With elections in India, the United States, Indonesia and the United Kingdom, among at least 40 countries, 2024 will likely see the largest exercise in voting in history. Some of these elections will be hard fought, with the results hingeing on a handful of marginal localities. Elsewhere, the broad contour of the outcome appears clear, but there will still likely be a robust competition between parties.

Almost everywhere, the focus will be on the candidates, the voters they appeal to, promises they make and the implications of those promises should they win. In most cases, the elections are likely to be followed by political stability as disputes and discords are resolved or reset – even if temporarily.

There is one election, however, where none of this will happen. Bangladeshis are scheduled to vote on January 7 to choose 300 MPs and therefore their next prime minister. As things stand, there is nothing to discuss about the contest or result. At least 263 of 300 seats will be won by the Awami League, and the rest will go to its allies.

This seemingly resounding mandate for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reflects the fact the election will not be an exercise in voting because all opposition parties, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, are boycotting it. After the election, Bangladesh could well be mired in more instability, setting back the hard-won improvements in the living standards of its people.

How did the country come to this grim point?

Let us start at the beginning – and few countries could have as inauspicious a beginning as Bangladesh. Already one of the poorest regions in the world in 1960s, in a span of five years, the country was hit by: the deadliest tropical cyclone in history in November 1970 that left perhaps half a million people dead; a devastating war of independence against Pakistan in 1971 (which destroyed a fifth of the economy and displaced up to 25 million people); a post-war economic collapse that saw prices rise fourfold and tens of thousands die of starvation by 1974; and several coups and countercoups that killed the president, his family, other senior politicians, and several senior army officers in 1975.

Yet, things started turning around after 1975. Successive governments, run by military strongmen as well as democratically elected politicians, adopted a pragmatic, whatever-it-takes-to-avoid-another-famine approach to governance. Despite further coups, assassinations and political instability, floods and cyclones, and global economic shocks, the country not only avoided famine but in fact started making lasting developmental progress.

Protesters with a “Joy Bangla” poster during the non-cooperation movement, in Jessore in East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was called before independence. Credit: SM Safi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bangladesh made a transition to electoral democracy in the early 1990s, with four relatively free and fair elections (in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008) in which all major political parties participated. The country’s politics was far from tranquil, with the two major parties – the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party – each commanding 30%-40% of votes and alternating in power.

Elections were boisterous, bitterly fought contests because of the unitary nature of the republic, a unicameral legislature, the first-past-the-post voting system, executive power concentrated in the office of the prime minister, a political culture that promoted the individual over institutions, and two main political parties of two slain presidents.

Recognising that the incumbent had very strong incentives to use the state apparatus to sway the results, the country’s political class devised a system of non-partisan election-time government to administer elections. A flourishing media and the civil society and an assertive judiciary kept successive governments in check. Notwithstanding their bitter rivalry, both parties remained committed to avoiding the repeat of the early-1970s type instability.

The economy started booming from the early 1990s, with average real income (adjusted for inflation) rising by nearly three-folds, and higher than those of India or Pakistan by some measures. Various social indicators also showed commensurate increases. Indeed, by the early 2010s, experts had started noticing that Bangladesh had made a greater improvement in social indicators than might have been expected from its still relatively low per-capita income.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia at a rally in Dhaka May 2009. Credit: Reuters.

It is in this context that there was a plethora of global media coverage about the “Bangladeshi development miracle” in 2021, when the country celebrated its 50th anniversary.

However, these articles tended to gloss over the cracks in Bangladesh’s development model that had started to appear over the previous decade. In the past couple of years, these cracks have widened to a chasm.

Bangladesh’s economy had started to sputter and its development model was failing to deliver. The Gini coefficient (an index for the degree of inequality in the distribution of income or wealth) reached 0.5 in 2022 – a threshold beyond which inequality is considered to be severe. This inequality is not a bug but a feature of the Sheikh Hasina government, which has been in power since 2009.

By the late 2000s, Bangladesh was chafing under its growing pains. Rising income had meant an increased demand for electricity, as households wanted to charge their mobile phones and gadgets, while factories wanted to run 24-hours to meet their export orders. More people could afford motor vehicles than ever before. But the country’s infrastructure had not kept pace. The country needed more electricity power plants, roads, bridges and railways.

The issue was not financing. Multilateral development banks and foreign governments were willing to fund the projects. The problem was one of governance.

Infrastructure projects are long-term propositions involving huge sums of money. Investors need certainty that the projects will survive political change. Besides, if there is assurance of political continuity, these investments generate larger returns. The ideal solution prescribed by local and foreign experts was that a transparent legal framework and institutions should be set up to govern these projects.

On returning to power in 2009, Hasina took a very different approach. The country’s burgeoning oligarchs wanted to maximise their pay off from the infrastructure boom. Hasina wanted to remain in power. They struck a deal, with the oligarchs supporting Hasina in her political games in exchange for access to the infrastructure mega projects and other business opportunities without oversight.

Workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh. Credit: Fahad Faisal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Take electricity for example. Rental power plants were quickly set up to generate power to meet demand. But terms and conditions were such that the tycoons could skim off a fortune. In 2009, parliament passed a law providing absolute immunity to any of the entities signing up to provide power to the government, regardless of any subsequent malfeasance that may be uncovered in these projects.

Even as the regime prioritised mega-infrastructure deals like a one-sided power plant deal with the Adani Group, or a $7.1 billion infrastructure loan inked with China, Bangladesh’s public expenditure on education and health remained far lower than many of its neighbours.

When global conditions were favourable, the country’s working poor still saw incomes rising. But since mid-2022, with double-digit food price inflation, halving of the country’s foreign exchange reserves, and over 40% depreciation of the currency – all despite a $5 billion International Monetary Fund programme – the country has been careening towards an economic crisis. It is Hasina’s Awami League government that is responsible for the country’s economic woes.

Cost of living pressures have seen the country’s working poor flock to Bangladesh Nationalist Party rallies, often risking deadly attacks from the police and Awami League cadres. Meanwhile, labour protests demanding pay rises have engulfed the country’s garments sector, notwithstanding violent police measures.

A vegetable vendor in Bangladesh. Credit: Jubair1985, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The election is scheduled for January 7. Against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating economy, voters would very likely turf out Hasina – if the elections were free and fair. As it is, given the chance, Bangladeshi voters have opted to change their government every five years. In 2024, Hasina will have been in power for 15 consecutive years.

It is just that, as things stand, the election was never going to be free and fair. Under Hasina, Bangladesh’s democracy has withered away. The provision for election-time caretaker governments was dropped in 2011. In January 2014, when the opposition boycotted the election, 153 of 300 Awami League MPs were returned unopposed. The next election in December 2018 was just as bad, with ballot boxes stuffed by government functionaries the night before the voting day.

Over the past decade, these election riggings have been accompanied by a systematic undoing of Bangladesh’s democratic experiment. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and former prime minister, Khaleda Zia, has been in jail and house arrest since 2018, despite her flailing health, on charges roundly seen by international rights organisations as being politically motivated.

The country’s once-vaunted civil society organisations have been cowed down with harassment and surreptitious lawsuits. For example, Mohammad Yunus, the Nobel-winning pioneer of microcredit, is being hounded by a tax avoidance charge. In 2018, Shahidul Alam, an internationally renowned photographer, was jailed for supporting a schoolchildren’s protest for road safety. Draconian gag laws stifle the media.

Under Hasina, Bangladesh has regressed in every international index of political development, democracy, rule of law and press freedom. Judges and bureaucrats are increasingly appointed not according to merit but reflecting their partisan, and indeed personal, loyalty. Anyone showing a semblance of a spine is surreptitiously dismissed or exiled.

Garment industry workers protest demanding a wage raise, at Mirpur in Dhaka in November 2023. Credit: Reuters.

Two months ago, things came to a head. The opposition parties assembled for a peaceful rally on October 28, only to be violently dispersed by the security forces firing tear gas and sound grenades. This has been followed by the internment of nearly 20,000 opposition politicians, including most of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leadership. According to a minister, Bangladesh Nationalist Party declined an offer for all their leaders to be released in exchange for the party participating in a blatantly managed election.

Determined to remain in power, Hasina has become ever more reliant on the security agencies. These agencies have been using sophisticated software to bug electronic communication and engage in rampant human rights violations including torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial killings.

This turn to authoritarianism has not gone unnoticed. Concerned that a potential development success story is fast becoming yet another economically stagnant dictatorship, the Biden administration in the US has announced a series of warning measures. Several senior Bangladeshi security officials were slapped with sanctions in December 2021. This has been followed by an announcement that any individual involved with election rigging will be denied a visa to the United States, or have their existing visa – and crucially, the visas of their family members, including university‑aged children – revoked.

The US has been very clear about what it wants: a free, participatory election in Bangladesh. It is not so much that the main opposition party has a long history of a pro-Washington stance, recently reinforced by its commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Rather, the Biden administration appears to believe that a democratically elected government in Dhaka is the most important guarantor of stability in the Muslim-majority nation of over 170 million people ensconced between India and China.

To keep the European Union from joining the Americans in pushing for a free and fair election, the Hasina regime has decided to buy 10 Airbuses for its cash-strapped, loss-making national airlines. Meanwhile, sensing an opportunity to court a potentate in the Hasina regime, China has characterised the American efforts as “meddling in Bangladesh’s internal affairs”. For good measure, Russia and Iran have echoed China.

Bangladesh’s economic problems are set to worsen over the coming years. The International Monetary Fund expects the country to run a current account deficit for most of the decade. Adding to the risks of instability are the facts that Hasina is a late septuagenarian with a government centralised in her persona. There is no succession mechanism or heir apparent in her party.

Sheikh Hasina with French President Emmanuel Macron. In September 2023, Bangladesh signed an agreement with France to buy 10 Airbus aircrafts. Credit: Emmanuel Macron @EmmanuelMacron

A crisis is still very avoidable. Contrary to the propaganda coming from the acolytes of the Hasina regime and its supporters in India, the democratic opposition in Bangladesh is not led by Islamic fundamentalists, extremists, militants or populist peddlers of communal-sectarian-ethnic hatred. Rather, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party is avowedly moderate, and cautious in its policy platform and political message alike, with a history of democratic reform and pragmatic development policies.

Against the backdrop of economic hardship and the regime’s heavy handed repression, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s message harkens to that track record of democratic renewal and pragmatic developmentalism. It promises a national government after the election to usher in lasting institutional reforms to restore democracy.

If India were to take a firm stance on helping restore democracy in Bangladesh, it would likely find a willing partner in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The opposition party is not inherently anti-Indian, and previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party governments have worked amicably with India.

However, if India continues to stand behind the Hasina regime till the bitter end, it would exacerbate the situation, not resolve it. In the worst-case scenario, a chaotic denouement of the regime amidst an economic free fall would only fuel anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh, to be exploited by some future populist demagogue.

As things stand, this grim scenario is looking more and more likely.

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