Hasina wins fifth term as Bangladesh PM after opposition boycotts vote

Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has won office for a fifth term, in an election that was overshadowed by a ruthless crackdown on the opposition and low voter turnout.

The election commission announced in the early hours of Monday that Hasina’s ruling Awami League had won a fourth consecutive term, winning almost 75% of the seats. It will be her fifth term as prime minister as she had previously ruled between 1996 and 2001, before coming back to power in 2009.

Hasina’s Awami league candidates faced almost no effective rivals after the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted Sunday’s vote and called a general strike, describing it as “sham election”.

In the months leading up to the election, tens of thousands of BNP leaders and rank and file members had been arrested en masse and kept in terrible conditions in overcrowded prisons, while opposition protests were met with heavy police violence. At least nine BNP leaders and supporters have died in jail in the past three months, according to the opposition.

As she cast her vote on Sunday, Hasina, 76, had insisted that the election was “free, fair and neutral” and tried to play down the opposition boycott, calling the BNP a “terrorist organisation”.

Speaking to reporters after her victory was announced, Hasina called the vote a “victory of the people”.

She added: “Each political party has right to take decision, absence of one party in election does not mean democracy is absent…time and again people have voted for me, and that is why I am here.”

Hasina has presided over breakneck economic growth and a booming garment export industry in the country of 170 million people once beset by grinding poverty, but her government has been accused by human rights groups and political opponents of rampant human rights abuses and pushing the country towards authoritarian one-party rule.

Hasina has denied allegations of authoritarianism and on the election trail claimed her policies has put the country on a pathway of stability, secularism and economic development. Hasina’s government has long denied any involvement in human rights abuses.

The BNP had called for the election to be held under a caretaker government to ensure it was not rigged. As the results were announced, BNP leaders came out in unison to condemn the polls.

Tarique Rahman, the BNP chairman who lives in exile in London due to corruption allegations against him that he denies as politically motivated, said: “What unfolded was not an election, but rather a disgrace to the democratic aspirations of Bangladesh.” He alleged had seen “disturbing pictures and videos” backing his claims.

Rumeen Farhana, one of the few BNP MPs who has not been jailed, called it a “dummy election”, adding: “There was no uncertainty, no thrill, no choice before the votes to choose their representatives. Voters did not have any role to play. Bangladesh will be a de facto one party state after this election.”

Sporadic incidents of violence erupted across the country in the days prior to the election, including an arson attack on a train in the capital Dhaka which killed four people and on polling day on Sunday, over 800,000 police were deployed across the country.

On election day, BNP supporters in Chattogram were hit with teargas and rubber bullets as they attempted to blockade roads in support of the strike, and in Dhaka, a crude bomb explosion occurred near a polling station, injuring three people.

Voting at several polling centres was also halted voting due to allegations of election fraud, conflict, and forced ballot stuffing, the same alleged irregularities and rigging that marred the two previous elections that brought Hasina to power.

The crackdown on the opposition and the alleged forgone nature of the polls appeared to have a significant impact on voter turnout. As the polls closed at 4pm, the chief election commissioner, Kazi Habibul Awal, stated that the voter turnout was “about 28%”. However, this figure was promptly revised during the briefing by other officials, who corrected it to about 40%, half the turnout of the previous election in 2018.

Voter apathy was evident in polling centres which were strikingly deserted on election day.

Shamsuddin, 47, who only used one name, was among those who chose not to vote. “Participating in this election was pointless,” he said. “It’s essentially a farce since it seems every candidate is somehow connected to the same party. The masses have rejected this mock election. This was a essentially the death festival for Bangladesh’s democracy”

Arpita Dam, 28, did chose to vote but said she was one of the few who had. “I noticed a general reluctance towards this election among the common people,” she said. “Even my rickshaw driver gave me a disapproving look when he saw the voting mark on my thumb while dropping us home from the polling centre.”

Countries, including the US, had exerted pressure on Hasina’s government in the build up to the elections to ensure that the polls were carried out fairly, and Washington had imposed visa restrictions on several Bangladeshi officials for allegedly “undermining the democratic process”.

Since Bangladesh was established in 1971, politics has largely been dominated by the same two parties; the Awami League, which was begun by Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was the founding prime minister of the country and was assassinated, and the BNP, which was founded by Gen. Ziaur Rahman, an army leader who came to power after a coup but was also assassinated. The BNP is still officially led by his widow, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, who is in ailing health and remains under house arrest.

Meenakshi Ganguly, from Human Rights Watch, said on Sunday that the government had failed to reassure opposition supporters that the polls would be fair. She warned that “many fear a further crackdown” after the results were announced.