A general election is scheduled in Bangladesh for January 7, but if it is anything like the last two elections, most people in the country are not expected to cast their ballots.

The election in January 2014 was boycotted by the main opposition, which feared widespread rigging. The ruling Awami League attained a majority: even before election day, 153 of 300 seats were declared uncontested.

Fears of rigging notwithstanding, the opposition did participate in the December 2018 polls. Perhaps they should not have. Across the country, ballot boxes were stuffed the night before election day.

The government of Sheikh Hasina, which has been in power since 2008, has swapped democratic affirmation by voters with a reliance on security agencies that carry out rampant human rights violations – extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and suchlike. Dissenters and human rights activists – Adilur Rahman Khan, among them – have been jailed on trumped-up charges.

Hasina shows every intention of staying in power come what may, describing her party in an interview with The Economist earlier this year as the only legitimate one in Bangladesh. One wrinkle in her plans, however, is the fact that the world has started to take notice of the situation.

In December 2021, the Biden administration slapped sanctions against senior officers of police and paramilitary forces for human rights violations. This has been followed with visa bans that will apply to anyone trying to impede a free and fair election in Bangladesh.

Legislatures and the executive branches from Brussels to Canberra have discussed Bangladesh’s democratic backsliding in general, and the worsening human rights situation in particular. The European Parliament, for example, adopted a resolution in September that specifically criticised the prison sentences against Adilur Rahman Khan and his colleague.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, and Iran have come out in favour of the Hasina regime, claiming that the concerns expressed by liberal democracies about human rights abuses in Bangladesh constitute “meddling in internal affairs”.

Members of the Islami Andolan Bangladesh during a mass protest march towards the Election Commission, ahead of the election schedule declaration, in Dhaka on November 15. Credit: Reuters.

The Hasina regime is not unaware of the drubbing its global image is taking and has singled out human rights organisations in Bangladesh as one of the primary culprits for creating such humiliations.

As part of its strategy to counter the critiques, the government has over the past year reportedly sought out writers, academics and content creators to drum up favourable opinion pieces and events that could be reported in global media.

For example, a seminar in Brussels on October 11, attended by high-profile Members of the European Parliament and European Commission officials, featured a robust defence of the regime’s governance record and strong arguments that the accusation of human rights abuses are propaganda.

The event, titled “Human Rights Situation and Democracy in Bangladesh: The Fight against Disinformation and False Narratives” in a European Union building would presumably have supported the regime’s counteroffensive against human rights groups in Bangladesh quite effectively.

Except it didn’t quite go right. The event was hosted and helmed by MEP Maximilian Krah, who belongs to the notorious far-right Alternative for Germany or AfD party, and has been accused of fraud and influence peddling from Beijing. Krah’s case on contract fraud has been transferred to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office and is under criminal investigation.

The event was sparsely attended, as demonstrated by photos of the audience.

As it happens, the Hasina regime seems to have a penchant for getting suckered by propaganda that backfires. For example, hundreds of articles popped up in the English-language global media praising the Bangladesh government in the past year, but the authors were subsequently found to be completely fictitious. It was a massive disinformation campaign by fake experts and authors to fool the world and the country – except the campaign was so incompetent that the non-existence of these authors was discovered quite easily by AFP.

Undaunted with the exposes and debacles, the regime is proceeding with a programme to train 600,000 activists to counter what they claim is Opposition propaganda.

In this age of social media, election campaigns in even mature democracies are plagued by disinformation and propaganda. Bangladeshi democracy has been described as “being on life support”, with the government clamping down on the Opposition ahead of the election. In this environment, disinformation campaigns – even if incompetent –can have very serious consequences.

Jyoti Rahman is a Bangladeshi writer. His pieces are archived at https://jrahman.substack.com/