Bangladesh in Hasina’s Fifth Term

As Hasina contends for a fifth term in Sunday’s elections in Bangladesh, she is poised to potentially become the world's longest-serving female ruler in modern history.

4 mins read
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (2nd, L) holds a media briefing at a polling station in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 7, 2024. (PID/Handout via Xinhua)

In the youngest nation in South Asia, the bitter political schism persists with indelible marks left by triumphant victors and desperate struggles of the defeated. The once united front against a common foe, embodied by the camaraderie between Sheikh Hasina Wazed and Khaleda Zia, has transformed into bitter enmity, highlighting the ephemeral nature of political alliances. Hasina’s call for youth leadership, following her proclaimed victory last time, paradoxically reveals the enduring appetite for power inherent in seasoned politicians. The offspring of these political figures seem destined to perpetuate a cycle of rivalry, sustaining the nation’s relentless struggle for supremacy amidst the underlying pathology of democracy.

Adding complexity to this narrative, akin to fractured democracies globally, is the erosion of the term “democratically elected” into a mere façade in Bangladesh. Free and fair elections, vital for democracy’s health, become cynically manipulated tools for leaders to enhance their public image while embracing autocratic tendencies once in power. Behind this charade, personal indulgences such as nepotism and opulent lifestyles flourish, stifling dissent and fostering a culture of sycophancy.

As Hasina manoeuvres for a fifth term, her earlier avowals of eschewing prolonged power crumble in the face of her persistent tenure. The troubling undercurrent of absolute power corrupting absolutely resonates with her wielded authority, casting shadows on Bangladesh’s democratic fabric. Caught between the orchestrated drama of elections and the disconcerting realities of unchecked power, the nation stands at a precarious juncture.

The lack of confidence by the main opposition, Bangladesh National Party (BNP), in Hasina’s ability to oversee a free and fair election has led to a demand for her resignation, aiming to pave the way for a caretaker government. However, this call has been met with a harsh government crackdown, resulting in the arrest of tens of thousands of BNP members and leading to several fatalities. The ensuing turmoil raises doubts about the legitimacy of elections in the global garments hub. In response to the opposition’s boycott, Hasina’s party scrambles to field independent or “dummy” candidates, a move dubbed as “competitive make-up” by analysts. While appearing fair on the surface, it ensures that the election holds no surprises for the Awami League.

However, Hasina’s leadership is a nuanced portrayal. In contrast to the domestic turmoil within the country, Bangladesh has attracted positive attention geopolitically. Strategic partnerships with India and China, recognition in the Indo-Pacific region, and acknowledgments from global leaders underscore its significance. Notable achievements include economic growth, social development, and transformative infrastructure projects. Initiatives such as Digital Bangladesh, advancements in women’s empowerment, and skilful diplomatic manoeuvring demonstrate a multifaceted approach.

Yet, these accomplishments exist against the backdrop of political polarisation and unrest, prompting a critical examination of Bangladesh’s democratic trajectory. The enduring neglect of Bengali political aspirations since the pre-1947 era compounds historical injustices, leading to post-independence disillusionment. Despite attempts at course correction, under Hasina’s leadership, Bangladesh’s democracy has veered away from its hopeful origins, raising questions about its future path.

Forged in the crucible of a heroic struggle for liberation in 1971, Bangladesh initially embraced the tenets of linguistic nationalism and democracy. However, the trajectory since Hasina’s rise to power has thrown shadows on this once-promising journey towards democratic ideals. In the face of historical struggles, Bangladesh grapples with the fervent demand for democracy colliding with the disconcerting realities of geopolitical power dynamics, giving rise to a precarious political landscape.

The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh birthed a Parliament with an unusual status — a ‘dominant executive and dormant legislature.’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman known as Bangabandhu, buoyed by unprecedented popularity, wielded absolute powers as the head of the party, parliament, and government. The absence of a formidable opposition accentuated this dominance, leaving only two opposition leaders in the parliament.

In an unexpected twist in 1974, Mujibur relinquished the party chief position to AHM Qamaruzzaman. The parliament, under the overwhelming majority of the Awami League, endorsed one-party rule through the 4th Amendment in January 1975. This constitutional shift granted the president supremacy over the executive, judiciary, and legislature, consolidating an all-powerful presidency. Tragically, Mujibur was assassinated in August 1975, ushering in a prolonged period of military rule.

The 1991 national elections marked a turning point, bringing the BNP to power and resurrecting the parliamentary form of government through the Twelfth Amendment. This restored executive powers to the prime minister, relegating the president to a constitutional head. However, concerns surfaced regarding the unchecked powers of the prime minister, often criticized as an “autocrat” and “presidential prime minister.”

Critics argue that the PM’s powers obstruct democratization, citing a lack of accountability and oversight. The PM’s office remains impervious to parliamentary committees, shielded from scrutiny. Article 70 further dissuades MPs from holding the PM accountable, creating a constraint on freedom of expression. This distortion of democratic principles has resulted in the accumulation of unchecked power, diverging sharply from the envisioned purpose of a great Bangladesh articulated by Mujibur Rahman. The ironic reality now portrays a ruler wielding unbridled power, a departure from the democratic ideals that were once fervently aspired.

As Bangladesh teeters on the brink of another electoral juncture, the potential repercussions of a fifth term under Hasina’s administration, one of only two surviving daughters of Bangabandu, who was murdered in August 1975 along with other family members, cast a foreboding shadow. Once a beacon of hope for democratic principles, the nation now confronts the daunting prospect of perpetuating a political landscape dominated by unchecked power in the face of a daughter of the nation’s founding father. The outcome of today’s election holds the pivotal potential to solidify a legacy marked by an unsettling concentration of authority, jeopardizing the democratic ideals for which Bangladesh ardently fought during its tumultuous journey to independence. The challenge ahead extends beyond mere electoral triumph; it hinges on the responsible wielding of power, infused with accountability and reverence for the democratic institutions anchoring the nation’s foundation.

The road ahead for Bangladesh extends beyond the confines of the ballot box, presenting a landscape fraught with challenges. The erosion of checks and balances, witnessed in preceding terms, poses a significant threat to the core principles of democracy. The stifling of dissent, suppression of opposition voices, and a lack of institutional oversight have sown seeds of discontent among the populace. To reclaim its democratic aspirations, Bangladesh must embark on a collective effort to restore equilibrium, fostering an environment where diverse voices not only find a platform but actively contribute to the nation’s progress. As the prospect of a fifth term looms, the nation stands at a crucial juncture, faced with the choice of transformative change or the continuation of a trajectory that risks compromising the very essence of democratic governance.

In a Daily Star piece, Prof. Ali Riaz envisions a sombre post-election scenario. He anticipates that the economic crisis, having deep roots, won’t vanish overnight, and the new government may not adopt policies to prevent further financial plundering. Riaz raises concerns about policies in the banking sector, suggesting that individuals who have benefited from past looting may influence decision-making. The burden of repaying loans incurred over the years for mega-projects and development symbols looms large, and the depreciation of the taka is expected to persist. Balancing economic partnerships and preserving national sovereignty is crucial for the nation’s stature. The profound impact of Hasina’s diplomatic decisions on the global stage could play a decisive role in shaping Bangladesh’s trajectory post-election.

Courtesy: Sunday Island – 7 January 2024

Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a founding editor of the Sri Lanka Guardian and has been the editor until 2018.

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