Bangladesh’s January 7 general election had many of the trappings of a democratic poll — thousands of candidates, scores of vote monitoring organizations, large rallies, a swarming press pack, and even catchy campaign tunes. More important was what the vote lacked: any semblance of competition and the participation of most voters.
Opposition forces led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) decided to boycott the poll after the Awami League (AL) government refused to hold the election under a caretaker government. Authorities arrested most of the BNP’s leaders following a massive rally in late October. The boycott meant that long before polling booths closed on January 7, it was clear Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League would secure a fourth term with a large majority.
It was therefore no surprise when the Election Commission announced that AL candidates or party members running as independents had won 283 of 300 elected seats. In most of the other constituencies, the AL had withdrawn its candidates to let allies or faux-opposition figures win in order to give the vote a veneer of credibility.
But while this election win secures the AL another five-year term, it risks being a pyrrhic victory. The party’s huge majority masks the deep fault lines in Bangladeshi politics, which were more accurately reflected in the turnout. The Election Commission claimed more than 40 percent of registered voters cast their votes, but that figure seems suspiciously high when looking at how empty the polling booths were throughout the day. Whatever the case, even the higher-end estimate points to a very low turnout compared to the 75-85 percent typically seen in competitive polls of recent decades.
With no real opposition, many people simply had little incentive to vote. But the January 7 election – or “selection,” to its critics – was also something of a referendum on the AL government after 15 years in power. The turnout reflects a level of dissatisfaction with the government’s recent performance; support for the ruling party has suffered due to its heavy-handed crackdown on domestic critics, perceptions of growing corruption and cronyism, and economic mismanagement. These factors, along with geopolitical shifts, also gave new momentum to an opposition that had appeared on its last legs just a few years ago.
Over the past 18 months, the BNP has waged a mostly peaceful campaign seeking to force Hasina to hand over power to a caretaker government that would manage the vote. While its demand fell on deaf ears, the opposition defied the naysayers, bringing out hundreds of thousands of supporters to rallies in Dhaka.
After police shut down the BNP’s grand rally on October 28 and arrested its leadership, the AL government, desperate to inject some credibility into the election, tried to foment a split in the party, assuring senior BNP officials they would be freed from prison if they agreed to run. In the end, however, only one took up the offer, securing bail and immediately gaining pre-selection for an AL ticket. But the BNP as a whole survived that test of its unity and kept up its campaign for a boycott. Although many of its members – and most of its leaders – are in prison, it remains a potent political force.
This leaves Bangladesh delicately poised. The AL remains in power, but its legitimacy is increasingly contested, and frustration among voters is at an all-time high after three successive flawed elections. The opposition’s non-violent strategy – a departure from the violence more typically seen in Bangladeshi politics – has been effective in mobilizing crowds and rebuilding the party’s image at home and abroad, yet failed to achieve its goal. There is now the risk of increased political violence: With most of its moderate leaders in prison, the opposition could give in to pressure from some factions that want to see it return to the more overtly violent tactics of the past. This would be a strategic blunder, however, as it would give the AL government more opportunities to portray the BNP as the cause of Bangladesh’s problems, both at home and abroad.
In recent days, meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina has foreshadowed the possibility of further crackdowns on the BNP, telling supporters the party “has no right to do politics.” While it is unclear what exactly she meant by that statement, banning the BNP would be a mistake. Not only would such a move rob Bangladeshis of genuine political choice and further isolate Bangladesh politically from Western countries on which it depends for trade, but it would also be difficult to enforce in practice. The Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami was declared illegal in 2013, yet remains politically active, for example.
More importantly, pushing the BNP underground would further polarize the country. Already, the smaller opposition parties that also boycotted the election are coalescing into a single movement around the BNP. Banning the party would only accelerate this trend, uniting leftists, the centrist BNP, and some Islamist forces.
Although the BNP has announced it would not hold protests or blockades in the week following the election, the opposition is widely expected to carry out further political activities aimed at undermining the government and forcing its resignation. While it seems unlikely this movement could force the AL from office, the government may feel compelled to adopt an even more authoritarian posture to prevent protests from escalating. Given the security forces have in the past targeted opposition forces with forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, this prospect is deeply concerning.
It could also have implications for the economy, which is teetering due to declining foreign currency reserves and persistently high inflation. Uncertainty, instability, and potential violence on the streets are hardly likely to help policymakers seeking to stabilize the ship. Such an environment could also hurt investor confidence – particularly for image-conscious Western brands that source from Bangladesh’s garment sector, which generates the large majority of the country’s export revenues.
There is an alternative to further repression and violence, however: a dialogue aimed at rebuilding a modicum of trust between the two major parties, paving the way for the BNP’s return to electoral politics. This will require concessions from both sides, but primarily from the AL. While it is clearly in a position of strength, the ruling party has reasons to compromise given the level of domestic opposition it faces, along with economic and geopolitical headwinds. To begin with, the government should enable BNP leaders to get bail (by not opposing their applications) in exchange for the opposition calling off some of its anti-government activities. The ruling party could then take other steps to defuse tensions – such as allowing ailing BNP leader Khaleda Zia to travel overseas for medical treatment. The BNP, for its part, should relax its hardline position on Hasina’s resignation, which at this point is a non-starter.
Given the events of recent years, it will be extremely challenging for the two parties to work toward an agreement. But for the sake of Bangladesh’s 170 million citizens, both parties need to show political leadership and move away from zero-sum politics in which they view each election as an existential fight that they cannot afford to lose.
Foreign governments, particularly the United States and India, which wield the most influence in Dhaka, will have an important role to play in nudging both sides into talks in the wake of the highly flawed January 7 election.