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.