China and India unfazed by Bangladesh's one-sided elections

Bangladesh’s ruling government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was easily returned to power on 7 January. While the US has often criticised Bangladesh's elections as not being free and fair, its close neighbours China and India seem prepared to focus on Bangladesh’s strategic value in increasing their regional influence.
Supporters of Islami Andolan Bangladesh party attend a protest rally demanding to abolish what they call a "dummy election" and to reorganise a free and fair election under the caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 9 January 2024. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)
Supporters of Islami Andolan Bangladesh party attend a protest rally demanding to abolish what they call a "dummy election" and to reorganise a free and fair election under the caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 9 January 2024. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina clinched her fourth straight term in office on 8 January 2024 during the 12th parliamentary elections. The ruling party Awami League won 222 seats in a 298-seat parliament, while independent candidates secured 62 seats and the Jatiya Party won 11 seats.

The country saw the lowest turnout in the last fifty years of its political history, with merely 40% of people using their adult franchise. However, the elections garnered global attention for all the wrong reasons, mainly due to the absence of a credible opposition against the ruling Awami League. 

Significantly, the arch-rival of the Awami League and second-largest political party of Bangladesh — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — boycotted the elections for the second time as almost all its leading leaders have been jailed, placed under house arrest or put under legal restrictions that prevent them from contesting.

Due to the absence of strong opposition, the polls were termed a “shadow” election. The BNP also called Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina “authoritarian” and the elections “illegal” and “undemocratic”. In the past, the Awami League and BNP won in alternate elections and took turns forming the government, but the country has witnessed single-party rule in the past ten years. 

... Bangladesh’s population was catastrophically divided between fundamentalists and liberals, with the Awami League presenting a syncretic and liberal voice and the BNP sporting a fundamentalist Islamic outlook.

Dominance of the Awami League

Formerly known as East Pakistan, Bangladesh is located in the Bay of Bengal and has a population of 174 million people. Bangladesh won its freedom from Pakistan in 1971 after a blood-spattered war which saw thousands of ethnic Bengalis being killed by the Pakistani Army.

Soon after it achieved its freedom, Bangladesh’s population was catastrophically divided between fundamentalists and liberals, with the Awami League presenting a syncretic and liberal voice and the BNP sporting a fundamentalist Islamic outlook. 

Sheikh Hasina, the newly elected Prime Minister of Bangladesh and Chairperson of Bangladesh Awami League, gestures during a meeting with foreign observers and journalists at the Prime Minister's residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 8 January 2024. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)
Sheikh Hasina, the newly elected prime minister of Bangladesh and chairperson of the Bangladesh Awami League, gestures during a meeting with foreign observers and journalists at the Prime Minister's residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 8 January 2024. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Because the Awami League leaders, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also known as the father of the nation, were at the forefront of the freedom war and had sacrificed their lives, the party became the de facto popular choice of the majoritarian liberals. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, continues to lead the party unchallenged at the age of 76. 

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s dream of being the youngest and most thriving democracy was short-lived as it saw dictatorial military rule for 15 years before returning to democracy in 1991. And ever since, it has seen regular elections in the country. However, once lauded for its 1971 freedom movement — the Mukti Juddho — and keeping the liberal democratic outlook intact, Bangladesh has eventually become a one-party system today. But how did it come this far? 

Well, much needs to be credited to the micro management of the ruling Awami League on the ground. It has allegedly eliminated the opposition, manipulated the political mandate and controlled the democratic institutions, including the Election Commission.

Also, the country has done away with the caretaker government constitutionally, which helps the Awami League to be in power while the country goes to the polls. Therefore, the issue of transparency and the political influence of the ruling party is a major challenge to the country’s electoral process. 

Democracy in disarray, but economy thrives

Despite the global criticism of the Sheikh Hasina government for pushing political opposition to the margins, the country has come a long way economically, especially in the garment manufacturing and shipbuilding sectors.

In the last 15 years, Bangladesh has emerged as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. It has done well compared to other smaller South Asian countries, especially in terms of the timespan of achievement.

Its story is an extraordinary tale of poverty alleviation and progress. Emerging as one of the world’s poorest nations in 1971, the country achieved the status of a lower-middle-income nation in 2015 and is poised to graduate from the UN’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) list by 2026. 

... because of her stability within the Awami League, no major events have disrupted the economic trajectory, barring inflation, as seen in recent years. 

People stand along a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 4 January 2024. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
People stand along a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 4 January 2024. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The Asian Development Bank has projected Bangladesh’s GDP growth to be 6.0% in 2023 and 6.5% in 2024. However, the country witnessed an inflation rate of 9.49% in the last quarter of 2023, with the highest rate in the food sector due to a drastic shift from an agriculture-based economy to manufacturing. Also, Bangladesh grapples with liquidity challenges in banks, burdened by escalating non-performing loans.

Amidst these economic struggles, the Sheikh Hasina government has preoccupied itself primarily with political issues. Still, because of her stability within the Awami League, no major events have disrupted the economic trajectory, barring inflation, as seen in recent years. 

The US: focused on electoral democracy

The US has been a leading critic of the democratic downfall in Bangladesh. While the US shares a strong strategic bond with Bangladesh, including defence cooperation, and sees Dhaka as a critical partner to advance its shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, it has not turned a blind eye to the human rights aspect.

President Biden had once again not invited Sheikh Hasina to the Summit for Democracy in the US last year. Voicing its displeasure over the state of political and human rights affairs in Bangladesh, the US commented on the recent elections saying that they were not free and fair and that they “regret that not all parties participated”.

Bangladesh is an essential component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, providing a critical maritime link in the Bay of Bengal.

People take part in a rally organised by Gonotontro Moncho, an alliance of political parties, to protest against the upcoming 2024 general elections in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 30 December 2023. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)
People take part in a rally organised by Gonotontro Moncho, an alliance of political parties, to protest against the upcoming 2024 general elections in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 30 December 2023. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

While the US refused to join the grand party celebrating the ruling party’s re-election, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh was among the first few diplomats to congratulate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in person.

For China, Bangladesh holds paramount significance strategically and economically. Bangladesh is an essential component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, providing a critical maritime link in the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, Chinese investments in Bangladeshi infrastructure, such as ports and energy projects, demonstrate the breadth of their economic partnership. 

China and India: the pragmatists

As China attempts to diversify its economic links and increase regional influence, its relationship with Bangladesh is becoming increasingly important in influencing South Asia’s geopolitical environment.

China has a strategic partnership of cooperation with Bangladesh, which underscores Dhaka’s geostrategic relevance to Beijing. With the high stakes involved, no matter what, China will continue to cooperate with Bangladesh, unblinkered by the country’s political developments.

Overall, China’s advantageous position in its engagement with Bangladesh transcends electoral outcomes as it pursues an expanding influence in Dhaka, with trade and investments at the top of the agenda. 

... over the years, Delhi has understood that it needs to engage with Dhaka as it cannot risk losing its regional clout.

Posters of an election candidate hang on the street as people buy vegetables from a street vendor ahead of the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2 January 2024. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)
Posters of an election candidate hang on the street as people buy vegetables from a street vendor ahead of the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 2 January 2024. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

In the same vein, India looks forward to engaging with Dhaka, regardless of the party in power.

Historically, India has had cordial ties with the Awami League. The BNP was always viewed with caution due to their traditional anti-India approach and tilt towards India’s arch-rival Pakistan. However, over the years, Delhi has understood that it needs to engage with Dhaka as it cannot risk losing its regional clout.

India has the biggest socio-cultural and people-to-people-based bond with Bangladesh, and it would like to capitalise on relations on these fronts. Connectivity and trade have also kept the momentum in the bilateral ties.

Meanwhile, Delhi is closely looking at Chinese manoeuvrings in Bangladesh as it will directly affect its power position in the Bay of Bengal and the region as a whole.

The absence of credible opposition and the rise of single-party politics in Bangladesh is alarming as it erodes the fundamentals of democracy and the rule of law. With a history of political violence, Bangladesh sits on a ticking time bomb of violence and anti-Awami League protests that the BNP and its radical allies may organise.

Nevertheless, while losing much of its democratic appeal, Bangladesh has navigated its relations with regional and global powers wisely by maintaining a balance between players that suit its business and strategic requirements. 

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