Democracy did not die in Bangladesh in December. It has been long dead here and is unlikely to be resurrected. This is why the results of the 11th General Elections were predictable. The only surprise was that despite winning an unprecedented third consecutive term with over 83% of the national vote and 96% of the parliamentary seats, Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League did not paint the town red. This is in stark contrast to the audacity the ruling party has displayed in manufacturing a heavily one-sided election result, which is scarcely believable.
The polls, held on December 30, were scheduled for that time of the year when foreign governments and the media are in a reflective mood or on holiday, busy crafting a positive message for the new year.
The two main players in this election were Awami League, the party in power for the last decade in which rights and freedoms have been severely curtailed, and the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which had boycotted the 2014 parliamentary elections but contested this election as part of the Jatiya Oiyka Front, a coalition with civil society groups. During the election campaign, there were widespread reports of repression of all Opposition members, not just leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiya Oikya Front.
In the run-up to the polls, ostensibly to control the narrative, the government imposed internet blackouts and draconian laws curbing freedoms of speech and expression. Strict restrictions were also imposed on the press. This, however, was not necessary for several newspapers and television channels, which have been government cheerleaders for a while now because members of the ruling Awami League own them.
Despite the government’s attempt to control information, multiple reports of electoral rigging in favour of the ruling party surfaced, with the foreign press also witnessing a few such instances. There were allegations that ballot boxes had been pre-stuffed, ballot papers had been pre-marked, and that in some polling stations votes were only being registered for Awami League candidates. Opposition candidates in constituency after constituency comprising hundreds of thousands of voters inexplicably polled a fraction of votes, sometimes numbering less than 1,000. In short, the ruling party efficiently used state machinery and its party cadres to reach a level of electoral success that is the envy of autocrats the world over.
After the controversial 2014 elections, which saw the lowest turnout in Bangladeshi history – officially 38% but some estimates go as low as 22%, with more than half the seats won unopposed – India was instrumental in garnering international acceptability for the Awami League government.
New Delhi has not concealed its continued unconditional support for Hasina since. Ahead of this election, vast swathes of the Indian media stated that the incumbent was the best choice, making Awami League propaganda fact beyond Bangladesh’s borders through repetition. Indian diplomats, bureaucrats and dignitaries unreservedly espoused the virtues of the ruling party for months last year. Election observers from India, alongside those from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, a few other regional countries, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, ratified the election as being credible.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Hasina once the incredible results were announced, closely followed by the chief ministers of West Bengal and Tripura, which border Bangladesh.
The West looks away
Western countries have continued to turn a blind eye to the Awami League’s authoritarianism, maintaining functioning diplomatic and trade relations. Though they had condemned the controversial 2014 election, no action followed their words. Bangladesh did not become a pariah state then, and, with Western hypocrisy and its lie of liberal democracy being exposed worldwide in the years since, it will not now.
Indeed, the West that cooperated with Bangladesh’s military dictators in the 1970s and 1980s saw its legitimacy further erode due to its soft power intervention during the oppressive civil society-backed military regime that ruled Bangladesh between 2007 and 2009. The Awami League has exploited this fact since it assumed power in Dhaka in 2009, promulgating a populist neo-nationalism.
Moreover, western geopolitical manoeuvres and interests have been beaten into a retreat in a region that has become a battlefield between India and China. Therefore, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son and heir apparent, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, told the foreign press three days before election day that his mother wore the authoritarian label as a “badge of honour”, this was not only proof positive that Bangladesh is indeed an autocracy, but that there is no will or pressure from other countries to change it. Human rights and fundamental freedoms are not on the agenda, parroting and agreeing with the Awami League’s false narratives of development and opposing Islamism are.
Citizens must act
Disenfranchisement of citizens has happened steadily since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and exponentially in the last decade. If this is to be reversed, if real democracy and development are to be attained, then the people have to reclaim their power.
Hope lies in the youth, workers, indigenous peoples, religious minorities and progressives, all of whom have protested against Awami League during its decade-long rule. All of them are brutally oppressed. It is incumbent upon domestic and foreign members of civil society and the media to heed their consciences and become allies and champions of these groups. This will be harder to do now than it was in 2014, since the government is more secure and authoritarian, and the environment is infinitely more hostile towards organising, collectivising and developing progressive and peaceful civil disobedience movements.
However, unless Bangladeshis stop wasting their time expecting saviours and easy solutions, and start investing in the seemingly impossible work of claiming their rights, change will not come. A broken system cannot be relied upon or used to fix itself, and democracy should never be equated to elections alone. The only good to come from this General Election was confirmation that the government is authoritarian, and the existing political players, which includes a self-seeking civil society, are inept at serving democracy. What Bangladesh chooses to do with this reaffirmation will determine its future.