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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - DHAKA: As Bangladesh prepares for elections without opposition, incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is poised to win and continue her modernization vision at the cost of significant democratic backsliding, critics say.
The South Asian country of almost 170 million people will vote on Sunday in a poll expected to give the ruling Awami League its fourth straight parliamentary term.
No major rivals are in sight for the prime minister as most have either faced mass arrests of members or announced in protest that they will not take part in the vote.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party estimates that police have arrested some 20,000 of its members and supporters in recent months. The BNP is boycotting the election as Hasina rejected demands to allow the polls to be held under a neutral caretaker government.
Before the Awami League’s win in 2009, the Bangladeshi system encouraged three-month non-partisan governments to conduct elections and prevent irregularities during polls.
The practice was abolished by the ruling party with a constitutional amendment in 2011, and as Bangladeshis will go to the polls on Sunday, the candidates on the ballot will all be from the Awami League, its allies and independents.
“The election will determine the future course of Bangladeshi politics. Whether an effective multi-party system will exist after the so-called election is an open question,” Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of political science from Illinois State University, told Arab News.
“The persecution of the opposition, particularly the BNP, indicates that the government is unlikely to allow any substantive dissenting voices, let alone a formidable opposition party. The country is heading toward becoming a de facto one-party state.”
For Riaz, the result of the upcoming vote is a “foregone conclusion.
“Sheikh Hasina will win the election. While Hasina and her party speak of a vision for the future, which highlights a narrative of development and modernization, those have become hollow words to the people of Bangladesh, who are suffering immensely due to price hikes and low income,” he said.
Bangladesh Vision 2041 is a national strategic plan announced by the prime minister in 2020 that aims to rid the country of poverty and develop an advanced economy by 2041.
The Muslim-majority country, once one of the world’s poorest, has been lauded for achieving economic success under Hasina’s leadership since 2009, which put Bangladesh on track to graduate from the UN’s list of least developed countries in 2026.
Even though it has recently been hit by soaring inflation, Bangladesh remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.
The World Bank estimates that more than 25 million people in the country have been lifted out of poverty in the last two decades.
“The regime stability that we had for the last 15 years, actually, has contributed toward economic growth. Although we have faltered, it was not due to our problems, but mostly because of the international economic issues emerging from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine,” Naimul Islam Khan, a political analyst and media pundit, told Arab News.
Khan believes that credit for the growth should go directly to Hasina, daughter of Bangladeshi founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
“She has been very instrumental in showing that Bangladesh has a future ... this is one of the finest things that Sheikh Hasina provides Bangladesh with,” Khan said.
Dr. A.S.M. Amanullah, a professor of sociology at Dhaka University, has also observed “major accomplishments” achieved by Hasina’s government throughout the past 15 years.
“The first one is political stability in the country. Secondly, she managed to maintain economic stability during her first two terms. Thirdly, there were some major infrastructural developments in the country, like Padma Bridge, metro rail in the capital, the Karnaphuli River tunnel, etc.,” he said.
But democratic practice was no more.
“There is no democratic practice at any level in Bangladesh. Be it on the local level, be it on the national level, be it on the political party level, be it in social organizations or any other government and non-government ones,” Amanullah told Arab News.
It was not always like this. In the 1980s, the incumbent prime minister fought for multi-party democracy as she joined hands with other opposition leaders, also her rivals, including BNP leader Khaleda Zia, to hold pro-democracy street protests against the military rule of Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad.
Zia has been under house arrest on corruption charges for years.
“We don’t need to wait until Jan. 7 to see the results of the election. The people of this country are not waiting to see the results of the election,” Amanullah said.
“Election means uncertainty in the results: Nobody knows who would win. But there is no uncertainty over the result in Bangladesh. Throughout the country, there is a certainty among the voters that the ruling Awami League is coming to power.
“The voting culture of South Asia is lost here.”
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