Bangladesh goes to the polls on Sunday. The election is crucial in determining the political fate of the country and, given the close relationship between Dhaka and New Delhi, one that India will be watching. Here’s a breakdown of what is happening and what you should be paying attention to.
Even as democracy splutters, Bangladesh is booming economically
In 1971, when Bangladesh became independent, it was known globally as an economic basket case. In the nearly five decades since then, the Bengali country has effected a remarkable turnaround. Bangladesh’s gross domestic product grew at a steady 6% over the past decade, even touching 7.86% in 2017-’18. This economic growth has been achieved as a result of a booming manufacturing sector: Bangladesh’s garments sector is second only to China and provides mass employment.
Per capita incomes are rising fast and are expected to outstrip India’s in the next couple of years. Earlier in 2018, Bangladesh transitioned from the United Nation’s “Least Developed Country” status to “Developing economy”.
However, this good economic cheer does not carry over to politics. Democracy in Bangladesh has been fractious, to say the least. The country’s founder was assassinated by a group of army officers just four years after independence. Bangladesh has remained under long spells of military rule.
Political parties themselves has done little to redeem democratic politics, with competition often descending into chaos. The previous general elections saw the main opposition party boycott the polls. More than half the seats were won unopposed. The turnout was the lowest in Bangladeshi history – officially 38% but independent estimates go as low as 22%.
Who are the main players in this election?
Bangladesh is largely a two-party polity. One the one side is the Awami League, which led the liberation war and is generally seen to be a secular party, with the country’s minority Hindus and Buddhists voting for it. Opposed to them are the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, an Islamist party.
The Awami League currently has a majority in the country’s Jatiya Sangshad or national parliament. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the previous general elections. As a result, the Awami League has now been in power for a decade, led by Sheikh Hasina. The Awami League has been criticised for shrinking the democratic space in Bangladesh. A purported war on drugs, for example, has led to accusations that the government is using the exercise as a cover to target activists. Laws heavily controlling speech online have been passed and used even against high-profile targets such as photographer Shahidul Alam for his criticism of the government.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is contesting the current election as part of the Jatiya Oiyka Front, National Unity Front, a coalition of 20 parties. The party, though, is hobbled by being out of power for so long as well as a crackdown on its top leadership. The part’s chief Khaleda Zia is currently in prison on charges of corruption and, as a result, has been barred from contesting the elections.
Where does India figure in this?
India has loomed large over Bangladesh since the Indian Army helped liberate the country from Pakistan in 1971. India is currently the second-largest source of imports for the country while Bangladesh is New Delhi’s largest trading partner in South Asia.
Politically, the Awami League is seen to be close to India while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leans towards Pakistan. However, with Pakistan’s power shrinking, this arrangement might not hold in 2018. India barely featured in the campaigning.
In the last elections in 2014, India played a crucial role by supporting the Awami League and backing the general election as legitimate. New Delhi-Dhaka relations have touched a new high under Hasina, with crucial deals such as the 2015 Land Boundary Agreement that swapped enclaves, simplifying what was till then one of the oddest borders in the world. Bangladesh has also cracked down hard on North East Indian separatist groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam operating from its territory, freezing their assets and arresting their leaders.
However, New Delhi’s support for the Awami has not gone unnoticed in Bangladesh. Some have expressed fears about India putting all its eggs in one basket should the elections results go the other way.
No matter what the result, however, Bangladesh will continue to remain crucial to New Delhi’s foreign policy: the two share a 4,000 kilometre border, India’s longest.
Who is the frontrunner in 2018?
Given Bangladesh’s controlled mediascape, there are few opinion polls in the run-up to the elections. However, both parties go in with a chance. The Awami League has steered the country’s economy well. On the other hand, the ruling party’s crackdown on the Opposition and activists has also alienated large sections. Large-scale protests have taken place over the past year, one in favour of removing quotas in government jobs and the other against government corruption and inefficiency.
However, even before the polling, there are fears that the election itself might not be completely free and fair. The Opposition has alleged that the Election Comission has been partisan and that the government has conducted mass arrests of its leaders and workers. It has also accused Awami League workers as well as the police of stopping the Opposition from campaigning. A significant number of Bangladesh Nationalist Party candidates have also been disqualified outright, including party chief Khaleda Zia herself. As a result, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has no candidates in 17 seats. Journalists have also been banned from taking photos or video from inside polling booths, leading to fears that the Awami League might plan to stuff ballot boxes with fake votes.