The January 7 election in Bangladesh was held without much violence, and the aftermath has, thus far, been relatively peaceful.

That is, perhaps, the best thing one can say about the affair.

At the start of the last hour of voting, the Election Commission website suggested a voter turnout of around 28%, which mysteriously jumped to nearly 42% in the next one hour. However, videos circulating on social media throughout the day suggest that the actual turnout might have been in single digits. The low turnout, of course, reflects the election boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and other opposition parties.

There was no surprise in the result either. The Awami League, led by incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, bagged 223 of 300 seats, with another 62 going to party members who ran as independents with the encouragement of the government. Eleven went to the Jatiya Party, a decades-old ally of the Awami League.

Hasina was sworn in as prime minister for a fifth term on January 7. If she completes another five years in power, she will have ruled Bangladesh for longer than anyone since Sultan Alauddin Hossain Shah, who reigned the delta during 1494-1518.

Under the sultan, Bengal experienced political stability, social tranquility, and cultural efflorescence. That was the time of the “Shonar Bangla” – golden Bengal – of legend.

No doubt, Hasina would like to be remembered for ushering in a new golden age. As things stand, however, what awaits the new government is a combination of bad, ugly and the uncertain.

Garment industry workers during a protest demanding a wage hike in November 2023. Credit: Reuters.

Let us start with the bad – the economy.

Bangladesh has had a remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades under successive governments, but the last couple of years have been rough. Inflation stubbornly hovers around double digits and is not projected to subside soon. Cost of living pressures are fuelling massive labour unrest in the garments sector, which is the country’s main exports earner and manufacturing employer. Recent inflation has resulted in the real wages of some garments workers erode to levels experienced a decade ago.

Had the election been free and fair, the rising cost of living would likely have resulted in a massive wave of anti-incumbency sentiment against Hasina. That would have been ironic, given that she herself benefitted politically from a bout of inflation in 2007-’08 and won in December 2008 on the back of promises to keep the price of rice low.

High inflation reflects not just external factors, like the soaring oil prices or the onion exports ban by India, but also fiscal and monetary mistakes and mismanagement by the government. Over the past year-and-a-half, the central bank has lost half of its foreign reserves and the Bangladeshi taka has depreciated by over 40%. The country is under a $5 billion-International Monetary Fund programme, which requires market-determined exchange rates, rising interest rates, reduction of subsidies and banking sector reforms. These necessary, albeit painful, policies await the country in 2024.

If the government’s economic policy choices look bad in 2024, the country’s political landscape is, frankly, ugly. Bangladesh may be a constitutional republic with Hasina as prime minister heading the government. But in reality, she rules in a highly personalised fashion like the sultans of yore. The vice of personalised totalitarianism will likely be tightening around the bureaucracy, judiciary, media, civil society – everything that constitutes a republic.

Meanwhile, the opposition faces its own problems. For the past couple of years, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had tried to press its case of inclusive, democratic reforms through peaceful rallies, non‑violent hartals and blockades, avoiding confrontation as much as possible. Its approach had been more Gandhian than the radical violent means that Bengali dissidents have been historically associated with. However, with the non-violent approach failing to thwart yet another one‑sided election, some might be tempted to try other approaches.

Sheikh Hasina greets the media and election observers during a press conference, a day after she winning the general election, in Dhaka on January 8, 2024. Credit: AFP.

Peaceful protests or violence and anti-India sentiments will likely rise. New Delhi has publicly backed the Hasina regime in pushing through the election in the face of potential punitive American actions such as visa bans on election officials. Indian officials are considered to have played influential roles in orchestrating a semblance of contest in the election by cajoling the so‑called independents and Jatiya Party candidates to run.

Unfortunately, on both sides of the Radcliffe Line, political discord could all too easily morph into communal conflagrations. Contrary to popular perception, the Hasina government has had a terrible record of punishing communal violence. In this situation, governments in both Dhaka and New Delhi could use a limited outbreak of communal violence in Bangladesh to their advantage.

Many fear this scenario: a sharp, short burst of violence in Bangladesh followed by another round of arrests of opposition politicians, regardless of their involvement in any incidents, accompanied by a renewal of Indian Home Minister Amit Shah’s attacks on Bangladeshis as insects and subhuman parasites and perhaps a few more seats in West Bengal going the Bharatiya Janata Party’s way – ugly politics could not be more hideous.

Finally, there is the uncertain. Succession problems have historically bedevilled sultanates and monarchies around the world. In Hasina’s Bangladesh, the problem is particularly acute. Not only is there no deputy in the cabinet or the party, unlike other political families of the subcontinent, there is no heir apparent in the ruling clan. Indeed, there is not even any formal or informal mechanism of succession from Hasina-shahi.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Cyclones form when hot air rises and the vacuum is filled by a vortex of surrounding cooler air. The super-dense humid swamp that is Bangladesh is no stranger to cyclones or political instability. “The country of Bengal is a land where, owing to the climate’s favouring the base, the dust of dissension is always rising,” said the Mughal court chronicler Abul Fazl in the16th century. With democracy dismantled and the republic repudiated, Hasina has created a vacuum. There is no telling what vortex will fill it.

Jyoti Rahman is a Bangladeshi writer. His articles are archived here.