Bangladesh is now a one party State

By Anika Baset | 22 Feb 24
Dhaka, Bangladesh

Adda is a mainstay of Bengali culture. No gathering of friends or family is complete without it: long, rambling conversations that traverse various territories of petty gossip, philosophy, poetry, and politics. My childhood is full of memories of evening gatherings of Bangladeshi diaspora families in Melbourne in the late 90s and early 2000s. The men sitting in one room, the women in the other and the youngsters dressed in traditional clothing that were otherwise out of place in our Western lives.

In the car ride home from these evenings, my parents would trade stories of the information gleaned from their respective addas. I listened on as a child, mostly uninterested, but the words “BNP” and “Awami League” were a key feature, as my parents reflected on the political leanings of various friends in their community. I came to understand that these were the two major political parties in their homeland and that there was an imperfect system where power was traded through consistent, reliable elections.

Adda with my father these days now takes on a markedly different, more sombre tone. The Bangladeshi elections in January 2024 confirmed what was already widely known: that Bangladesh is now a one-party State, with Sheikh Hasina, ruler of the Awami League Party, at its helm.

The Bangladeshi election was the first of more than 40 global elections in 2024, the biggest in history, where more than four billion people will be eligible to go to the polls. The trends coming out of each election will no doubt collectively tell a story about the future of democracy.

Hasina has ruled Bangladesh since 2009 and in that time has dismantled the political infrastructure that allowed for democratic governance and respect for human rights more broadly. As a result, BNP, or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted the recent elections, concerned they would not be free and fair because of Hasina’s refusal to allow a caretaker government with politically neutral officials to oversee the electoral process. Protests against the Hasina government in November 2023 led to the arrests of multiple BNP leaders, amidst a backdrop of increasing extrajudicial killings, widespread corruption and sham trials against key Bangladeshi figures.

For example, in December 2023, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus, founder of the renowned Grameen Bank and pioneer of the concept of microfinance, was charged and convicted of violating labour laws, in a trial that was unashamedly politically motivated.

Two months before the election, in November, I visited the country for the first time in six years, to see my extended family. My interest was not in politics but to reconnect and spend time with loved ones. But the politics was impossible to ignore, from the moment I landed in Dhaka’s Hazarat Shajahal International Airport. I had landed at this airport many times before but the key change was that, now, pictures of Sheikh Hasina and her father, Sheikh Mujib, were plastered everywhere. Sheikh Mujib led Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan to become the country’s first leader in 1971. Books about his role in the Bangladesh Liberation war were available for free throughout the airport, in multiple designated spaces called “Mujib’s Corner”. Human rights scholar Cesar Rodrigues Garavito has defined this as a classic component of the populist’s “playbook”: propagating one dominant narrative of a country’s history so that dissenters can be othered more readily and plurality stamped out entirely.

A day into our trip, protests in Dhaka broke out, close to my aunt’s apartment. Plumes of smoke could be seen from the balcony as buses burned in Dhaka, with the protesters blaming the government and the government blaming the protesters. My family seemed nonplussed about this. “It will continue like this until the election and then she’ll get back into power and then it will be over”, lamented my uncle. My cousins were annoyed that the government had shut down the internet and that there was nothing to watch as a result. There was an air of resignation about the situation and a sense of powerlessness. Even the maids had an opinion, “This isn’t good but if the other guys get in, it will be worse”. This is what it looks like when democracy fails: sow so much distrust and fear into the population that engagement is not worth the trouble.

Over the next week, our travel plans were derailed as the BNP party called for an oborodh, or blockade, throughout the country. No transport was allowed in and out of Dhaka, the economic lifeblood of the country. I had experienced many a hartal before, a general strike that is a mainstay of Bangladeshi politics, called by either party to oppose the decisions of the other. But a three-day nation-wide blockade, with threats of violence for non-compliance, was a new frontier. That the opposition party still had enough clout to cause such disruption was a small sign of democratic life. But the inevitable crack downs and arrests that followed proved that such life was gasping for air. According to Human Rights Watch, almost 10,000 opposition activists were arrested, at least 16 people were killed and over 5,500 injured after the protests on October 28 and subsequent blockade.

On the day of our departure, we left for the airport at the crack of dawn, before another day of shut down across the city. As we approached the airport, vans of armed Rapid Action Battalion officers, well known for their brutality, headed into the city. As this image registered in my mind in the final moments of my trip, I felt wistful for the days where “BNP” and “Awami League” were used interchangeably amongst Bangladeshi family friends, on the innocent assumption that democracy could not fail.

From November 2023 until the January elections, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was accused of fueling ongoing violence by encouraging attacks on opposition supporters. Both police officers and Awami League supporters were recorded carrying batons and metal rods across Bangladesh, threatening violence. Whilst there were reports of violence on both sides, only opposition supporters faced arbitrary arrest and politically motivated prosecutions, with reports of detainees being tortured in custody.

On 7 January 2024, Hasina won a fourth term in government, in elections observers say were not free or fair because of the widespread arrests of opposition figures and voting irregularities on election day.

The implications of the fall of democracy in a country of 170 million people, with neighbouring countries India and Pakistan also going to the polls in 2024 with demagogue leaders at their helm, are yet to be seen.