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Elections in Bangladesh: Everything you need to know

Context- Bangladesh is set to hold elections on Sunday, January 7, with the current leader, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, expected to easily win due to a boycott by most opposition parties. What are the reasons for this boycott, and how does this election impact India?

How elections work in Bangladesh

  • Bangladesh’s single-chamber legislative body, the Jatiya Sangsad, consists of 350 members. Every five years, 300 of these members are elected in national elections. The ruling party or coalition appoints women to fill the remaining 50 seats.
  • Bangladesh, like India, operates under a first-past-the-post system. The Prime Minister, who is the country’s most influential figure, heads the government. On Sunday, voting will take place from 8 am to 4 pm.
  • There are 1,896 candidates vying for seats, averaging 6.32 candidates per seat. Approximately 5% of these candidates are women.

Which are the major parties in Bangladesh?

  • Although Bangladesh operates under a multi-party system, it has essentially been a two-party system since the 1990s, with the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as the dominant parties. The Awami League has held power four times since 1991, while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has governed twice.
  • The Awami League was established in 1949 by Bangladeshi nationalists as an alternative to the Muslim League in East Pakistan. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the party spearheaded Bangladesh’s independence movement. Sheikh Hasina, Rahman’s daughter, has served as Prime Minister since 2009.
  • The Bangladesh Nationalist Party was formed in 1978 by Ziaur Rahman, a former army general. Following his assassination in 1981, his wife Khaleda Zia took over the party’s leadership until her imprisonment in 2018. She has been under house arrest since 2020. The party is currently led by Khaleda’s son, Tarique Rahman, who resides in London.
  • Despite signs of revival since 2022 amid growing anti-Hasina sentiment, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has been largely dismissed due to its internal turmoil. The party is boycotting the upcoming elections, with Tarique Rahman labeling them a ‘sham’ with a ‘predetermined outcome’.
  • The Jatiya Party (Ershad), the third-largest party in Bangladesh with 27 seats in the Jatiya Sangsad, will participate in the forthcoming elections.

Issues at play

  • Observers predict a one-sided outcome in the upcoming election, with the primary concern being the integrity of the electoral process. Elections in Bangladesh have historically been contentious, from Mujib’s 1973 win to the elections under Ziaur in 1979, Ershad in 1986 and 1988, and those in 1996, 2014, and 2018.
  • To address these issues, a caretaker government system was established in 1990. The 1991 elections, overseen by Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed’s government, were deemed the fairest to date.
  • Subsequent elections in 1996, 2001, and 2008, all under caretaker governments, were also considered fair at both the domestic and international levels.
  • However, following the overreach of the army-backed caretaker government in 2006-07, which resulted in the imprisonment of numerous politicians, including Hasina and Khaleda, on corruption and abuse of power charges, Hasina abolished the system in 2011. She argued against allowing unelected individuals to oversee national elections.
  • The opposition, however, claims that this has merely enabled her to manipulate Bangladesh’s elections and suppress all opposition. The BNP has boycotted elections since 2014 and campaigned last year to reinstate the caretaker system.
  • The state of the economy could also influence the elections. While Hasina has been praised for improving Bangladesh’s economy, the cost of living has risen due to the country’s struggle to afford expensive energy imports amidst a weakening domestic currency and dwindling dollar reserves.
  • In December of the previous year, the International Monetary Fund approved the first review of the country’s $4.7 billion bailout, granting immediate access to $468.3 million.

What India wants

  • Despite her autocratic leanings, Sheikh Hasina is viewed as a strong ally of India and is favored by New Delhi to lead Bangladesh. Her ties with India can be traced back to the 1970s when India was a major supporter of Bangladesh’s liberation movement, led by her father, Mujib.
  • Hasina’s four terms as Prime Minister have significantly advanced the India-Bangladesh relationship, resolving most border disputes, enhancing economic cooperation, and importantly, supporting India’s national security interests.
  • In contrast, Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is not favored by India. During Khaleda’s tenure, Bangladesh became a refuge for terrorist groups and militants with anti-India agendas, as she allowed Islamist radicals to share power.
  • These groups, backed by Pakistan’s ISI, terrorized Northeast India and the Bangladesh border. Border clashes also increased, with a notable incident in 2001 where Bangladeshi paramilitary forces killed and mutilated 16 BSF guards.
  • Hasina, however, has remained committed to preventing the ISI and Islamist radicals from gaining power in Bangladesh, particularly after a 2004 assassination attempt orchestrated by radical Islamist groups, including the Jamaat, which was part of the BNP government at the time.

Conclusion- The upcoming elections in Bangladesh are pivotal, not just for the country but also for its relationship with India. Despite concerns about the fairness of the electoral process and the boycott by the opposition, Sheikh Hasina, a long-standing ally of India, is expected to retain power.

However, the rising cost of living and economic challenges could influence the election outcome. The future of Bangladesh’s political landscape will undoubtedly have implications for its relationship with India and the broader region. It remains to be seen how these dynamics will unfold in the wake of the elections.

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