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Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina Re-Elected To Controversial Fourth Straight Term

Sheikh Hasina Wazed was elected to her fourth consecutive and fifth overall term as prime minister of Bangladesh on January 8 in an election marred with controversy and boycotted by the primary opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Critics have accused Sheikh Hasina’s government of using authoritarian measures to suppress free speech and dissent, causing democratic backsliding. The Awami League-led government denies these claims and says that neutral observers certified the election as legitimate.  

A Tumultuous Political Career

Sheikh Hasina has been active in Bangladeshi politics since the country’s 1982 military coup that followed the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman the previous year. At that time, she had recently been elected the leader of the centre-left Awami League. President Ziaur Rahman had also allowed her to return to Bangladesh from her exile in India, where she had lived since a previous military coup in 1975 killed most of her family, including her father, Bangladeshi independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. During the military regime of the 1980s, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League agitated against the authoritarian government of Hussain Muhammad Ershad alongside the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Ziaur Rahman’s widow Khaleda Zia. 

Anti-government protests reached their zenith in 1990, bringing about the downfall of the Ershad regime and the restoration of parliamentary democracy; Khaleda Zia’s BNP fairly won the initial elections in 1991. However, the unity between the AL and BNP shattered after a 1994 by-election, which saw the BNP accused of rigging, bringing about a crisis in which the opposition parties’ members of parliament resigned in droves. The opposition parties boycotted the February 1996 general election, demanding another election under a caretaker government. This request was granted in June of that year, resulting in an AL victory and the beginning of Sheik Hasina’s first term as prime minister.

The first Hasina ministry saw modest economic growth, the end of the long-running insurgency in Chittagong, the implementation of social security measures, and the privatization of the telecommunications industry, among other notable events. Her term ended in 2001 with the victory of the BNP-led Four Party Alliance, who took power despite accusations of rigging from Sheikh Hasina and her party. 

Sheikh Hasina would serve as leader of the opposition from 2001 to 2008, witnessing an uptick of political violence that killed several AL members in 2004 and another military takeover that forced her into exile in the US and UK for several months in 2007. She would subsequently lead her party to victory in the 2008 general election, beginning her second premiership, which has continued into the present day. 

Democratic Difficulties

The second Hasina ministry has faced considerable controversy and multiple opposition boycotts and incidents of political violence, especially after abolishing the requirement for general elections to be held under a neutral caretaker government. The BNP and its allies have accused Hasina’s government of rigging elections, suppressing opposition, and conducting extrajudicial murders. 

The height of anti-AL sentiment was in 2014 when political violence led to over 300 deaths at the hands of both opposition demonstrators and the government; the former organised road blockades, bombings, and burnings of polling stations. The latter utilized military and paramilitary forces to arrest, forcibly disappear, and kill opposition figures, placing former BNP prime minister Khaleda Zia under house arrest.

While elections in later years did not reach the heights of violence that 2014 did, international observers and opposition parties consider them neither free nor fair. Turnout has fluctuated considerably, from a low of 20-40%  in 2014 to a high of 80% in 2018; the latest 2024 election’s turnout is in dispute, with the Chief Election Commissioner retracting his initial claims of 28 %turnout in favour of a new total of 40%. The BNP has boycotted all elections except 2014, leaving the Jatiya Party as the AL’s primary electoral opposition. 

The BNP is not without controversy themselves. They were long allied to the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, who were banned from contesting elections in 2013. Jamaat, as they are known, collaborated with Pakistani forces during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, assisting in massacres of pro-independence groups and intellectuals. However, the modern leadership of the party has distanced themselves from their prior anti-independence stance. Pro-opposition Islamist groups also carried out attacks on Hindu communities during the 2014 violence outbreak.

New Troubles Ahead

The 2024 election follows protests against inflation and price hikes resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine,coupled with a government shutdown of the BNP newspaper Dainik Dinkal. With  diminished currency reserves due to these price hikes, a history of political violence and repression by the ruling party, and  a resilent opposition, Bangladesh is poised to face further political  challenges during Sheikh Hasina’s latest term.


Image credits: Naveen Jora via Wikimedia, Mohammad Ponir Hussain via Reuters

Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke

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