An electoral process marred by violence, intimidation, and accusations of fraud has solidified one-party rule and added to fears of rising authoritarianism in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling coalition secured an unexpected landslide victory in the Dec. 30 general election. Hasina’s Awami League party secured 288 of the 300 contested parliamentary seats, leaving just seven for the Jatiya Oikko Front, the lead opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In some constituencies, the leading coalition garnered 99 percent of the votes. The victory gives Hasina her third consecutive five-year term as leader.
The opposition rejected the vote, citing voter fraud and intimidation, and called for a revote. On Thursday, the seven elected opposition members boycotted Parliament’s swearing-in ceremony. The lawmakers have three months to take their oaths of office or lose their seats.
During the vote, violence broke out in 13 of 64 districts, and at least 17 people died. The reports of election mismanagement included some authorities turning away voters hours before polls closed. Other witnesses reported they found out their votes were already cast when they showed up to use the electronic voter system.
The nation’s Election Commission said the vote would stand but promised to investigate the allegations.
Hasina, 71, has ruled Bangladesh since 2009. In her victory speech, she vowed to work for the “welfare of the people.”
Her economic success appeals to voters: In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Bangladesh saw 7.8 percent growth in its gross domestic product—its highest ever. Hasina also maintained relations with India while accepting bulky investments from China.
Despite the progress, her government has increasingly repressed dissent. Authorities went after two journalists who reported on irregularities in the vote, accusing them of publishing false information. Ahead of the vote, about 7,000 anti-government activists were arrested, according to the opposition.
In February 2018, a Bangladeshi court sentenced BNP leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to five years in prison over corruption charges—a move that sent the opposition into disarray ahead of the election. She received another seven-year sentence in October, and the Election Commission later disqualified her from running in the election.
Prosecutors accused Zia and five others, including her son, of embezzling $252,000 from funds meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust. Her latest sentence involved misappropriating an additional $375,000 funds for the separate Zia Charitable Trust. The opposition dismissed the ruling as a political stunt.
Kanchan Gupta, a political commentator with the India-based Observer Research Foundation, said the election’s outcome further wiped out any political accountability: “For all practical purposes, Bangladesh is now a single-party state with inconsequential parties keeping alive the country’s constitutional description as a multiparty democracy.”