Unlevelled Playing Field: Sheikh Hasina Looks Set For 5th Term

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has effectively turned Bangladesh into a one-party state, has accelerated the country’s slide towards authoritarianism by doubling down on the suppression of opponents in the run-up to the polls in January

Sheikh Hasina has effectively turned Bangladesh into a one-party state and accelerated the country's slide towards authoritarianism

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, 76, has stepped up her campaign ahead of national elections in January 2024. If voted back to power, it will be her record fifth term. She is already the world’s longest-serving female leader, whose supporters credit her for Bangladesh’s transformation from a poor nation to one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.

Sheikh Hasina launched a flurry of infrastructure projects in the run-up to the polls. In June 2022, she inaugurated Bangladesh’s longest bridge built over the Padma at the cost of $3.6bn after years of delay due to allegations of corruption. The 6.15km double-layer steel truss bridge connects Dhaka to Bangladesh’s underdeveloped southwest via a four-lane highway on one level and a single-track railway on another.

The bridge has been described as an ‘engineering marvel’ over the most treacherous river after the Amazon in South America. It has the thickest and deepest piling in the world driven 400 feet into the river bed. Modern friction pendulum bearings were used for the first time in the world for the bridge to support the steel superstructure and the concrete pier foundation. The bridge can hence withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake besides sustaining over 10,000 tonnes exceeding the limit of any other structure globally.

In September 2023, Sheikh Hasina unveiled an 11km elevated $1bn expressway over Dhaka’s traffic-clogged streets. A new airport terminal and an underwater tunnel road were also key to her infrastructure push ahead of the elections.

The Pushback

Sheikh Hasina is facing a growing pushback over her Awami League government’s focus on mega infrastructure projects. Her critics say the priorities are misplaced amid rising inflation that has taken the shine off what has been described as Bangladesh’s economic miracle. She has also drawn flak over her failure to address basic things—education, health, freedom of expression, and human rights.

Question marks remain over Bangladesh’s ability to maintain its growth rate as it has remained dependent on imports amid a failure to diversify the economy. The over six percent annual gross domestic product growth has largely been on the back of the garment sector, which accounts for about 85% of Bangladesh’s exports. The sector is the world’s second-largest after China. It has generated millions of jobs and helped reduce the poverty rate by half to about 20% since 2008.

The foreign debt has doubled since 2016. Dhaka was in 2023 forced to take a $3.3bn International Monetary Fund loan. In August 2023, food inflation hit a decade-high of 13% even as it cooled globally. Experts have warned of a further rise in inflation and accumulated debt. Bangladesh’s foreign reserves have declined, prompting credit rating agency Fitch and financial market indices creator S&P to revise the outlook on Bangladesh’s debt negatively.

Brewing Anger

An Asia Foundation survey in August confirmed brewing public discontent. Only 25% of respondents felt Bangladesh was heading in the right economic direction. Soaring prices have angered the poorer sections of society for whom mega-projects make little sense as they find it difficult to make ends meet.

The projects have increasingly come to define Bangladesh’s growing inequality. Sheikh Hasina’s showpiece 11km elevated Dhaka expressway, which soars over a slum near its start, is off-limits for an average citizen’s mode of transportation—motorbikes and auto rickshaws. The country’s poor feel excluded from the country’s development.

Alleged corruption under Sheikh Hasina’s rule has fuelled anger and led to anti-government protests. In 2012, the World Bank withdrew from a $1.2bn loan agreement for the Padma Bridge over allegations of corruption. Asian Development Bank and Japan International Cooperation Agency followed suit. This prompted Hasina to announce the self-funding of the bridge despite doubts as Bangladesh lacked experience in executing a mega project without the backing of multilateral donors. The project cost rose to almost three times the initial estimate of $1.2bn amid the devaluation of Bangladeshi currency Taka.

Winning By Hook Or By Crook

A faltering economy and misgovernance are unlikely to end Sheikh Hasina’s rule. She has continued to unlevel the political playing field. Her crackdown on political opponents ahead of the polls has followed a pattern of unfair electoral processes. The economic mismanagement has coincided with the weakening of democracy and institutions. The government has increasingly resorted to repression against journalists, rights activists, and political opponents.

The leaders of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have been slapped with cases and arrested. Sheikh Hasina has refused to hand over power to a caretaker government for free and fair elections and promoted BNP to refuse to contest the polls.

Sheikh Hasina in 2011 amended the constitution to abolish a provision for a non-partisan caretaker government to supervise fair elections despite the BNP’s opposition. BNP boycotted the election that followed in 2014. In the run-up to the 2018 polls, BNP leader Khaleda Zia was jailed for five years for corruption.

Like the previous polls, Sheikh Hasina appears to be adamant about winning another term by hook or by crook as she has effectively turned Bangladesh into a one-party state. Low voter turnout and allegations of manipulation marred the polls in 2014 and 2018 when Hasina was reelected for the second time. In July, BNP held a protest and blocked a highway in Dhaka demanding Hasina’s resignation.

Slide Towards Authoritarianism

Sheikh Hasina appears set for another term in power by accelerating Bangladesh’s slide towards authoritarianism. She has plunged BNP into disarray through relentless slapping of cases. The suppression has grown in the run-up to the polls.

Ahead of the 2018 polls, Bangladesh’s parliament approved a bill to regulate online publishing and social media. The vague clauses of the legislation provided for prison terms of up to 14 years for those spreading ‘propaganda’ about the 1971 war, which led to Bangladesh’s creation. Another clause outlawed what was described as ‘aggressive or frightening’ content.

Sheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009, justified the legislation saying it was important to prevent radicalism and pornography amid fears that it could be weaponised against journalists. The Economist noted the bill was not the government’s only weapon. It added newspaper editors who publish unfavourable articles have been charged repeatedly with sedition and defamation with one facing over 80 lawsuits at one point.

In August 2018, photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested for ‘spreading false information’ after he spoke out in support of students protesting against Dhaka’s unsafe traffic. The Economist reported the government orchestrated complaints to Facebook about posts criticizing its handling of the protests, prompting the social media company to ask some users to delete the offending posts even as the firm said it should not have happened.

The government accused Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha of corruption while he was abroad and forced him to resign without returning to Bangladesh in 2017. This came after the Supreme Court nullified a constitutional n amendment that in 2014 made it easier for the government to dismiss judges. Sinha’s autobiography published a year after his unceremonous ouster accused the ruling Awami League of attempting to intimidate judges.

An ‘anti-drugs campaign’ in 2018 claimed around 200 lives. The government claimed most of the deaths were caused by resistance to arrests or crossfire. The Economist cited a recording by the family of one of the unarmed victims suggesting he was shot with his hands tied in police custody. The opposition accused the government of using the crackdown to kill opponents.

The Global Outcry

The growing global concern over Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarianism was reflected in the American move to impose visa restrictions on an unspecified number of Bangladeshis for undermining the election process. Washington said the move reflected ‘concerns where we see actions that undermine democracy and human rights in Bangladesh’. In 2021, the US slapped sanctions on a Bangladesh police unit accused of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

The authoritarianism has sullied Bangladesh’s image which improved significantly thanks to the global attention it drew for its seeming rapid economic growth and sheltering of over a million refugees from neighboring Myanmar. The country appeared to be scripting a success story after embracing electoral democracy in the 1990s following military rule.

The return to democracy coincided with the pulling of 15 million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2021. The overall poverty rate was cut in half since 2000 as manufacturing flourished in the world’s eighth most populous country, whose slide into authoritarianism threatens to reverse the gains.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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