Pyrrhic Victory

The Awami League’s landslide win camouflages rising discontent in Bangladesh

Following the general election held on 30 December 2018, Sheikh Hasina Wazed was sworn in as prime minister for a third consecutive term. anupam nath / ap
01 February, 2019

The ease with which the Awami League won the Bangladesh general election on 30 December 2018 surpassed even its most optimistic expectations. The party won 288 of the 299 seats in the country’s parliament. Even dictators holding sham elections, such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, would have felt embarrassed at such a rout of the opposition. Sheikh Hasina Wazed was sworn in as prime minister for a third consecutive term. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, promptly congratulated her on her “resounding victory” and said the results indicated “Bangladesh’s stunning development under her dynamic leadership.” China, too, was quick to deem the election smooth and successful. And yet, this was nowhere near the dream victory it seemed on paper.

The ruling party’s campaign was marred by political intrigue, pre-poll violence and serious allegations of voter fraud. As Bangladesh went to vote, reports arrived from across the country of harassment and threats against opposition workers and candidates, as well as the defacing of opposition posters and banners and a deliberate slowdown of the internet, ostensibly to prevent the spread of rumours. At least seventeen people died in election-related violence.

After the results were declared, the opposition calling the election “farcical,” and a handful of opposition parliamentarians decided not to take the oath of office. What confounded experts is that the Awami League fared better than it did in the 2014 election. The opposition Bangladesh National Party had boycotted that election, because the Awami League had not let a caretaker government take over before the election to ensure neutrality, as was the norm in 2008. Several commentators said that since it seemed certain that the Awami League was going to win the election, such backhanded manoeuvres were ultimately unnecessary.

“Why produce nonsensical election results when polls indicated that Mrs. Hasina would likely have won a fair election handily?” the New York Times wrote in an editorial. “Mrs. Hasina’s every achievement will now be tainted by her authoritarian methods and repressive measures; her critics, driven into exile or underground, will become only more strident, and her foreign supporters more wary.”

Historically, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party tend to get about a third of the vote each—winning over the remaining 40 percent of swing voters is the real challenge. A confidential poll conducted by the non-profit International Republican Institute, and leaked later by an investigative blog, indicated that support for the Awami League was slipping rapidly, going from 49 percent in February 2016 to 25 percent in May 2018. While this was also true for the opposition, the share of “undecided” voters had intriguingly jumped from 25 percent to 62 percent during that period. This suggests that people were likely reluctant to be identified as opposition supporters, but that they no longer supported the Awami League. If these figures are accurate, then the outcome of the election could not have been guaranteed.

At any rate, the Awami League was not taking any chances. Reza Kibria, a former economist at the International Monetary Fund and an opposition candidate from Habiganj, received reports that ballot boxes had been taken to the homes of Awami League workers on the day before the election to be stuffed with favourable votes. Kibria tried in vain to reach the authorities for redress. When voting finally began, Kibria said his polling agents were first barred from entering the voting booths to verify if the ballot boxes were empty. Once they gained entry, some of them reported that many boxes were full. Kibria visited a few polling booths himself and spoke to the officials present there. “They were silent and they kept looking at the ground,” he told me over the telephone. “It was blatant demonstration of state power.” By noon, he received reports that nearly a hundred and fifty booths in his constituency were compromised, out of a total of 176. “There was no point in keeping track,” he added.

By early afternoon, many polling centres across the country wore a deserted look and some candidates had begun to withdraw.

Hedait Hossain Molla, a journalist with the Dhaka Tribune, was arrested for reporting on this. Rashid Hasan, a reporter for New Age, found that at one centre, CCTV cameras had had their lenses upturned or taped over. In Rangpur, a family of five told an expert, who preferred anonymity, that they were told not to bother to vote, as their votes had already been cast.

The leaders of the Awami League have denied allegations of fraud.

Poll-rigging was only one part of the problem. There was an alarming rise in intimidations and harassment of opposition leaders in the run-up to the election. On 15 December, Mahbub Uddin Khokon, the BNP joint general secretary and an opposition candidate in the general election, was shot at, and had a pellet hit his chin. He had just ended a political rally in the town of Sonaimuri, his constituency and a stronghold for the BNP, where he had won in 2008. Forty of his supporters, including his secretary, were injured. “My father turned around to run away, and he was hit at six places on his back,” his 30-year-old son, Saqueb Mahbub, who is a barrister in Dhaka, told me. HM Ibrahim, Khokon’s Awami League rival, dismissed any charges of harrassing the latter. “His own party people must have fired at him,” he told Reuters.

Khokon was the target of repeated attacks. In Joyag, a loudspeaker-fitted autorickshaw campaigning for him was tossed into a pond. This was the same town where Mohandas Gandhi once marched for peace and set up an ashram to try and defuse communal violence before India’s independence. Later, armed men damaged Khokon’s car and two other campaign vehicles. “It was clear we could no longer campaign,” Saqueb added.

Kamal Hossain, the 81-year-old leader of the opposition alliance, along with other leaders, walked out of a meeting with the chief election commissioner, saying that the commission had acted inappropriately. Hossain himself had been attacked when he went to a monument to pay homage to the martyred intellectuals of the 1971 Liberation War, which secured Bangladesh’s independence.

The Awami League thought the economic growth that Bangladesh has seen in recent years would give it the winning narrative among most voters. There has certainly been large infrastructure spending, but the efficiency of the expenditure is questionable. It costs significantly more to build a new road in Bangladesh than in India, making some people wonder whether money is being siphoned off. There are serious concerns of capital flight, and deficits are rising, since garment exports, a major source of foreign capital, are not rising fast enough. MK Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, wrote that the government had “a good record in executing the development agenda,” as the gross domestic product growth had risen from 5.57 percent in 2009-10 to 7.28 percent in 2016-17, and per capita income from $500 to nearly $1,800 over the same time. But this growth, critics say, has primarily benefited businesses linked with the ruling party, without creating many jobs. Young job-seekers are increasingly frustrated, which explains the massive demonstrations earlier this year against preferential quotas for underprivileged groups.

A crackdown on dissent—including a draconian law for digital security, and more frequent charges of sedition and defamation against journalists—has cast a chill. At least a hundred and thirty people have died in extrajudicial killings in a so-called war on drugs, and many political opponents have disappeared. In this environment, even relatively minor incidents can bring the country to a standstill. In July, when two students were killed in a traffic accident, thousands of students poured out of their campuses, stopping all vehicles to examine if the drivers had their papers in order—in effect, performing a role that the state seemed to have abdicated. The youth wing of the ruling party attacked the students. Shahidul Alam, an award-winning photographer and writer, filmed the protests. He was arrested under the Digital Security Act, for “hurting the image of the nation,” after he gave an interview that was critical of the government on Al Jazeera. Alam was in jail for over a hundred days, and released on bail only after protracted court procedures. On polling day, he was roughed up when he went to take photographs. “In the past we have been intimidated, repressed and robbed,” Alam told me. “But this election is the greatest indignity we have faced. It is a slap in the face of the millions who have sacrificed for this land. It is an insult to the nation. We need to win back our dignity.”

“Further shrinking of democratic space will create anarchy,” Hasan told me. With a weakened opposition and a ruling party determined to establish total dominance, frustrated youth may lose faith in the system, turning to extremist ideologies. Bangladesh has a complex relationship with its own history. Bangladeshis fought for freedom from Pakistan in 1971 fuelled by a nationalism based as much on Islam, which most of them shared with the majority of their erstwhile countrymen, as on the Bengali language, which the Pakistani government had repressed. The Awami League, which led the freedom struggle along with the armed group Mukti Bahini, professed a syncretic identity, which embraced secularism and Islam. But after a coup in 1975, in which Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (also considered Bangladesh’s founding father) was assassinated, successive military regimes gradually made Bangladesh more Muslim than Bengali by changing laws.

There are differences between the secularism espoused by the Awami League and the BNP’s nationalism, which is more assertive about the nation’s Islamic roots. But the difference is becoming one of degree, not of kind. The BNP has been an ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party, which had opposed Bangladeshi independence, and the Awami League has set up war-crime tribunals that have sentenced several Jamaat leaders to death over their role in the 1971 war. But in the past, the Awami League has worked with the Jamaat, and at present is allied with another fundamentalist organisation, Hefazat-e-Islam. Participative, inclusive democracy can be the strongest antidote to fundamentalism. But a discredited and disputed election can erode faith in democracy. Hasina’s re-election to office may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory, presaging prolonged uncertainty where a tiny spark can unleash a wild fire.