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Election of the weekend: Bangladesh

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On Sunday, Bangladesh will hold their 12th general election since obtaining their independence from Pakistan in the early 1970’s, and the first major election of 2024. Having scrapped their experiment with semi-presidentialism in 1991, Bangladesh operates under a straight parliamentary system. Their parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad, is comprised of 300 member elected by via single member districts, first past the post, and 50 members (who, constitutionally, must all be women) elected by a proportional representation vote of the 300 successful SMD representatives. Bangladesh has been somewhat more faithful to Mr. Duverger’s law than their larger neighbor to the West, and their politics have been dominated by the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party; both big tent nationalist parties with the origins in the struggle against West Pakistani dominance. The Awami league is nominally left-leaning and the BNP more conservative, although it’s unclear just how much relevance those designations have today.

Since throwing off the shackles of Islamabad, Bangladesh has generally charted a more democratic and egalitarian political path than Pakistan, moving ahead in particular on questions concerning women’s rights and freedoms. While this hasn’t led to the kind of economic development boon one might have hoped for, the more democratic and open society in Bangladesh has now overtaken Pakistan on numerous key indicators from HDI to GDP per capita. Bangladesh is still a desperately poor country, but they’ve done some things reasonably well, and their more open and democratic politics compared to Pakistan has almost certainly played an important role. This praise should probably be more directed to their relative openness than the quality of their democracy, as their electoral politics have not been consistently open and honest. International observers generally consider only four of their eleven elections to have been free and fair, and the two most recent elections are not among those four.

Here’s a depressingly familiar refrain: Bangladesh is in the midst of a democratic decline, and fears that this election will further their slide into a one-party rule, quasi-authoritarian regime appear to be quite reasonable. After performing surprisingly well and obtaining an outright majority in the 2008 election, the Awami League has presided over and comfortably won the last two elections in 2013 and 2018, under conditions that are widely regarded as neither free nor fair. Opposition boycotts have also diminished the democratic quality of these elections. This is all happening again: Awami party, under the leadership of PM since 2009 Sheikh Hasina, is expected to retain massive supermajorities in an election few consider to be a serious threat to her ongoing rule:

The election has been described as a “sham” designed to cement Hasina’s rule by exiled opposition leader Tarique Rahman.

Rahman’s party staged a months-long protest campaign in 2023 demanding the prime minister’s resignation that saw at least 11 people killed and thousands of its supporters arrested.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse, he said it would be inappropriate to have his party participate in a vote with a “predetermined” outcome.

Rights groups warn the country of 170 million is heading for virtual one-party rule, while the United States, which sanctioned Bangladeshi security forces in 2021 over allegations of rights abuses, and other countries have also voiced their concerns about the conduct of this week’s vote.

Hasina, in power since 2009, has repeatedly vowed that the election would be credible, after observers said previous polls won by her party in 2014 and 2018 were marred by irregularities.

“Go to the polling stations and cast votes in the morning to show the world that we know how to hold the election in a free and fair manner,” she told a Saturday campaign rally.

On walls in Dhaka, the capital, slogans painted in red and blue exhorted voters to pick “Once again, Sheikh Hasina” and “Vote for the boat”, the symbol of her Awami League party, before campaigning wraps up on Friday.

With the ballot outcome all but assured, however, some voters see little reason to turn out.

Rahman is the corrupt scion of previous BNP PM Khaleda Zia (and his father was briefly president in the 70’s prior to his assassination). Rahman’s exile allows him to avoid legal consequences for his role in 2004 terrorist attack (the evidence for his role appears to leave room for doubt) and a money laundering scheme (he almost certainly did this one) for which he was convicted and sentenced to seven years incarceration in abstentia, so there wouldn’t really be an opposition worth rooting for at this point, even if there were not a boycott. I don’t know what, if anything, will reverse Bangladesh’s current trend of democratic erosion, but whatever it might be, but it’s hard to see an outcome in this election that would contribute to it.

This election will kick off a busy week in global elections, with Comoros, Bhutan, Taiwan, and Sint Maartin holding elections in the next week. The start of the semester may impede by ability to give each of them the full attention they deserve, but at minimum they’ll get a brief overview and thread.

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