(This article was originally published on 02.01.19 and has been republished in light of Sheikh Hasina’s swearing in as PM.)
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has returned for a fourth term, with a landslide victory after the election held on 30 December in Bangladesh. In a 300-seat Bangladesh Parliament, Sheikh Hasina’s party Awami League and its allies won 288 seats, while its arch-rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was decimated as they managed to win only seven seats.
Awami League’s victory has given an opportunity to the party to chart a new path for Bangladesh driven by development and strengthening democratic institutions.
BNP, the main opposition that was in power twice (1991-96 and 2001-06), claimed the votes to be rigged and termed the polls as farcical and demanded fresh elections.
The international observers monitoring the election, however, did not question its credibility.
Death of 19 people and claims of violence during the election shed clouds on the jubilation. The election, therefore, could not be qualified as peaceful.
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Electoral violence has been a cause of concern in Bangladesh politics. Prior to the election, the opposition accused the ruling Awami League of intimidating its cadres by inflicting violence. Similarly, Awami League alleged that the opposition workers attacked its activists. Considering the level of pre-poll violence, there was apprehension about people coming out to vote. Dismantling these fears, however, the polling record suggests around 80 percent voting.
The Absent Begum
An important aspect of this election has been the absence of the kin of General Ziaur Rahman, former military dictator and founder of BNP. Bangladesh politics is primarily dominated by two major iconic families: those of Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman, respectively. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Shiekh Mujibur Rahman while General Ziaur Rahman is succeeded in politics by his wife Begum Khaleda Zia, who is the chairperson of BNP and former Prime Minister.
In this election, neither Begum Khaleda Zia nor her son and political successor Tarique Rahman contested. Begum Zia could not fight the election since her candidature was rejected by the election commission following her conviction in a corruption case.
Begum Zia is serving a 5-year jail term and Bangladesh’s constitutio forbids anyone from contesting after being sentenced to a jail term for two or more years.
Tarique, residing in London for a decade, was missing in the election as he is also convicted for life in one case. The opposition claims that the action against Begum Zia is politically motivated for keeping her out of the electoral fray. The absence of Zia’s kin dented the prospect of the BNP in the present election.
Sheikh Hasina Sought Votes On ‘Development’
Development of Bangladesh has been Sheikh Hasina’s chief electoral plank. The present victory is described as a mandate of the people in support of development.
This year the country has fulfilled the eligibility criteria set by the United Nations to be recognized as a developing country, moving out of the list of LDC (Least Developed Countries), and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been credited for this achievement.
The economy of the country has been growing at above 6 percent steadily for almost for a decade. To further fast track the pace of development, Sheikh Hasina government undertook various infrastructure projects. During electoral campaigning Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought vote with the pledge of transforming Bangladesh into a developed country by 2041.
With the polls over it will be action time for Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina. Along with economic development, people of Bangladesh aspire to have a vibrant liberal democratic order. During the last tenure of Hasina, there have been allegations of human rights violations and constraining of freedom of expression. The government needs to take account of such claims since this might embolden the radical elements to infiltrate the political space due to lack of opposition in the country. For the growth of democracy, it will be crucial to develop the institutions for wider debate and discussion on the issues of national importance.
What Does Sheikh Hasina’s Return Mean For India?
Bangladesh being its close neighbour, India has been closely watching the election. Bangladesh is important for India’s security, connectivity to its northeast region, and implementing its Act East Policy. Diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh have grown strong steadily whenever the Awami League comes into power. This relationship has traditionally fluctuated with the change of the ruling party in Bangladesh. India should work on strengthening its ties with Bangladesh and stress further on connecting with its people by understanding their aspirations and providing necessary support.
To make a positive beginning, it will be pragmatic for India to fulfill the promises made to Bangladesh. The conclusion of the Teesta treaty will be one of the steps. The water-sharing treaty is pending since 2011 due to the objection raised by Mamata Benarjee, chief minister of West Bengal. India should also lay emphasis on connectivity between the two countries and lend support to various infrastructure projects planned in Bangladesh.
More prominently, India should carefully examine its role in the return of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Stranded Rohingya refugees are perceived to have security implication in the long run that could potentially impact regional stability. Bangladesh’s efforts in repatriation of the Rohingya have not been successful. Cooperation between the two countries will contribute to the peace and prosperity of the South Asia region.
(The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)