Bangladesh election: 5 things to know

Bangladesh will hold general elections on 30 December 2018. Over 104 million voters will head to polling stations across the country, amid accusations of a flawed election process and growing violence between party supporters.

Main players: 

  • Awami League: led by incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina 
  • Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP): opposition party led by Zhaleda Zia, who is unable to stand because she is serving a jail sentence for corruption
  • Jatiya Oikya Front: new opposition alliance led by Kamal Hossain

1. Risk of greater violence

  • Violence and voter intimidation have historically marred Bangladeshi elections. As of December 20, at least six people have been killed in campaign clashes between the ruling Awami League party and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In a move to enhance campaign security, the Border Guard Bangladesh deployed more than 20,000 paramilitary guards across the country with an expectation of more to follow.

    “The government has jailed thousands of opposition political party members,” says Dr. Gazi Hassan, Senior Lecturer in Economics at The University of Waikato. “The people who could have protested or done something are actually hiding. Because they don’t have support from their groups. People are, even if they are supporters of those in jail, people are really scared so they are not coming out.”

    Some 26,000 election observers will monitor the election. While the vast majority are local, countries from India to Japan to Norway have all applied to send several hundred observers.

Sheikh Hasina 1 cropped2

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been in office since 2009

2. Bitter rivalry 

  • Current Prime Minister and leader of the Awami League Sheikh Hasina is seeking a third straight term, against the opposition alliance Jatiya Oikya Front led by Kamal Hossain. For nearly three decades, Bangladeshi elections have been characterised by intense rivalry between Hasina’s Awami League and the BNP under Zhaleda Zia. The Election Commission rejected Zia’s nomination because she is serving a jail sentence for corruption. BNP asserts the sentence was politically motivated.

    Kamal Hossain was a lawyer with a record of criticising human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings and electoral fraud. He formed the Jatiya Oikya Front in 2018, and has facilitated dialogue between AL and BNP.  Hossain, however, says he is not seeking office.

3. Democracy at stake 

  • “The issues are about democracy — press freedom, freedom of speech, right to vote,” says Dr. Hassan.

    The Awami League government faces criticisms of increasingly authoritarian rule. According to Hassan, “In the past ten years, the [Awami League] party has become more volatile, more aggressive. They are putting pressures on democracy. They openly state that democracy is not good. They don’t say it, but they show it, that democracy is not good for [Bangladesh]”. Human Rights Watch reported that opposition figures have faced arrests and intimidation, including arbitrary arrest and acts of violence. The Jatiya Oikya Front released a manifesto, in which it pledged to return rule of law to the country, reform the electoral process, and limit the number of terms a prime minister may serve.

    The government has also passed or is considering new media laws allowing wider government powers over media outlets. The Jatiya Oikya Front has campaigned on promises to remove those laws.

4. The Future of Rohingya

  • Hasina’s government allowed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar to enter the country.

    Dr. Hassan says Bangladeshis “are sympathetic to Rohingya, and if they find that this government is not doing well for refugees, they might not vote for them".

    Yet the influx of refugees has created some challenges in the country. Dr Tony Wrightson, an NGO worker who was recently in Bangladesh, says: “The presence is having a profound effect on the economic plight of the very poor people, because whenever you get a refugee presence like that, the United Nations and other agencies come in with big cheque books. They buy up all of the local food and at local markets at whatever price is being asked. That then deprives the traditional local consumers of rice and other basic staples, access to supplies".

    Wrightson says that Bangladeshis “are terribly hospitable and want to help their brothers and sisters, but there is tremendous need and poverty in Bangladesh which is not being addressed essentially". 

5. New Zealand-Bangladeshis won't be voting 

  • There are some 1,623 Bangladeshis living in New Zealand, according to the 2013 census. But thanks to prohibitions on voting abroad, they won’t be voting in the election unless they are physically in Bangladesh.

    Yet Dr. Hassan sees the possibility for this to change for the millions of Bangladeshis living overseas. “There are issues of giving them voting rights. They know 10 million is a huge number. This time, the alliance says it will give the overseas expats voting rights.”

– Asia Media Centre