Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 25, 2019
Challenges before PM Sheikh Hasina in her unprecedented third term

On 30 December, the 11th parliamentary election was held in Bangladesh. The election was historical for many reasons: (a) Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina hit a hat-trick, as she became the first in the country to form a government for a third consecutive term. Hasina’s party, Awami League (AL), and its allies won 288 seats out of the 300. This is a victory similar only with the country’s first election in 1973, when the AL won 293 seats. (b)  Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were used  for the first time in a parliamentary election in the country. (c) This election also recorded the highest number of woman-contestants. However, this election was not free of controversies. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), an arch rival of the Awami League which could win only 7 seats, rejected the poll outcome and expressed doubts about its fairness. The party alleged vote rigging.  Here is an assessment of the election and the likely future course of politics in  the country.

Despite the allegations, the December election was an inclusive one. All the major political parties participated in it. The need for an inclusive election was felt by many after the BNP, one of the two major political parties, boycotted the 2014 election.

Following the boycott by the BNP, the Hasina government faced criticism globally. The BNP boycotted the election after its demand for reinstating a caretaker government, which was abolished following a constitutional amendment in 2011, was not met. However, this time, all political parties participated in the election and this saved the government from calling the poll one-sided.

The AL and the BNP are the dominant parties in the country. These parties are led by two  begums – the AL by PM Sheikh Hasina and the BNP by Khaleda Zia.  In the 2018 election, both parties preferred alliances. The prominent alliances were: (1) Grand Alliance spearheaded by the ruling AL. AL’s partners are Jatiya Party, the Jatiya Samajbadi Dal, Tarikat Federation, the Workers Party, and Bikalpadhara Bangladesh. (2) Jatiya Oikyo Front (JOF), led by former AL leader Kamal Hossain, who severed ties with the party and founded the Gono Forum.  Its partners included the BNP, the Krishak Sramik Janata league, the Jatiya Sramajtantrik Dal and Nagorik Oikya. Interestingly, the BNP, apart from participating in the JOF, was leading another alliance, popular as 20-party alliance. Key partners of the BNP in the 20-party alliance were Liberal Democratic Party, the Khelafat Majlish, the Bangladesh Kalyan Party, the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam, the Jatiya Party (Kazi Zafar), the Nationalist People’s Party and the Labour Party. The left parties also formed an alliance known as the Left Democratic Alliance and the major parties of this alliance are the Communist Party of Bangladesh, the Samaj Tantrik Dal and the Revolutionary Party of Bangladesh.  A total of 39 political parties fielded candidates in the election.

It is worth to note that the 22 members of Jamaat-e-Islami, an influential religious political party banned from fighting elections following the cancellation of its registration, also participated in the election using the BNP’s symbol. The participation of Jamaat, a major coalition partner of the BNP government (2001-06), indicates that the party will be present in the country’s political scene while it may not either use the name or the symbol of the party.

‘Jatiya Sangsad’, the parliament of Bangladesh, consists of 350 members. Three hundred members are directly elected and the rest 50 are reserved for women who are nominated. On 30 December, the election was held in 299 seats as polling in one constituency was postponed following the death of a candidate.  Around 1800 candidates contested the election, out of which 69 were women. The number of woman-constants was highest in the history of the country, though it is still very low when compared to the number of women voters, who comprise half of the voters. Twentytwo women have been elected to the 11th parliament. Participation from the minority in this election was around 74 candidates -- 18 nominated by the AL, 7 by the BNP and 3 by the Gono Forum.  Around 18 of them won, and most of them being from AL. In Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, minorities comprise 10 percent of the population.

The Election Commission (EC) supervised the election. And it was the second election after the abolition of the caretaker government system in 2011. The system of caretaker government was installed following a constitutional amendment in 1996 to ensure a credible election. So, the  present election was a test for the EC’s credibility to deliver an impartial election. The EC claims that the election was free and fair. The international observers also did not question its credibility.

However, the opposition’s complaint of malpractices has cast some clouds of doubts. The opposition is insisting on fresh polls. But the possibility of meeting opposition’s such demands seems unlikely. Opposition’s debacle in the election has resulted in a situation where it hardly can challenge in the parliament. Besides, its ability to launch a street protest, a measure commonly used in Bangladesh to press demands, seems limited.

The absence of the top opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, in the election is considered a reason for its weakness. Begum Zia, the BNP chairperson, was unable to fight the election after her candidature was rejected due to her conviction in a corruption case. She is serving 10 years jail term, and according to Bangladesh’s constitution, one is disqualified from fighting election if that person sentenced to a prison term of more than two years. Similarly, Tarique Rahman, her son and successor and living in London for a decade, alsocould not enter the electoral race following his life sentence in a criminal case.  Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the General Secretary of BNP, led the party in this election. The party’s poor performance suggests that the charisma of General Zia, the founder of the BNP, is still a major factor for the party and people are not ready to test the new leadership without his kin.

This election was marked by the introduction of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in the parliamentary poll. To enable introduction of EVMs, the Representation of the People’s Order was amended last year. The EVMs were used in six constituencies on a pilot basis. The introduction of EVMs indicate the EC’s efforts to bring in transparency in the electoral process.

Use of social media as a tool for campaigning  added a new dimension to the election. Both the Awami League and the BNP used social media as a major platform for reaching the voters.  The BNP claimed that the party had to take refuge in the virtual platform since it faced resistance in campaigning in the real world. There are 81 million internet users in the country, which corresponds to 49 percent of the country’s population. This number is substantial for a country which has 100 million voters.  The authorities watched the influence of the virtual medium in forming public opinion. Prior to the election, the authorities had shut down around 54 news sites as a precautionary measure. Again, during the election, the speed of the internet was slowed as a security measure.

The election saw large deployment of the army and law enforcement agencies for the maintenance of peace during the election. The army was deployed in 389 Upazila or sub-districts, covering 270 constituencies, for assisting the civil administration in the conduct of the election. The army gained popularity due to its experience in the 2008 parliamentary election held under a military-backed caretaker government and recognised as the most credible election in the country’s entire history. The deployment of the army was welcomed by all the political parties. Although 17 people died in the election, it was considered by and large peaceful because in Bangladesh, violence has been an integral part of politics where loss of life is quite common.

Rights groups and observers of democracy raised doubts about the polls being completely impartial. Initially, the European Union and the United States called for an investigation of the irregularities in the election.  However, the call for investigation into irregularities could not gain much traction as international support for PM Sheikh Hasina poured in.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to congratulate her. Soon, China followed the suit. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bhutan and Pakistan congratulated PM Hasina.  The EU and the United States also pledged to cooperate with her government. The international recognition has strengthened PM Hasina’s position in the country.

Earlier this month, Hasina took the oath of secrecy for the 3rd consecutive term and formed a 46-member cabinet, including 24 full ministers, 19 ministers of states and three deputy ministers. Giving a refreshing look to her cabinet, she dropped many of the influential leaders who have been in the ministry for a long time. Thirty one members of her cabinet are new comers in the cabinet.

The trends suggest that PM Hasina has settled down to rule the country for the next five years and work to fulfil the promises made to the people. During her campaigning, Hasina promised development and democracy and the expectation is that she will transform the country into a developed nation. Along with accelerating economic growth, attention also need to be given to improving the democratic institutions because democracy was also a desire for people to fight for the liberation from Pakistan in 1971.

Some key tasks lie ahead of PM Hasina – like checking her aggressive party cadres, who are regularly accused of imposing atrocities on the people, controlling corruption, (banking sector suffered due to unchecked corruption), and curtailing religious fanaticism. PM Hasina had done commendable work in curbing militancy but the rising religious fanaticism has been a cause of worry. Observers fear that her hobnobbing with extreme groups like Hafajat will embolden the religious fanatics and threaten the liberal polity of the country. The economic growth of the country will also face challenges because its exports will be impacted following its promotion to a developing country from a Least Developed Country (LDC). Presently Bangladesh’s exports enjoy privileges like duty-free entry to many developed countries. These privileges  will cease to stop now. The country’s  economy is largely driven by exports, with ready-made garments being its key product.

It will be worth to watch how PM Hasina handles these challenges.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee (1975 2021) was Senior Fellow with ORF. She specialised in Indias neighbourhood policy the eastern arch: Bangladeshs domestic politics and foreign policy: border ...

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