Bangladesh claims fair elections ahead, despite opposition boycott
The nation heads towards a controversial election with the top opposition party opting out, as the ruling party and election authorities insist the polls will be free and fair
In Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, election posters of the ruling Awami League and their allies line the roadsides and narrow alleys.
Sagarika Rani Das, a 35-year-old Awami supporter, and a small team are handing out party leaflets to people in the busy streets and tea stalls.
"We are encouraging people to come to the polling stations and vote," she said.
Bangladesh will embark on its 12th parliamentary elections on 7 January, with nearly 2,000 candidates from 28 political parties contending for 300 parliamentary seats.
However, voters will not be able to choose a candidate from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which boycotted the polls after the Awami League rejected demands that a neutral caretaker government preside over the general elections.
In the months leading up to the elections, authorities also cracked down on BNP leadership and supporters.
Ruling party claims participatory election
Despite the absence of the main opposition party, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party leaders insist that the elections will be representative and participatory, as 28 out of 44 registered parties are running in the elections.
However, according to results of previous elections, many of the smaller parties listed did not draw a significant share of votes, putting their relevance to the outcome of the 2024 election in question.
And out of the over 400 independent candidates running, some two-thirds of them are aligned with the Awami League, according to an election monitoring website run by the mass-circulation Prothom Alo newspaper.
"The participation of the opposition is a must. Otherwise, it is not a democratic election," Dewan Jubayer Islam, a voter from Dhaka, told DW.
According to M. Sakhawat Hossain, Bangladesh's former election commissioner from 2007 to 2012, in an ideal participatory election, there should be an uncertainty about getting elected.
"Everybody is trying to say if the people participate or the voters participate, it is a participatory election. No, it is not," he told DW.
"Unless there is a contest, unless there is a contest between parties, unless it is participatory in that sense, and you have multi-party participation, then the voter turnout will always be low, however you try," Hossain said.
Bangladesh's opposition cries foul
Bangladesh's last election in 2018 was beset by widespread allegations of vote rigging. An Awami-led alliance ended up with 96 per cent of seats in parliament.
This time around, the BNP alleges that approximately 20,000 of its members have been detained in the past few months on false charges. Tens of thousands of their supporters have taken to the streets in sporadic protests, which have often descended into violence.
With 78-year-old BNP leader Khaleda Zia currently living under house arrest and other party leaders behind bars or in exile, observers say Hasina's next term is practically guaranteed.
"This election is a non-election. This is a fiction," said senior BNP leader Abdul Moin Khan. "The results of the elections have already been worked out sitting in the capital," he told DW.
When asked why the BNP decided to boycott the polls, he said the party did not want to "legitimise this illegal, farcical and comical election of Awami League".
"Obviously, we always want to take part in genuine free, fair and participatory elections," he said.
Sheikh Hasina eyes fifth term
Sheikh Hasina is the world's longest-serving female head of government. Her first tenure as prime minister was in 1996. She was re-elected in 2009 and has been in power ever since.
Hasina has campaigned on signature economic achievements during her tenure, which include infrastructure projects such as Dhaka's metro rail, highways and the country's longest bridge, Padma bridge, which she inaugurated in 2021.
She has cast herself as the leader of an impoverished nation aspiring to become an upper middle-income country. During Hasina's leadership, the prevalence of extreme poverty in Bangladesh has significantly decreased.
However, since at least June 2022, Bangladesh has been under economic strain, partly attributed to the lingering economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine. Mismanagement within the financial sector has also played a role.
The Awami League election manifesto emphasizes job creation, with a commitment to social security and good governance as part of its core political agenda. The overarching goal is to establish a 'Smart Bangladesh' by 2041.
"If the country is able to extend opportunities to people, that is one of the essential ingredients of democracy," Mashiur Rahman, a former economic adviser to Hasina, told DW.
Despite Hasina and the Awami League's economic achievements, her tenure has also been marked by concerns of democratic backsliding and oppression of the political opposition.
"Maybe we think that if there are many people contesting for a vote, and there is a rotation of parties in power, then that is democracy," said Rahman.
"I would not say that is wrong, but I am a bit skeptical about it. When you want a radical transformation of society, it is not rotation, but stability that is more important," he added.