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Bangladesh: troubled elections
  • Sheikh Hasina
    Sheikh Hasina
"I am doing my best to make sure that democracy in this country can continue." So spoke Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh's premier for the fifth time, who was elected virtually in a plebiscite: in fact, according to the Election Commission, Hasina's party would gain 223 seats out of the 300 available in Parliament, while the other available seats would in fact all go to parties allied with Hasina's party, the Awami League. The eldest daughter of the country's founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina was first elected to power in in 1996. She then lost the 2001 election to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia, widow of a former Bangladeshi president, to finally regain power in 2009 and hold it tightly ever since. Under the elderly woman's leadership, Bangladesh has gone from being a very poor country to one of the fastest growing economies in the region. Its per capita income has tripled in the past decade, and the World Bank estimates that more than 25 million people have moved out of poverty in the past 20 years. Using both domestic funds and international development assistance loans and funds, Hasina's government has undertaken huge infrastructure projects, including the $2.9 billion flagship Padma Bridge over the Ganges, and attracted billions in foreign investment to the country, specializing in garment manufacturing. It has become the world's second-largest garment manufacturer after China. The economy has been squeezed, however, by Covid-generated shutdowns: stagnant wages in the garment sector, which accounts for about 85 percent of the country's $55 billion in annual exports, triggered unrest and strikes late last year that saw some factories burned and hundreds more shut down. Sharp hikes in the cost of food and continued blackouts in 2022 have cost the premier's government dearly in terms of popularity. Critics also claim that economic success has come at the expense of democracy and human rights and argue that Hasina's government has been characterized by authoritarian and repressive measures against her political opponents, government critics, and the free press. And indeed, Mrs. Hasina's concept of democracy is at least peculiar. The election campaign was marked by violence of all kinds, and, according to the opposition, many were forced to vote for the Awami League under threat of the withdrawal of the card used to secure various social benefits. Thousands of Bangladesh National Party members were arrested en masse, and the party effectively boycotted the elections. On the other hand, Khaleda Zia is house arrest on various corruption charges, while her son Tarique Rahman leads the party from exile. Rahman was sentenced to life in prison in absentia for orchestrating a grenade attack on an election rally by Hasina in 2004. Hasina also had Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, arrested for corruption not long ago. By now, rather than a prime minister, the lady looks like a ruler with absolute power. On the other hand, since the early 1990s Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two queens: Hasina, and Khaleda Zia, who have adopted the same de facto iron fist with opponents and friends. The real problem is not really Sheikh Hasina's umpteenth electoral victory, rigged or not: it is the fact that, apart from two elderly ladies who loathe each other, there is no generational replacement or alternative political class in the country. That the next elections, without the two ladies, could throw the country into chaos with no real winners. And that at this latitude, out of chaos without winners usually emerges a savior in uniform.