Bangladesh Elections: Will Any ‘Fair’ Elections Play Out Between AL And BNP?

Outlook looks at how the Bangladesh election would play out in 2023 and its larger impact on the diplomatic ties between Sheikh Hasina’s government and the West as well as India. 

People walk along a street decorated with election posters ahead of the 7 January national elections

Two main parties in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League (AL) and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by former prime minister Khalida Zia are set to see a tough battle at the 12th Parliamentary elections on Saturday, January 7. Following a political tiff between the two parties, BNP, led by ailing former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has once more boycotted the elections, as it did during the 2014 elections.Hasina, 76, has been in power for the past 15 years, making her the country’s longest-serving leader. Hasina’s tenure has been marked by allegations of authoritarian rule, targeting of the opposition, the suppression of people’s rights, and large-scale vote rigging in elections held to keep her in power. On the other hand, Zia, 78, was jailed for more than two years over corruption charges and was moved to house arrest over health concerns in 2020. However, she denies the allegation, saying her conviction was politically motivated.

The Bangladesh Parliament called Jyatio Shangshad has a total of 350 seats among which 300 seats are selected by public vote and the rest 50 are reserved for women who are voted by the ruling parties and coalitions.Amid a boycott by the BNP and its allies, a total of 28 parties are contesting in the elections this year, with 10 candidates from the Ganatantrik Party cleared for the race by the court after their candidacies were cancelled. A total of 1,970 candidates are in the fray for the election with 434 party aspirants and 1,536 independents.Historically, Bangladesh has seen high-stakes elections which have been bitterly contested where the incumbent has been alleged to have strong temptations to use the state machinery to sway the results. Over the past few months, Bangladesh has witnessed heightened tensions and violence in the run-up to the elections. Several opposition leaders have been arrested leading to much bloodshed. In October, the country saw one of the biggest gatherings attracting tens and thousands of people, led by BNP, in the capital city of Dhaka. However, the protest soon turned violent when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas while opposition supporters threw stones and bricks. Some roads in the capital were strewn with exploded sound grenades, tear gas shells and broken glass.

BNP has maintained its stance that free and fair elections under Hasina’s rule is never possible hence calling for a caretaker government. Further, the international media’s coverage of Bangaldesh’s politics has conceded such a belief and claim by focusing on the Awami League’s slide toward authoritarian rule and doubts over whether elections held under the regime will be free and fair.

Between 1991 and 2008, four elections were held under a caretaker government in Bangladesh whereby a non-partisan, technocratic administration would conduct the polls. During this time, power would alternate between AL and BNP.However, the AL came back to power with a thumping victory in 2009 and actively demolished the caretaker system in 2011 prompting the opposition BNP to boycott the 2014 elections. With a low voter turnout, Hasina grabbed a majority and came back for the second term where 153 of 300 MPs were returned unopposed for the government.

In 2014, the BNP returned to the elections expecting fair play. However, according to reports, with ballot boxes stuffed the previous night and orchestrated violence by AL activists around the country, voting was effectively over by the polling day morning.

A similar situation is being expected once more this year with the BNP boycotting the elections, making the way for Hasina to lead one more term.

Since the 2014 elections, discontentment has also grown among Bangladeshis in the country and abroad with allegations that no credible elections have been held in the past 15 years with an economy grappling since mid-2022. Low-income groups have suffered the worst hit. Human rights groups have also come out to condemn the violence by members of Bangladeshi security forces with the US enacting sanctions against them. In 2023, the US also blocked visas of Bangladeshi officials and their family members, found to undermine credible elections.

In this context, Outlook looks at how the Bangladesh election plays out in 2023 and its larger impact on the diplomatic ties between Hasina’s government and the West as well as India.