1975 along with most of the family while Hasina was out of the country.

After the restoration of democratic rule since more than two decades Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia of BNP have traded political power and the period has seen the animosity between them deepen. Khaleda Zia also won power and served as PM but Sheikh Hasina cemented her dominance in the past decade mostly by employing the coercive power of the state and has weakened BNP. She has also clamped down on judicial and media dissent but has been able to check the country’s small but potent Islamist movement. Khaleda Zia is currently serving a prison sentence after being convicted twice this 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.

During its period in office BNP was also accused of perpetrating human rights abuses but human 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 makes up more than four fifths of Bangladesh’s exports. This industry has been supported by many countries that provide the garments to be marketed there.

Foreign direct investment has remained low, however, due to poor infrastructure, corruption, policy uncertainty as well as lingering concerns about the country’s politics. On the other hand, 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. Dhaka was brought to a standstill by protests twice this year, in April over the inaccessibility of government jobs and in August by the lack of enforcement of road rules. The violence also erupted to other urban centres.

Members of opposing parties clashed throughout Election Day. 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 opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), police alleged. Bangladesh’s election commission mentioned that it was investigating allegations of vote-rigging coming from across the country. By being in power since a decade has hardened attitudes of Sheikh Hasina and it is noted that her urge for power has tilted more towards suppressing all dissent. Her inclination towards India is very prominent and Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to call and congratulate her.

Dr. Fahd Ali is a medical practitioner in the US and is very active socially

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