A One-Sided Affair as Bangladesh’s Ailing Democracy Goes to the Polls

There is little doubt that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will seize a fourth consecutive term when Bangladesh goes to the polls on Sunday. The bigger question is what will remain of the country’s democracy.

The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has been crushed and left with little mobilizing capacity. Its leaders who are not already in jail are bogged down with endless court appointments or are in hiding with the police on their tail. Ms. Hasina’s Awami League, in power since 2009, has cleared the way for a race so one-sided that the party urged its own contestants to prop up dummy candidates so it does not look as if they won unchallenged.

The B.N.P. has boycotted the vote, after Ms. Hasina rejected its demand that she step aside during the campaign period so the election could be held under a neutral administration. Even as Bangladesh has appeared to be finding a path to prosperity and shedding a legacy of coups and assassinations, the uncontested election shows how politics in this country of 170 million remains hostage to decades of bad blood between the two major parties.

The possibility of violence hangs in the air. The opposition’s effort to protest the vote, with repeated calls for nationwide strikes and civil disobedience, has been met with an intensified crackdown. More than 20,000 B.N.P. members and leaders have been arrested since the party’s last major rally, in October, according to party leaders and lawyers.

Diplomats in Dhaka said they had received reports of appalling conditions inside overcrowded prisons. At least nine opposition leaders and members have died in jail since the Oct. 28 crackdown, according to human rights organizations and reports in local news media.

As the B.N.P. has issued another call for a national strike, this one on the eve of the election, security has been increased, with the army deployed in the capital, Dhaka, and other regions.

Bangladeshi soldiers were deployed on streets as part of enhanced security measures ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections.Credit…Mahmud Hossain Opu/Associated Press

“There is a risk of increased violence after the polls, from both sides,” said Pierre Prakash, the Asia director for the International Crisis Group. “If the B.N.P. feels the largely nonviolent strategy it deployed in the run-up to the 2024 election has failed, leaders could come under pressure to revert to the more overt violence of the past.”

And if the B.N.P. does resort to widespread violence, Mr. Prakash said, it will be walking right into a trap. Ms. Hasina’s party has been laying the groundwork for an even wider crackdown as it pushes a narrative that the opposition is filled with “terrorists” and “killers.”

During Ms. Hasina’s 15-year rule, her second stint in power, the country has been a paradox of sorts.

As investments in the garment export industry began paying off, the economy experienced such impressive growth that average income levels at one point surpassed India’s. Bangladesh has also shown major strides in other development areas, from education and health to female participation in the labor force and preparedness against climate disasters.

But all along, critics say, Ms. Hasina, 76, has tried to turn the country into a one-party state. From the security agencies to the courts, she has captured government institutions and unleashed them onto anyone who does not fall in line.

In the latest example, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus was given a six-month jail sentence in what he has described as a political vendetta. Mr. Yunus is out on bail and appealing the verdict in a case that government officials say is not political and involves violations of labor laws.

Ms. Hasina’s drive to dismantle the B.N.P. often appears to be a personal campaign of vengeance.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addressing a campaign rally in December.Credit…-/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For most of the time since Bangladesh’s creation in 1971 — when it separated from Pakistan after a bloody campaign of cultural oppression against Bengalis — the country has been ruled by the two parties.

The Awami League was the party of Ms. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s independence leader and founding president. After he set out on a campaign to centralize power, he was killed in a military coup that also left much of his young family dead.

The B.N.P. was formed by Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the army chief who rose to power after a bloody phase of coups and counter-coups in the wake of Sheikh Mujib’s assassination. Mr. Zia, as he was known, was also later killed in a military coup.

While Ms. Hasina sees the B.N.P. as the creation of the same military cadre that protected her father’s killers, her drive to destroy the party is even more personal, her aides say. When the B.N.P., led by Mr. Zia’s widow, Khaleda Zia, was in power in the early 2000s, one of Ms. Hasina’s rallies as an opposition leader was attacked by dozens of grenades. She survived a close call, but more than 20 of her party’s leaders and supporters were killed.

Over the past couple of years, Ms. Hasina’s crackdown has become particularly severe as the sheen from the story of economic progress has worn off.

The successive blows of the pandemic and the Ukraine war, which pushed up fuel and food prices, have shrunk Bangladesh’s foreign reserves to dangerous lows. The crisis has exposed not only Bangladesh’s overreliance on the garment industry, but also what Western diplomats in Dhaka say are kleptocratic practices hidden beneath the country’s economic growth.

The ruling elite, diplomats say, tap into banks and the nation’s riches with little accountability. With about 60 percent of Parliament made up of businesspeople, economic interests and political power have become deeply intertwined, impeding economic reform, analysts say.

The opposition tried to capitalize on public anger over rising prices, holding its first large rallies in years. But its momentum was short-lived, as the government’s crackdown deepened.

Supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Dhaka in July.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

The B.N.P. says its demand for an election under a neutral caretaker was nothing new — Ms. Hasina called for the same when she was in the opposition, and she came to power in an election administered by a caretaker government. Bangladesh’s institutions are so vulnerable to abuse by the ruling party that no opposition has won election when the vote was not held under a caretaker.

But Ms. Hasina considers the B.N.P.’s demand to be a violation of the constitution — because, after she came to power, she amended the charter to declare the practice illegal and a disruption to the democratic cycle.

Seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2014 vote, in which Ms. Hasina’s party won more than half of the seats uncontested, the Awami League has been pointing to the smaller parties that are still contesting this year’s election. But analysts say the party has engineered a new token opposition. Some of these candidates made clear on campaign posters where they stood: “Supported by the Awami League.”

The B.N.P.’s leader, Ms. Zia, a former prime minister, remains under house arrest. Her son, the party’s acting chairman, is in exile in London. Much of the party’s leadership is in jail.

In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s vote, the party’s visibility was largely reduced to virtual news conferences by Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, one of the few senior B.N.P. leaders not in jail.

Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the senior joint secretary general of the B.N.P., in his party office in June. Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Mr. Rizvi himself faces 180 court cases, and for months at a time he remained locked up in his office, sleeping in a small corner bed, as he risked arrest if he ventured out. He walks with a cane because of a bullet wound he received while protesting a military dictator in the late 1980s.

“We and other like-minded parties have boycotted this election,” Mr. Rizvi said in a virtual news conference on Thursday, announcing a new strike to begin on Saturday. “The political parties and the people of the country have already understood that this election is going to be a rehearsal of the anarchy of Awami League. It’s going to be a one-sided election.”

Obaidul Quader, general secretary of the Awami League, said it regretted the main opposition’s absence.

“Had B.N.P. been there,” he added, “the election would have been more competitive.”

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