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Sheikh Hasina is set to extend her two-decade rule over Bangladesh after a crackdown on her rivals left the result of Sunday’s election all but guaranteed and highlighted the geopolitical rift between the US and rising Asian powers.
The prime minister’s Awami League party went into the vote practically unchallenged after authorities arrested thousands of members of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party in the weeks leading up to the polls in the country of 170mn.
The BNP boycotted the vote, leaving a collection of little-known parties and independent candidates — many of whom appeared to be running with the Awami League’s support — in their place.
Even if Sheikh Hasina — the world’s longest current serving female leader, who ruled Bangladesh between 1996-2001 and again since 2009 — sweeps back to power, analysts say her government will find it a challenge to convince many at home and abroad of its legitimacy.
“Whoever [people] vote for, it’ll go in the Awami League’s favour,” said Kamal Ahmed, a columnist and political analyst. “So it’s not a real election. It doesn’t reflect people’s voice or people’s mind.”
The election in Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garments exporter after China, has attracted intense diplomatic manoeuvring from rival powers. Sheikh Hasina has enjoyed staunch support from India and China, who despite their own fierce rivalry both see her as a force for regional stability and a bulwark against Islamism.
But the US and some European countries have taken increasingly confrontational stances with the prime minister over her authoritarian slide and proximity to Beijing, with Washington introducing sanctions targeting both human rights violations and election interference.
Sheikh Hasina’s government will now have to tackle mounting economic and financial pressures, including rising inflation and falling foreign reserves, that have left many Bangladeshis disillusioned with her rule.
Civil society figures warn these challenges are pushing the government towards increasingly authoritarian tactics, detaining political rivals and cracking down on non-governmental organisations and journalists to consolidate control.
“The vote doesn’t matter to me. Things have become very difficult,” said Mohammad Iqbal, a 36-year-old labourer in a Dhaka slum near a polling centre who was boycotting the election. “Earlier, election day was like [the festival of] Eid. But now I don’t see any happiness.”
Voting was marred by several instances of violence around the country and allegations of irregularities such as ballot-stuffing in some constituencies. Officials said about 40 per cent of eligible voters participated, though the BNP argued the true figure was far lower.
The ruling party launched a push to boost turnout on Sunday, with mixed results. Outside one polling station in Dhaka, an ocean of Awami League party activists and local camera crews vastly outnumbered the trickle of voters coming and going. At another near a slum, several voters said they had been promised a free lunch of chicken biryani if they came.
Many of those who voted appeared to be staunch supporters of Sheikh Hasina. “The candidates who aren’t participating are not my problem,” said Shamima Akhter, a 43-year-old teacher, of the opposition boycott. “We believe she’ll come again fairly.”
The BNP denounced the polls, saying it planned to scale up demonstrations to rebuild momentum and increase pressure on Sheikh Hasina.
“When you form a government through this process where you don’t have the people’s mandate, it makes it harder to make the right decisions that we’ll need to face the economic challenges ahead,” said Tabith Awal, a member of the BNP’s national executive committee.
Analysts are also watching for international reaction, amid widespread speculation that the US — the biggest destination for Bangladesh’s garment exports — could implement further penalties after the polls if it concludes they were unfair.
Avinash Paliwal, a political scientist at Soas University of London, said that while the west was unlikely to go beyond narrowly targeted measures, “what can happen are some really sharp-edged sanctions on people who are close to the regime”.
“That sends a clear political signal [that] the west is also playing a long game,” he said.
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