Bangladesh’s Farcical Vote – NY Times

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina probably didn’t need to cheat to win re-election. So why did she?

By The Editorial Board  New York Times

The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.

  • Jan. 14, 2019

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, shown on a billboard, has been increasingly authoritarian in her governance of Bangladesh.CreditIndranil Mukherjee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sheikh Hasina has done marvels for Bangladesh over nearly 10 consecutive years as prime minister. Per-capita income in what was one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world has grown by nearly 150 percent, and the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty has dropped from 19 percent to about 9 percent. All the greater the pity that her achievements have been offset by a precipitous slide toward authoritarianism and an election in which Mrs. Hasina’s party won 288 of the 300 contested seats in Parliament, a preposterous 96 percent rate of victory.

In the weeks and months before the Dec. 30 vote, local and international human rights organizations chronicled a relentless campaign of intimidation, ranging from violence and arrests of opposition candidates and protesters to surveillance and a draconian digital security law that includes prison terms for posting “aggressive or frightening” content. At least 17 people died in campaign violence. A Human Rights Watch report described “a climate of fear extending from prominent voices in society to ordinary citizens,” without any interference by an intimidated judiciary or election commission.

In an interview with The Times in December, the prime minister appeared to share the delusion of autocrats everywhere that human rights concerns were peripheral to a developing country’s economic growth. “If I can provide food, jobs and health care, that is human rights,” she said. “What the opposition is saying, or civil society or your NGO’s — I don’t bother with that. I know my country, and I know how to develop my country.”

No one would question that Mrs. Hasina, who is 71, knows her country. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the first president of Bangladesh. She was abroad when he was assassinated in 1975, and she returned in 1981 to take over the leadership of the Awami League, which she has held ever since. Her party and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by another powerful woman, Khaleda Zia, took turns in power until the last election, in 2014, which the opposition party boycotted to protest changes to electoral procedures, giving Mrs. Hasina an uncontested new term. Mrs. Zia was jailed for corruptionlast year, and Mrs. Hasina is back for another term at the head of what has effectively become a one-party state, ready to further tighten control.

But why? Why produce nonsensical election results when polls indicated that Mrs. Hasina would likely have won a fair election handily? Mrs. Hasina’s every achievement will now be tainted by her authoritarian methods and repressive measures; her critics, driven into exile or underground, will become only more strident, and her foreign supporters more wary.

The State Department, noting that the United States is Bangladesh’s largest foreign investor and largest single-country market, expressed concern about “credible reports of harassment, intimidation and violence” during the campaign and urged the election commission to work with all sides to address them. The European Union similarly called on Bangladesh to investigate the violence and “significant obstacles” that had “tainted” the campaign and the vote.

Given Mrs. Hasina’s political and personal trajectory, she is unlikely to be moved by such admonitions. But it is incumbent on countries doing business with Bangladesh and cheering its rise from poverty to remind her and her allies at every turn that human rights are not an imposition of an alien culture, but a critical element of development and progress.

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