On Sunday 30th December Bangladesh’s incumbent Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, secured an unprecedented third term in office. The ruling Awami League and its alliance took 288 of the 300 seats, with some 100 million Bangladeshis voting in 40,000 polling stations across the country. Yet the results have been marred with widespread allegations of vote rigging, intimidation, and violence, including one horrendous story of a woman being gang raped for voting against the government.
With the Awami League taking 99.9% of the vote in some constituencies, the main opposition party has claimed the election was rigged and called for a re-run. Sheikh Hasina has rejected such claims, assigning her victory to the Bangladesh’s strong economic growth over the last ten years.
Since its independence in 1971 Bangladesh has been plagued by bloody politics. The country’s uneasy path to democracy involved two military coups and the assassinations of two leaders in its first eleven years. From 1991 Bangladesh saw the emergence of the two major political parties as they exist today, the Awami League led by Begum Hasina Wajed, and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) normally led by Begum Khaleda Zia, although she was unable to run in the last election as she is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for corruption (that her supporters allege is politically motivated). Despite starting out as allies, the fierce rivalry of the two Begums is world renowned today.
The Awami League is accused of severely repressing political opponents, activists and voters in the run up to the December election. There were reports of voters being kicked out of polling stations, beaten and intimidated. In particular, the government has used the judiciary to try to dismantle the BNP with many opposition leaders facing arbitrary charges and lengthy prison sentences. The opposition claims that 300,000 of its members and activists have been targeted in false prosecutions.
Sheikh Hasina is also accused of overseeing enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings of opposition members and voters. Witnesses on the ground claim that hundreds of people have been disappeared by the police and state security apparatus. The Bangladeshi human rights group, Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), reported that the months leading up to the election saw the highest number of extrajudicial killings in more than six years.
Sadly, this level of repression in the lead up to elections is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh, and the allegations currently made against Hasina and the Awami League mirror those that have been made previously against Zia and the BNP.
During the BNP’s five-year term from 2001 to 2006 there were reports of widespread violence and killings, including the death of a prominent Awami League politician in 2004 caused by a grenade attack at a rally. In 2007 a state of emergency was declared which saw a military caretaker government step in.
Bangladesh suffers from an array of human rights issues, including violence and discrimination against women, religious minorities, and different ethnic groups. There are serious restrictions on freedom of expression, which have been extended by the new Digital Security Act 2018 which allows people to be arrested for expressing anti-state views online. Corruption is widespread with a lack of trust in domestic security services, such as the police. Many of the most serious human rights abuses have been carried out by the government’s infamous anti-crime and anti-terror unit, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), which has been described as a “death squad”.
The United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom have all condemned the violence surrounding the 2018 election, and the United Nations has called for there to be an independent and impartial investigation. Whilst such statements are welcome, the international community will need to take stronger action – and offer Bangladesh greater support – if it wants to see real improvements in respect for human rights and the rule of law in this fledgling democracy.